In fact, success is a taboo that casts a vulgar shadow over proceedings for Stew, formerly more used to small club venues with crowds of devotees attuned to his slow, deconstructionist shows, than playing to large audiences in theatres such as this. Consequently he tests and tortures, dividing the audience by ability to follow his dense, splenetic routines; playing them off against each other and insisting that this “isn’t for you” to those found wanting. This is ostensibly aimed at weeding out the “Jimmy Carr fans” that might have unknowingly strayed into his orbit since winning a British Comedy Award, expecting him to “notice things”, like what Michael McIntyre or one of the Russell comics that they have now might do. Of course, this is all part of his onstage persona, but it makes for a provocative live experience all the same.
The premise of this latest show, performed at Edinburgh last year, is that as the 40-something father of a small boy, he has no time to see or do anything that might inspire him. That all he does now is watch ‘Scooby Doo and the Island of the Zombie Pirates’ with his young son, leaving him thin on material. This is of course disingenuous – ‘Carpet Remnant World’ is as intricate, carefully planned and densely layered as previous iconoclastic outings of his. He just uses it as a vehicle for established tropes such as proving that anything can be funny through prolonged, excruciating (and eventually hilarious) drawn-out repetition, and to make indignant points. Everything is seen through the prism of his son’s obsession with Scooby Doo. A routine lambasting Tory spending cuts and the Big Society is done so using the metaphor of Scooby Doo’s jungle canyon rope bridges (“Margaret Thatcher said ‘if a man in his late 20s still uses a jungle canyon rope bridge, he can count himself a failure in life’”).
This subversion extends to other topics, such as long-time targets of vitriol, Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. Following Clarkson’s comments about believing striking workers should be shot, it was said that no Top Gear fans ever killed anyone – “Apart from Anders Bering Breivik, the Neo Nazi mass-murderer”, Stew dead-pans.
The show culminates in a lengthy tale of desperately touring the country trying to “notice things” that he can put in his act, which sprawls at length becoming increasingly surreal and absurd as he chances upon shops that are made of meat, or stationery, or carpet remnants. It’s played out far longer than many comedians would dare, but the audience is rewarded for sticking with it as it gradually ascends to the ridiculous, helpless laughter filling the room. All the while it points an accusing finger at the ubiquity of lazy ‘Mock The Week’ hack stand-up; the kind that’s become a form of content to be consumed, to the point where punters feel they have a solipsistic right to enjoy every aspect for it to be worthwhile.
Stewart Lee has been described as anti-comedy, but that misses the point. He isn’t ‘anti-comedy’ at all – he’s a comedy partisan. In believing that we can and should always do better, by deconstructing the form to show that it isn’t just a product, it can and should be art, and by having no truck with the substandard or the charlatan, he’s very much on comedy’s side. As a long-time subscriber to the punk ethics of alternative comedy, Stew champions the magic of the live spectacle – that something wonderful and unique is happening right in front of you, of shared experience.
If stand-up can still be saved from the vampirism of TV and DVDs in supermarkets, it’ll be thanks to comedians who refuse to compromise, like Stewart Lee. It’s a refusal to dumb-down that he shares with Daniel Kitson and Jerry Sadowitz, the three of them arguably the most important comedians in Britain today. They play around with and explode the format, what it means to be a stand-up, even what it means to be an audience. He’s doing it for our own good, and we should be grateful to him for it. Or perhaps to Scooby Doo.
Chris Bell has contributed to various online and print publications, including Drunken Werewolf, Whiteboard Project and Bubblegun.com. He's on Twitter @trueadventures, which he mostly uses for whimsical hokum.