Stewart Lee returns in 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle'

Since he was last on TV, Stewart Lee has caused controversy with 'Jerry Springer: the Opera' and racked up a string of Edinburgh Fringe successes, so why is the BBC's 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle' 'pregnant with lack of meaning' asks comedy critic Tim Out

  • Stewart Lee returns in 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle'

    'All I can see is his stupid, smug face'

  • His energy-sapping manifestation on Jimmy Carr’s ‘8 Out Of 10 Cats’ aside, it is now more than a decade since the comedian Stewart Lee last appeared on TV. And it shows. The shambling, pie-eyed figure fronting ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ is unrecognisable from the svelte, dancing bum-imp of invalid mid-’90s show ‘Fist Of Fun’, remembered by this viewer as being essentially a sleek delivery funnel for hot sneers, and rightly forgotten by the public.

    In the ten years since Lee’s exile from TV island, the assumed polymath has been the recipient of an Olivier award for his work as an opera director, published a novel full of unnecessary doing words, and become a mainstay of the Edinburgh Fringe, where his work is judged favourably alongside that of the finest poets, performance artists, dancers and playwrights of the entire world.

    But Lee’s return to the most sophisticated of all contemporary arts media will require him to step up a few degrees if he is to compete with such personalities as Vernon Kay, Adrian Chiles and Jeremy Clarkson. It’s all very well being on speaking terms with an experimental Russian clown or a Haitian voodoo priest, but how will Lee fit in alongside the sort of people that win British Comedy Awards? He needs to realise that his life has just been a long prologue to his crowning achievement, a TV series with his name in the title.

    But has he blown it? From where I am sitting, yes. And out of his stupid arse. Television has changed in the ten years since Lee was last lucky enough to appear inside one. Television comedy, in particular, has evolved to an incredible level of sophistication, with a cavalcade of repeated characters, motifs, catchphrases and situations flickering past the eye in a style borrowed from minimalists such as Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Compared to the rapid laugh dispersal mechanisms of contemporary TV comedy, Lee’s ponderous performance on his ‘Comedy Vehicle’ seems positively Neanderthal, suggesting a jungle-dwelling pygmy, struggling to coax notes out of an a clarinet that has fallen from a passing aircraft.

    Apparently ill at ease with both speech and movement, Lee’s presence on screen creates a kind of negative energy, a black hole of vacancy, pregnant with lack of meaning. The show seems to have been created to punish the viewer for some imagined crime. Unfortunately for fat Lee, the test audience with whom I endured a screening last week shared my doubts.

    ‘I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say at all,’ said Lisa, aged 28, ‘but he seemed to be trying to communicate something. It was like in those old films where an animal – maybe a horse or a dog or a kangaroo or a dolphin – wants the man to follow him to the old mine, but the man can’t understand what it is the animal wants.’

    ‘There wasn’t enough swearing,’ said Alan, 28. ‘I like swear words, like fuck, piss and cunt, and it was just a man going on and on about nothing.’

    Other test subjects seemed equally confused. ‘It was like a comedy. He was like a comedian,’ said Lyndsey, a 28-year-old Guardian Guide reader from Dulwich. ‘I mean, he had a suit on and he was speaking into a microphone and walking around, like Michael McIntyre does, but there were no jokes, just long sentences and these silences where he stared at objects and the floor.’

    ‘It made me laugh,’ added Callum, age 28, ‘but not for why you’d think it would. It was like being in a church and someone’s farted, and you’re not meant to laugh, so you do. It was laughter from embarrassment.’

    Disappointingly for BBC executives, who have already placed assumed profits from the DVD sales of the show on a horse, many of the test subjects said that not only would they not watch the show when it was broadcast, but it had made them consider whether they would ever watch TV, or look at anything, again.

    One elderly man emerged from the screening room clutching his torn-out eyes in his hands, squeezing them into a pulp like soft pickled eggs. ‘Did “Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle” make you angry, old man?,’ I asked him. ‘No, just bored,’ he said, ‘furiously bored, and then sad. Like when I was a baby and my mum walked out of the room. I just want things to go back to how they were before I saw it. But they never will. All I can see is his face. His stupid, smug face.’

    Tim Out was talking to Stewart Lee

    'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle' is on Mondays, 10pm, BBC2

  • Add your comment to this feature