Comedy: Stewart Lee

Heard the ones about Princess Di, 9/11 and 'Braveheart'? Yes, we have
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Stewart Lee must have put on more Edinburgh Fringe shows than any other human being in history. He's also had a novel published, he's written for Steve Coogan and Al Murray, he's been lionised by Ricky Gervais and Johnny Vegas, and he's starred in radio and TV series alongside Richard Herring.

Stewart Lee must have put on more Edinburgh Fringe shows than any other human being in history. He's also had a novel published, he's written for Steve Coogan and Al Murray, he's been lionised by Ricky Gervais and Johnny Vegas, and he's starred in radio and TV series alongside Richard Herring.

And yet he's still more respected within comedy circles than he is celebrated outside them. After 15 years as a stand-up, he'd be less recognisable to the man in the street than, say, Jimmy Carr. If Lee is famous - or infamous - for anything, it's for co-writing and directing Jerry Springer: the Opera, and upsetting lots of Christians in the process. Verily, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

So why isn't Lee a household name? Why is it that on his current UK tour he's appearing - for its one London date - as the pre-prandial cabaret in a Chelsea jazz club? His answer, I suspect, would be that he doesn't compromise. On Tuesday in the 606 Club he starts the show with a long routine about how farting could unite all creeds and cultures after 11 September, and while his smooth blend of understatement and absurdity gets the audience laughing, it could have brought the house down with some different emphases and more energy. For Lee, though, the material has to stand on its own. He won't prop it up with impersonations, or audience interaction, or any stage movements more dynamic than a smirk. Instead, he makes his way through his polished script in the deadpan, word-perfect drone of a history teacher who's reciting the same lesson on 18th-century crop rotation as he has done for the past 10 years.

Lee has none of the neediness that drives most comedians. At times he takes a frustratingly long route to his punchlines. At other times he's less concerned about making a gag funny than he is about mulling over the issue of why it isn't: it seems to be a point of pride for him that half of any given audience won't laugh at his jokes. Which is not to say that Tuesday's audience didn't enjoy the show - for one thing, there were plenty of avuncular cackles from David Soul, the Starsky and Hutch star who has the title role in Jerry Springer: the Opera. But speaking as someone who's interviewed Lee, and found him to be more stimulating and engaged offstage than he is when he's performing, I get the feeling that the superiority complex he exhibits in his stand-offish stand-up, as original as it might once have been, is now something of a cop-out.

After all, it's commendable to bring an ironic intelligence to bear on a topic, as Lee does, but isn't the challenge to bring that intelligence to bearand to get the audience choking on their olives with laughter? By the same token, a poised and postmodern approach might let us see a new aspect of a hackneyed subject, but wouldn't it be better if the subject weren't hackneyed in the first place? Never mind how dated Lee's 11 September routine is, it's thrillingly topical compared to such pre-millennial chestnuts as the national mourning of Princess Diana and the historical inaccuracies of Braveheart - an Oscar-winner, in case you've forgotten, in 1995.

This is a comedian who has audiences and critics enraptured by how clever he is, but whose act includes the insights that Americans can be stupid, taxi drivers can be bigoted, and that Jimmy Hill isn't the world's sharpest debater. And for a comic-book geek who prides himself on precision, there's no excuse for making inaccurate remarks about the Incredible Hulk's trousers.

Let's hope he grows out of his too-cool-for-school pose soon.

There's no doubt that he's a skilled comedian, or that the most impressive quality of his performance is how easy he makes it seem. But maybe it seems easy because it is easy. It's about time he tried some stand-up that's difficult for him instead.

Stewart Lee tours the UK until Friday. For details, visit www.stewartlee.co.uk

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