"If you are thinking 'it's Friday night, let's go and be entertained'. No. I don't think like that." As ever the exigent rigour of Stewart Lee demands his audience work for their laughs.
His acknowledgement of this is exactly the kind of knowing, self-referential statement his fans lap up. Tonight their investment buys a diminished return, by his standards, though you'd be hard pushed to find a diehard who would admit it, or even one of his newer “TV fans” who enjoy jokes labelled “not for you.”
For a man who likes to pull the rug from underneath his audience slowly but surely, and at least twice in a routine, Carpet Remnant World seems like an apt title. Lee warns us there's no weaving theme, however, and he protests too much that all he has done this year is “drive on motorways” and “childcare” and so his material is threadbare. He repeats this so that it becomes such a heightened truth that his show has some kind of underlay.
Despite complaining that "nothing happens to me now" and “I don't know who I am any more” this is not an Archie Rice moment, although some fans might be reminded of his disillusionment behind the 4-year hiatus that his stand up career experienced from 2000. What Lee is retiring tonight, if anything, is hackneyed comedic process.
Claiming that he only has Scooby Doo as a frame of cultural reference after watching it with his son on various media, “pirate zombies” and “jungle rope bridges” become the currency for a routine about the welfare state from Beveridge to Thatcher, even if it is really about one-note observational comedy. “I am going to do more” he chuckles, after registering the initial resistance of the room. Duly this sometime regent of repetition has people laughing with incredulity, the easiest possible escape from the ludicrousness of his attack on banal comedy.
Lee is less about the long-form and “passive-aggressive monotony” these days, though, and there's some nifty lines on sale in Carpet Remnant World. On the riots: “Five hundred 14 year-olds with BlackBerries took one night to do what Al Qaeda couldn't do in 10 years.” Gadaffi's sticky end as applied to David Cameron? “The Big Society in action.”
A closing routine listing some Baroque insults about him on Twitter at once acts as a safety-valve for any misgivings on the part of his audience while their inherent lunacy aired sees them debased, a ploy he sometimes uses on his publicity material.
Often there's no better critic of Lee than Lee with his unerring ability to stand outside of himself. That said the mirror I hold up tells me that the head can admire much about his craft while the heart does not always have the commensurate amount to enjoy.