If a comedian draws attention to their unique style of avoiding traditionally-constructed "jokes", does this make them immune to complaints they're still not very funny?
Stewart Lee, erstwhile half of comedy duo Lee & Herring, alongside Richard Herring, has long since abandoned his old act of playful silliness. As a kind of student-friendly Morecambe & Wise with flashes of Vic & Bob-esque surrealism, Lee & Herring remained a minor cult in the '90s before their amicable split. Fascinatingly, Lee's next step was to transform himself into a stand-up comedian of astonishing subtlety (with a delivery so laid-back it's horizontal), and to create the infamous Jerry Springer: The Opera. These days, looking like a cross between a pug dog and Morrissey, Lee's act is a slothful run of weird anecdotes and demure self-righteousness. It's part of the joke that Lee doesn't tell "jokes", per se, or if he does he'll draw attention to their looming arrival and delivery, before dissecting how they're not very funny.
Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle was a ratings flop when it first aired on BBC2 in 2009. A half-hour of standup comedy recorded in a club, interspersed with sketches that often just visualized something Lee said (a concept I hate, as mental images are what stand-up's all about.) In the unexpected second series, there are welcome changes to the format. The sketches are less pervasive, instead clustered at the tail-end of the show; the highlight of "Charity" being a brilliant sequence where Lee's xenophobic grandad fended off Godzilla-style monsters from his nest-like home assembled from the discarded stalks of Remembrance Day poppies. Uh, don't ask. The episode was also broken up with footage of a monochrome interview between Lee and award-winning comedy writer Armando Iannucci (Alan Partridge, The Thick Of It), who took him to task over viewer complaints he doesn't have many actual jokes.
There's that word again: jokes. Does it matter if Lee doesn't have jokes, in the usual sense? Is his humour, mainly derived from a tortuous style and pregnant pauses, hilarious on its own merits? The gag of Lee's performance is that he's not prepared to give general audiences what they expect from stand-up comedy -- with a pace that makes Steven Wright look like Lee Evans. Lee would rather breakdown the minutiae of his own material, during the gig itself, and preempt audience criticism in the moment.
A sizable chunk of Lee's material gets premature laughs from the audience without him verbalizing the assumed punchline. Such is the crowd's thirst for a joke that they'll often think ahead of Lee's words to mentally finish his protracted sentences. Lee will usually then back away from continuing that line of thought, sometimes even chastising the audience for jumping ahead to such a lazy comedy conclusion.
It's all quite clever and a very unique style, but is it funny? Subjectively, I wouldn't say I laughed much during this premiere episode, but I appreciate Lee's doing something different to the norm. I understand what he's doing, but I just don't respond to it with laughter like his many fans.
Chances are you'll find value in Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle if you like comedy's that's very different and a challenge, provided you're prepared to sit there with only a mirthful smile of respect for Lee's methods, instead of outright laughter. Hearty laughs and straightforward jokes? Stewart Lee's just not that kind of comedian, nor does he want to be.
Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicles continues Wednesdays, BBC2, 11.20PM