A few days before rejoining his UK tour in Brighton, Stewart Lee performed in Aspen, Colorado, and was paraphrased in an interview with the Aspen Times as saying that comedy should "provoke, expose and even annoy". Certainly, there have been a few occasions in my experience when he has succeeded at the last.
Lee has always played a dangerous game, for which he deserves credit, of seeing how far you can push the premise of a joke and how much mileage can be gained from deconstructing it - the danger being that the exercise can descend into tedium and seem arrogant. I remember that, last year in Edinburgh, Lee said his natural demeanour was prone to misinterpretation, but of course it's all down to the delivery on the night as far as the audience is concerned.
Tonight, there's a passion and warmth in Lee that I haven't seen before. It turns out that Lee has been to a funeral (we later find out that it was the funeral of the comedy impresario Malcolm Hardee) and by his own admission the experience has left its mark. "I should go to funerals every day," he jokes, recognising that his performance has been charged up. Later, he thanks the audience for its response: "It's so nice to be here - better than looking at the corpse of someone you love being burnt." That he receives the biggest laugh of the evening for that remark would have amused Hardee no end.
I'm not saying that tragedy is the only thing that can motivate the experienced and talented Lee (whose follow-up opera to Jerry Springer, concerning the comedy circuit, recently premiered in Germany) but the momentum of tonight's gig really shows off his craftmanship. Whether he is frustrating a door-knocking evangelical Christian with numerous spurious answers to his demand, "If the answer is 'Jesus', what is the question?", or frustrating the film-maker Ang Lee when he makes his name sound like "angry", Lee's asides and deconstructions are illuminating. There are still moments when his insistence on not letting a gag lie is a little grating, such as his commentary on the range of woollen items that could replace staff in electrical shops, when the initial simile would have done.
The crowd at the Komedia, (a kind of posh Jongleurs) goes with Lee's explorations almost without exception. These seem to be the people he had in mind when, in the same interview, he said: "You get to an age where you want to find your own audience, not play to people who are just looking for a night out."
Not that the sophistication of the performer or his audience prevents him from eulogising the fart gag. In one routine, Lee contends that the fart is worthy of a Perrier award and imagines how it could defuse the tension caused by the war on terror.
These jokes, despite their subject, don't stink. Indeed, the pervading smell of this performance is of sweet success.
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