Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, TV review: Like Tommy Cooper, but in a morbid key

Lee is the only comedian who thoroughly critiques his act as he is doing it, and then critiques the critique

Sean O'Grady
Friday 25 March 2016 01:28
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Beyond a joke: Lee picks apart his act as he’s doing it
Beyond a joke: Lee picks apart his act as he’s doing it

What is wrong with the following gag? "John Whittingdale: a man who, if he saw the aurora borealis twinkling over a Scandinavian snowfield would only see a missed opportunity for a public-private finance initiative."

According to Stewart Lee's account of his critics' ("young comics") reaction to it, quite a lot of his peers think there is quite a lot wrong with it – because it doesn't really make any sense. You can't conceive of any sort of PFI that could be attached to the Northern Lights, and such a thing would be beyond the ingenuity of the supposed philistine Whittingdale. So, no, it doesn't "work", and so in that sense it cannot be a joke, but the audience found it funny and, as Lee asserts during his stand-up shtick, it is a joke because it has the structure and rhythm of a joke.

But then, in an acrid interview with his script editor, Chris Morris, Lee admits that the joke doesn't work, and grovels for forgiveness for its abject nature – "don't think I'm not ashamed of it", and admits that he wrote another bit on the end of the joke about it not being a joke just to try to cover up his initial comic incompetence. That, too, is very funny.

Lee, then, with Morris, is the only comedian – and that does seem an inadequate term for this intelligent, thoughtful, almost philosophical figure – who thoroughly critiques his act as he is doing it, and then critiques the critique, in his interviews with Morris, sometimes contradicting the first analysis, mostly ironically, sometimes not. It makes for a complex sort of texture and, with Lee's characteristic mordancy, a sometimes difficult one.

His account of the death of a pet mouse when he was aged about eight was too real to be truly repulsive, but it contained some distasteful detail, always rendered to devastating comedic effectiveness. Thus, when his mum tried to persuade the boy Stewart that the mouse could be somehow revived by pouring brandy into its bloodied and clearly dead mouth, and trying to warm it up using a hairdryer, which left its fur at the back ruffed up like a glam rocker's collar, the mouse suddenly resembled Dave Hill out of Slade. There then follows a disturbing sequence reconstructing the childhood tragedy, with the members of Slade in giant mouse costumes in an airing cupboard magically knocking out "Merry Xmas Everybody".

Lee also follows Ricky Gervais's example in making a joke out of eczema. Strange to say, Lee actually reminds me of Tommy Cooper, albeit in a morbid key, because Cooper just used to make the silliness flow and go where it wanted, and Lee does the same. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

All of which just leaves me time to take my leave of The Cruise, which I have been following for some weeks now. Yet again, there is very little happening on board, and I did wonder what it might be like if Stewart Lee got a few bookings on the Regal Princess. But I was very pleased to see that Timothy is continuing to make his incremental journey from help-desk person to low-to-mid-range celebrity by getting his gig as a tour guide. Looking resplendent in his "whites", it can only be a matter of time before he brings his showbiz quality onshore and turns full time. I wish him, and all abroad The Cruise, the very best on the next stage of their journey.

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