Leave it to Stew

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It can be hard to tell when Stewart Lee’s joking. I don’t mean that it’s hard to tell whether he’s being funny or not – almost every few words he says make me laugh helplessly – but it’s hard to tell how much of what he says is true. Before he gets into his routine, he tells us that it contains a twenty-five minute segment on Adrian Chiles which has recently been vetoed by the BBC for inclusion in his second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. This is because, according to the new comedy guidelines, twenty-five minutes of vitriol directed at one person counts as a “sustained personal attack”.
Of course, since the BBC’s guidelines have very little to do with what’s funny, Stewart Lee tell us the Adrian Chiles stuff anyway. Except… there’s not twenty-five minutes of it. He also launches a fairly damning attack on Mock the Week; he pretends it’s called Mock the Weak, jokes about how it makes him uncomfortable because of this, and ends up talking about the show as it really is: a programme full of men braying about “Susan Boyle having a hairy face”. I wonder if, in half a year’s time, I’ll get to see this material included in an episode of his show anyway. It’d be a shame if it was excised from the script; he’s gleefully brutal about television, and his criticism of Mock the Week is a million times funnier than Andy Parsons’s desperate attempts to spin a joke out of a photo of Gordon Brown looking a bit sad. He takes fellow comedians to task in a smarter, angrier, more effective way than some blunt guidelines will ever be able to achieve.
The show’s slightly rougher than his last one, If You Want a Milder Comedian Please Ask for One, because it’s largely material he’s trying out before putting it on the telly. This doesn’t mean that it’s just a lot of unconnected bits – it’s actually tied together fairly well, with constant references to his Grandfather’s obsession with crisps – but it’s got a couple of new bits at the end that he runs back on to try after we clap for a long time. “It’s your own fault!”, he shouts. He’s comfortable with riffing off the audience’s reactions – when somebody whoops at a reference to a tax loophole for antiques or paintings or some shit that I don’t understand, he says that nobody else has picked up on this, and wonders if anybody will care about it in Glasgow. Who knows.
The show ends with a few songs, perhaps surprisingly, that he’s written himself. The first is after a long piece about David Cameron, which I won’t spoil, and it’s kind of a love ballad about the Bullingdon club. The song is masterful – it’s a well-turned pastiche of a particular type of song, while also being stupidly, laugh-in-your-sleeve funny. And he can sing. The others are new, and not as good – but it’s early days for them yet.
If you’ve never seen Stewart Lee before, don’t go in expecting “jokes”, or one-liners – he has about three of these in his entire show, which he prepares us for by pulling a very weird pose with the microphone stand. But he’s constantly joking, especially when he’s being entirely serious. He’s doing a run of Vegetable Stew in London from the end of October through until the 18th of December – if you get the chance, and you’re at all interested in laughing, then go.

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