Stewart Lee's book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, released this summer, is a triumph of the art of footnotes, providing a DVD extra-style commentary over transcripts of some of his shows. As those who know Lee's work would agree, the format is entirely fitting for a comedian who is renowned for deconstructing his own work.
Among the fourth-wall breaking utterances tonight, Lee urges us to note "the structural integrity of the work that you have mistaken for repetition". It won't be the last time Lee references criticisms that have been made of him and it seems he rather enjoys them. "My songs have been received poorly," he says, "and that's like red rag to a bull for me."
The opening of this highly structured show (formatted for future TV work, he's happy to reveal) basically says that, yes, he does have jokes, that he's not just about deconstruction, repetition and protracted routines, though you shouldn't worry if you are a fan of those. His salvo of introductory jokes, throughout which he fiddles with the microphone, includes his doubt that a fox could ever attack a child in Hackney, because "Hackney children are all armed". The ones that aren't, he says, are being holed up by "feckless middle-class parents planning to lie their child's way into a school". He flourishes: "That's a joked aimed at you, the audience. I'm holding a mirror to you!"
The burly Lee, who holds a flat-topped mic to complement his flattened quiff hairstyle, is quite open about losing some of his audience, maintaining that "refining" an audience is his career aim now, rather than building one. In the form that he is in tonight, mischievous with his audience and his sense of self, he seems less liable to leave many of the converted behind, mostly because the excesses of his protracted absurdism are reined in by more gags.
Almost all of Lee's routines have a duality to them, where both the subject and Lee's reaction are derided. The results are often joyously ludicrous. Alternative comedy was the good old days when performer and audience could enjoy hating Tories for 67p; now we do the same thing with electrical appliances for £47.50. Meanwhile, the presenter Adrian Chiles' £6m fee for joining ITV is likened to The Six Million Dollar Man: "I'd at least expect Adrian Chiles to outrun a train – as it is he can barely keep ahead of the slow-moving cloud of disapproval that follows him down the narrow corridor of public opinion."
There is some posturing and some lily-gilding – for example, Lee tries to find out how many ways he could end a joke about his charity work and his confusion of a benefit for orangutans with one for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome. And the Japanese monster-movie denouement of a running joke about his grandfather is just a little silly. Nonetheless, there always seems to be a killer line not far away. While Lee may think he is making us work hard for the pay-offs, compared to some previous outings this is happily not the case.
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