Stewart Lee, The Lowry, February 13 2015
John Coltrane performing ‘My favourite things’ (his take on The Sound of Music classic), is not one of my favourite things. John Coltrane performing the full 13 minute and 47 second version of ‘My favourite things’ is very definitely not one of my favourite things. John Coltrane’s 13 minute 47 second version of ‘My favourite things’ on a loop is right up there with the sound of a dentist’s drill. You sit through it three times in a row, it’s possible you’ll want to go on a killing rampage, as I did. Such is the state Stewart Lee chooses to engender in his audience before he takes to the stage. I can understand. It makes sense. A comedian who so rigorously interrogates his own comedy and the way in which his comedy is perceived may choose to have his audience – a group of people, it’s probably fair to say, who like him, having parted with their hard earned to hear what he has to say – feel, albeit momentarily, the way that some people feel about Stewart Lee himself. Or not. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Lee himself is a bit of a jazzbo so it’s possible he just likes the piece of music. There is a nagging part of me that wonders, though, if Lee is putting his audience through their paces before he so much as sets a foot on the stage. That would certainly be in keeping with where he is now in his journey to be one of, if not the most, original stand-up comedians in the country.
When he takes to the stage (looking like Albert Finney, if Albert Finney let himself go, or Morrissey, if Morrissey let himself go, or Radovan Karadzic, if Radovan Karadzic let himself go), we quickly learn that the set will comprise of three bits that may or may not go on to form part of three potential episodes of a future series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, together with a short encore (which would be tacked on at the end and which wouldn’t be funny and which wouldn’t be delivered after he went off and came back on again).
The first section, the most familiar of the night and one he has explored before, is his current take on Islamaphobia, which he trumpets as his attempt to get the Daily Mail off his back by producing anti-Islamic comedy. Of course it isn’t that. Not really. Even though it is a bit. What you quickly learn about a Stewart Lee gig is that you can’t entirely say ‘he did this bit and it was about X or Y’ – because sometimes ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are within inverted commas and so, even though he does a small bit about anti-Islamic observational comedy (that he hopes to sell on to Roy Chubby Brown) – it is as much about Roy Chubby Brown’s ability to say things that would not be acceptable within the mainstream comedy market in which Lee, for example, chooses to shop his wares (which is why you’ll find Roy Chubby Brown DVDs sold on garage forecourts rather than in HMV) or Rod Liddle, associate editor of The Spectator, who comes in for an extended, surreal outburst concerning the different kinds of food you can expect to see about his person too, as it is about what he says it is about.
The second portion of the evening is ostensibly about urine, to see, Lee shares with us, if he can get 30 minutes on urine, specifically an incident from his childhood (he says if the likes of Rhod Gilbert can construct entire shows based around their childhood, why can’t he – Lee relentlessly skewering what other comedians get away as asides throughout the night) in which he was urinated upon, a bit that he later connects to an incident in Malta, involving flies and his granddad. But of course what this middle section is really about is an extended attempt by Lee to make his audience feel bad for not laughing at a clever one liner enough. Again, this is prototypical Lee. For years now, he has divided his audience into As and Bs – the As often getting the joke, he claims, before the B’s, the A’s often not needing the full joke to run, their intelligence being such, they get the joke before he has to even say it. In the wake of his current success (although you sense Lee himself would say what success, somewhat facetiously), the A’s and B’s have become Lee’s regular crowd and the B’s have become those people who Lee’s regular crowd have brought along, to see what he’s like (giving Lee the opportunity throughout the night to ask, ‘Is this what he’s like?’ / ‘Yes, this is it!’). The first half culminates with a faux heartbreaking segment in which Lee calls on all of the comedians who have killed themselves after not getting the reaction from their audiences that they deserved (the ghosts calling on Lee to ‘join them’), to give him the strength he needs in order to finish the set, despite the audience he has and their failure to appreciate his genius.
The third section of the evening (after another opportunity for us to share in the genius of John Coltrane and his favourite things – thanks Stew!) revolved around his wife being away and his having to look after their cat – who is called Paul Nuttall of the UKIPs – and recalled a bit Lee did a few years back now in which he vomited into the gaping anus of Christ (you had to be there): with Paul Nuttall vomiting over various flags, which Lee then had to drape outside his house, in potentially provocative scenarios that allow Lee to explore racism and immigration, this is vintage Lee. Along the way, there are sidesteps into how Lee will never get the reviews he deserves (because he’s like Brecht, telling a story and also showing the workings), complaints about how he can now afford the records he wants to buy, complaints about how infrequent and unsatisfying his sex life is, and – in a bit that recalls his performance of Galway Girl back in 2009 – a seemingly sincere pat on the back for his audience, which makes his audience feel as uncomfortable as any genuine act of sincerity will.
Overall, whilst these bitty working through exercises don’t quite stand shoulder to shoulder with the more comprehensively worked out 90 minute sets in which he works through something relentlessly, an evening in the company of Stewart Lee is akin to an afternoon playing Brain Training on the DS: you learn stuff, you enjoy yourself and you come away thinking that you’ve probably engaged with something that is good for you and may extend your life (or at the very least empowering the voice in your head who favours Stewart Lee over the voice in your head that thinks Mock the Week isn’t all that bad for a little while). Now if only he’d leave the John Coltrane at home next time…