Smirnoff Underbelly, Edinburgh
August, 2004

Critics have been describing Stewart Lee’s Edinburgh Fringe show this year as a “masterclass” and they’re quite right.  Not because it’s at all dry or detached but because, seemingly effortlessly, he shows how very far comedy can go and how scalpel-sharp it can get at its best.  The cooler half of Lee & Herring, and more recently co-writer and director of Jerry Springer: The Opera, is at the absolute peak of his comedic game here.

Lee begins by asking several member of the audience to fire party poppers at him. Thus swathed in streamers, he goes incongruously into a routine about 9/11, or as he insists on calling it, the 9th of November (“Reclaim the date!”)  It’s the constant switchback between very serious subjects and the most basic material that makes him so compelling.  The racial tension after 9/11, he says, could be dispelled by some fart gags.

Lee can take a simple idea and run with it through miles of obscure and arcane territory until it miraculously re-emerges under a funnier sun than ever.  He can use a word like “prelapsarian” to describe Americans’ ignorance of the rest of the world, and then a couple of minutes later reject such stereotypes.  He can ask, if a tramp farts in a forest and nobody hears it, is it still funny? (The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.)

He casually dismisses whole swathes of other comics with a contemptuous “D’you remember the ’70s? Spangles? Chopper bikes?” then returns to his own stuff.  He “proves” from audience responses that more people hate Ben Elton than Osama bin Laden. But this only leads Lee to consider how he himself has had to cope with the Springer musical’s success.  And what he says about “Braveheart” William Wallace can’t be repeated here.

The impact of this material is all the more amazing because Lee doesn’t use a comedy persona to carry it through.  He doesn’t do any kind of wacky; he’s straight-faced, but not exaggeratedly so. He’s simply the man who puts all these curious ideas in front of you.  One runs out of superlatives after a while. All I can say is that if you’re interested in what comedy can do in the hands of a master, see Stewart Lee.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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