A Brief Introduction to Stewart Lee

Stewart LeeFor some time, I’ve been afraid to go public with the fact that Stewart Lee is by far my favorite comedian. And frankly, it’s embarrassing. I am exactly the kind of person who would love Stewart Lee: intellectual git who doesn’t get much exercise. According to him, his agent says his audience is made up of “people who like Terry Pratchett.” Of course, that begs the question. You could just as easily say, “Terry Pratchett fans are made up of people who like Stewart Lee.” Except: a lot more people like Pratchett than Lee.

I discovered Stewart Lee while researching Ben Elton. I’d admired him for years because of The Young Ones and Blackadder. And I learned that there was this guy who apparently hated him. Normally, you don’t find unknown comedian’s opinions listed in Wikipedia pages. So I went to find who this guy was. And I found this:

In addition to being hilarious, it’s a beautifully crafted bit of performance art. And that’s the thing about Lee: he’s an artist. There are lots of comedians who I find funny. But Lee is the only one who I consider an artist. His performances are like plays.

“Give It to Me Straight Like a Pear Cider That’s Made From 100% Pears”

A good example of this is a 25-minute routine that had its genesis in a television commercial for Magners Pear Cider. I can’t find the exact commercial that Stewart Lee references. But this is part of the series. Listen for, “Why don’t they just give it to him straight, like a pear cider that’s made from a hundred percent pears.”

That’s just 30 seconds. And it really isn’t offensive. What Lee discusses is the appropriation of art for commerce. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience of a beloved song being used to advertise a cruise line or tires. Recently, I’ve had Volvo using the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute to sell the XC90. Magners is not doing this. But how Lee uses this ad to criticize this practice is brilliant.

Comedy doesn’t get any better than that. And even though much of it seems ad-libbed, it is in only the simplest ways. Watching different performances of Stewart Lee, I’ve learned that he can anticipate his audience. For example, he refers to the two women with “pink hair.” That wasn’t planned, but he knew there would be people in the audience he could point out.

Actually, I saw an interview with him in which he talked about needing to finesse routines. The audience doesn’t always do what he’s primed them to do. In about 10 percent of the cases, he has to figure out a way to work around it. Of course, those aren’t the routines that make it onto DVD and YouTube.

My Friends Hate Stewart Lee

When I’ve introduced Stewart Lee to my friends they show the same apathy that I do a new song by Meghan Trainor. And I do understand this. To some extent, Lee is a meta-comedian. Much of his act is about doing his act. He’s very big on complaining about one part of the audience not appreciating a joke, for example. And often, the humor is unstated.

His routine about the royal wedding climaxes at a point where the audience must laugh at an obvious joke that Lee does not make. And while most comedians would stop there, he makes a right turn. I love it but I can see where most people would like something more concrete:

I know I’ve presented over a half hour of Stewart Lee performing. If you’ve managed to make it through any of it, let me know what you think. My bet is that Frankly Curious readers will like it more than Frank’s friends. But I could be wrong. I was wrong before when I thought my friends would like him.

This is my favorite Stewart Lee routine: Scooby-Doo and the Pirate Zombie Jungle Island.

Afterword: Bridget Christie

For about ten years, Stewart Lee has been married to actor and stand-up comedian Bridget Christie. If you have Netflix, there is an excellent set by her. But this was my first introduction to her where she plays an ant stand-up comedian.

4 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Stewart Lee

  1. Huh, I didn’t know Ben Elton was a dick. Can’t say it completely surprises me. If you rewatch “Blackadder” now, the performers are still great (especially Hugh Laurie), but the insult comedy comes off as… a bit cheap? Most of the insults are directed at brain-injured Baldrick, and they’re really not all that funny. Like if I tried to be Oscar Wilde, it’s reaching for wit yet not quite getting there. David Mitchell does better on game shows.

    This comic is fantastic. Setup and no punchline, genius. It takes years and years of bombing hard in front of a live audience to become that good. I can come up with a decent joke maybe every six months, and I don’t tell them to strangers in a dark room with spotlights shining in my face.

    Kinda like those card artists, isn’t it? One helluva impressive skill.

    • I don’t think Ben Elton is that bad. He is still a liberal. But he used to call himself a socialist, as I recall. Lee is right to go after him. Of course, Lee goes after a lot of people. And Lee goes after himself and his audience.

      It’s interesting to look at Lee’s career. His early work is very good but rather different than it is today. He stopped doing comedy for a number of years and worked as a media journalist. (There’s a very funny set about him interviewing Ang Lee.) When he came back, his work took a big step forward.

      I think what stops most people from appreciating him is that he demands attention. If you lose focus in the middle of a set it is almost impossible to figure out why everyone is laughing. He really is an artist.

  2. You can see Mark Watson being interviewed a few years later about this, by Richard Herring – Stewart Lee’s old comedy partner: https://vimeo.com/135435208 , they get onto it about 32 minutes in, and that takes about 20 minutes.
    It seems to have been a big thing – there are several commentaries on it on the web. I can’t even remember the ads. It seems some people take their comedy totally seriously.

    • I’ll listen to it later. The Lee-Herring stuff I’ve seen is pretty good. They kind of remind me of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Or the other way around.

      Lee’s received a lot of criticism about his attacks on various comedians. It’s interesting that Lee’s stage persona is so critical. He comes off totally different in interviews. And he’s said he likes selling stuff at his gigs because people always expect him to be his character but instead he’s very friendly.

      That’s not to say that he is lying on stage. Every time I’ve seen him questions on things like Ben Elton he doesn’t back down. Usually, however, he’s complaining about comedians doing what he considers base or racist comedy.

      It is creepy how much I know about this guy!

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