Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Comedy skirting meaning

i've put Czuk's comedy review on Sonic because Meeja Hoors is still down...

Stewart Lee is back on tour after more conspicuous times in the public eye as Springer opera man and the usual detours into writing, TV comedy and, also, artifact curation. Naturally, the appearance of someone with a track record ensured a packed crowd in the culture-free environs of SE23, at the newly airbrushed Honor Oak by the south circular (he’d originally been down to play the more insalubrious but now-also-about-to-be-refurbed Amersham in New Cross). Tony Law did an excellent support.

You already know whether you were likely to go and see Stewart Lee's new Edinburgh show: go if you can and beware of spoilers (misquoted ones at that) in what follows. Lee hinges his new show around having been voted 41st Best Stand Up Comedian of All Time on a Channel 4 Top 100, an excuse to meditate on the comedian's desire for approval from family, from the public. As for the former, his status cuts no ice at home: the recurring riff is his mother repetitiously and unfavourably comparing him to the lightning wit of Tom O'Connor who she saw years ago on a cruise ship:

“He was amazing Stew. He came out, he asked this man in the audience, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and the man says ‘I work in the oil industry’ and quick as a flash, Stew, Tom O'Connor says ‘Are you a sardine?’. It was hilarious. No, wait – the man says ‘I'm in oil,’ that's it, and quick as a flash, Stew, Tom O'Connor says ‘Are you a sardine?’. It was hilarious. He came out...”

With these and other citings, Lee mapped the bars of his own prison: contempt for those he needs the approval of (“you: the Public -- who, when given the chance to vote for your favourite comedy moment of all time, will invariably go for: Del Boy, falling through the bar,”); contempt for but apparent dependence on the commissioning whims of TV; contempt for his racist, ignorant and tasteless family; contempt for the spectre of the washed-up comedian, formerly critically hailed with something to say, reduced first to game shows (cf, Lee's recent appearance on 8 Out Of 10 Cats, for which his shame was palpable) then cruise ships, via sex scandal and a nervous breakdown.

Though the set included well-directed and eloquent rage against the vacuity of TV and the repulsiveness of the Littlejohn anti-PC lobby, as well as gestures towards what is obscured behind the bullshit – “beauty, truth, thought”, “the chance to feel or think something different” (with illuminated hyperlinks to Martin Luther King and Evan Parker) – I was sorry that it had to come wrapped up in self-analysis. Perhaps it was an unfortunate aspect of the need to weave together a coherent thread for an Edinburgh show; perhaps Lee genuinely can't sit down at his word processor without the broken, weeping soul of Tom O'Connor appearing before him. Perhaps Lee's furious critique of Maconie culture is all the more effective and honest if he vivisects his own dependence on and complicity with it at the same time. My fear is that, rather, his critique is needlessly blunted by this approach – by the repeated message that he is just a comedian.

The penultimate segment has Lee acting through a repetitious, Robert the Bruce-themed joke that is ridiculously drawn out, laboured and unfunny-funny; Lee in the story is an arrogant, lazy sell-out who's only interested in creativity if he gets paid for it; the 'real' Lee telling the story is a craftsman, weaving together the show's riffs in a flight of wonderful, genuinely funny, surrealism.

Lee's climactic gag combined hope and redemptive meaninglessness. “After all this seeking of approval... I got one laugh recently that meant more than anything, and that was from my 14-week-old son. And the way I got him to laugh was by balancing this small, stuffed orange giraffe on my head... and standing very still, without varying my expression, for as long as I could.” Which he did. It was a sublime moment of infant Zen, though it caused ripples of warmth among the Honor Oakers rather than out-and-out hilarity.
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