The abridged career of Stewart Lee, 1991-2031
July 25, 2011 2:57 PM   Subscribe

"I play a CD of a long Evan Parker sax solo while they [enter the theatre]. I figure if people can’t put up with that then they will probably not be able to put up with me." Quoth Benito Strauss, in the context of the Daily Mail's crusade against cruelty to millonaire stand-up Michael McIntyre: Yeah, I'd love it if someone would do a post on Stewart Lee. So:

Stewart Lee combines considerable media goodwill (outside the Daily Mail, anyway) with a public profile that seems sometimes to be expanding and contracting simultaneously - his recent series, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is shown on BBC2, the artier, less-viewed of the BBC's two core channels. However, he has been involved in some of the key moments and with some of the key people of British comedy from the 90s onwards. Although he has made much humorous play of his recognition as the 41st-best stand-up of all time in a phone-vote program - a recognition simultaneously meaningless and lukewarm (he was also GQ's 10th funniest Briton) - he is often acknowledged as one of the finest "comic's comics" practising today. As Lee comments in a riff on his former career as a librarian and his current day job, he was a funny librarian, but he was the sort of librarian you had to see a lot of other librarians beforehand to appreciate.

Lee began his professional comedy career as a stand-up comedian and writer for On the Hour, the Chris Morris-showrun radio news satire that introduced Alan Partridge and moved to TV as The Day Today. Even then, he was connecting himself to projects which stoked tabloid wrath, as On the Hour was suspended for inserting a Wellesian news bulletin announcing the death of Conservative party grandee Michael Heseltine.

His stand-up at this point shows comparatively limited mastery of the form - although his resemblance to a young Will Smith is somewhat hypnotic, and his interest in repetition, blurring the line between person and performance and making the audience uncomfortable is apparent even then.

This all arrival coincided with the British comedy boom of the 90s - when it was unwisely stated that comedy was the New Rock and Roll (a claim that would only really come true when both were completely shafted by YouTube). Accompanied by Richard Herring, he embarked on a series of sketch shows for Radio 1 (the BBC's youth music station), crossing over to TV with Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun.

[Note - the official Lee and Herring site is pretty terrible, possibly because it is the website of a comedy duo who have not worked together meaningfully for ten years. It does contain a link to another Fist of Fun website which appears to offer downloads of much of their material, but, uncertain of its copyright status, I did not link to it - although Stewart Lee does himself on this and his own site.]

Fist of Fun's core cast - Lee as the acerbic, unimpressed snark-machine, Herring as the wide-eyed boy from the West Country and Peter Baynham, writer of the Heseltine skit, as a subhuman grotesque - was eerily prescient [note - this is humor. These shows are quite unlike each other]. This segued into This Morning with Richard Not Judy - a pastiche of This Morning with Richard and Judy, the Regis and Kathie Lee of Great Britain, if Regis and Kathie Lee were married and Regis had been arrested for shoplifting alcohol. Around this time, Lee also directed The Mighty Boosh's breakthrough Edinburgh show, Arctic Boosh. The post-Richard Not Judy switch from ubiquity to relative obscurity was referenced in the name of Lee's 90s Comedian tour.

[The Richard not Judy "Parables of Jesus" sketches were collected Previously on MetaFilter.]

During the period between 2000 and his return to stand-up, Lee continued to direct other comedians, DJed for London's community radio station Resonance FM, and published a novel. However, his return to the public eye came with the launch of Jerry Springer: The Opera (previously), starring Michael Brandon and then David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) and revived on Broadway with Harvey Keitel. Dogged by mass protests by the Christian group Christian Voice, the show, despite massive exposure, apparently did not give Lee the Fry-like wealth he had dreamed of. After taking a royalty cut to ensure its survival, his portion became reportedly a car-changing, rather than a life-changing, amount of money. His next collaboration with Jerry Springer composer Richard Thomas was the almost cynically commercial moneyspinner Stand Up Opera, an opera in German about a form of comedy that does not exist in Germany.

However, Lee is certainly best known to MetaFilter from his more recent stand-up tours, the scripts of which were collected and annotated in book form. His comedy addresses many recurring themes of modern Internet discussion (all YT, all NSFW):

Political correctness
The merry pranksters of the BBC's Top Gear
Harry Potter
Richard Dawkins
Intellectual property

(Anyone feeling guilty about watching these videos on YouTube after that last one is invited to donate to a donkey sanctuary.)

Since returning to stand-up, he has also (reverse chronological order) unintentionally sabotaged a promotion by Fosters Lager at the Edinburgh Festival, contributed liner notes to a number of albums, among them Galaxie 500's Today, and organized Tedstock, an event to fund the publication of a 4-CD retrospective of the largely forgotten British comedian Ted Chippington, which had as its selling point a Lee and Herring reunion.

As for the future - in 2031, he will, apparently, be a TV pundit, in the kind of shows that award people the accolade of being the world's 41st best comedian.
posted by running order squabble fest (28 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
posted by benito.strauss at 3:10 PM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

But seriously, this looks great. Thanks so much, running order!

(I have to admit that when I first read it on the front page, I thought the first quote was from some real world person named Benito Strauss, and that my "MetaFilter handle that could in no way be an actual name of an actual person" had blown up in my face.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:14 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Superb post: thanks. I've long been loving Stewart Lee since Fist of Fun, way back when. Some of my own favourites of Lee's highlights, in addition to running order squabble fest's splendid work:
'Histor's Eye' ("...Sky TV's one-eyed magic pirate history crow...") from This Morning with Richard not Judy, an absurdist send-up of children's television's attempts to historicise current affairs: 1 2 3 4 5 6
'Rap Singers', a fearless bit of stand-up from Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle
A pair of articles from earlier in the year in The Guardian, one on the Royal Wedding, and the other on England's heritage.
I also urge anyone who is interested in, or cares about, the craft of comedy to read his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate. By reproducing stand-up routines and annotating them Lee reveals his complex comedic machinations and inspirations: it is both riveting and hilarious.
posted by hydatius at 3:57 PM on July 25, 2011

Yay, thanks for posting this!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:46 PM on July 25, 2011


What sort of person posts something like this?

Not interested? Move on.
posted by smithsmith at 4:54 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I play a CD of a long Evan Parker sax solo while they [enter the theatre]. I figure if people can’t put up with that then they will probably not be able to put up with me." Quoth Benito Strauss

posted by benito.strauss at 11:10 PM on July 25 [2 favorites +] [!]

posted by longbaugh at 5:12 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

He really is a comedian that grows on you. At first it looks as though he's trying to put you off by telling intentionally dull or longwinded stories with no punchlines. But if you give him a chance his jokes sort of soak through. I can honestly say that his humour, despite first appearances, is the kindest and silliest that I've seen in my lifetime.

Great post by the way.
posted by Trudeau at 5:15 PM on July 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

He reminds me a bit of Bill Hicks -- often more of an anti-comic than a comic.
posted by CheesesOfNazareth at 6:19 PM on July 25, 2011

The man has fantastic taste in music. If I attend a show, I'd arrive early just for the Parker album.
posted by ardgedee at 6:27 PM on July 25, 2011

But that said, so far I've only seen the monologue about Top Gear, and it's an amazing routine; I'm going to have to return to this post for more in the coming days.
posted by ardgedee at 6:33 PM on July 25, 2011

I'm really not sure whether I should post this, because it's not the same without the extended setup and the final punchline. If you haven't seen his set "90s comedian", I urge you to find it and watch it in its full glory, and not watch these links and spoil it for yourself. But for those of you who are going to go ahead anyway, bear in mind that

1) this is how the set starts: "Stewart Lee runs up the aisle to the stage and draws a chalk circle around the microphone. This, he explains, is what medieval clowns used to do outside churches in order to protect themselves from being persecuted for heresy. He is going to need it."

2) If I remember right, in the first half he talks a lot more about all the shit he got for doing Jerry Springer: The Opera and the toll it took on him, which leads into what he does in the second half of the set.

This is most of that second half:

Part 1
Part 2
posted by catchingsignals at 7:06 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wish I could find the long story he tells in the last episode of the second series of his Comedy Vehicle, about knowing David Cameron from his university days, because it led into this, the episode's gorgeous ending:

Stewart Lee - Bullingdon Club Song

that captured the feeling, pre-hacking scandal, of watching the Conservatives take over the country, so, so well.
posted by catchingsignals at 8:11 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

catchingsignals: Oh man, I hadn't seen that. It's got that quality that Lee's most spine-crawling work has.

As an aside, Lee was himself at Oxford University, as were Richard Herring, Armando Ianucci and David Schneider, of the group closely associated with the Chris Morris-driven 90s British comedy spearhead1, although Ianucci and Schneider I think had left or were postgraduates by the time Lee and Herring arrived. A more authoritative source on the British Ivy League could maybe draw some conclusions about the impact of being an outsider in a traditional bastion of privilege (from the unfashionable regions of England, Scottish-Italian or immigrant Jewish), but I have no idea whether their experience would be unusual or formative.

1 In contrast, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, who described the same journey through BBC radio to TV to new-rock-and-roll arena gigs came through Cambridge, and specifically Cambridge footlights. It's an idle thought, but I wonder what might have happened if Rob Newman, in particular, had worked with Armando Iannucci in his formative comic years rather than David Baddiel.
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:25 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am compelled to post this. The best intentional brinksmanship with the audience I've ever seen.
posted by Gratishades at 2:19 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

The political correctness video linked in the FPP was the first I ever saw of Stewart Lee, when it was linked in that other thread. Not yet appreciating the infinite majesty of Lee's art I spent the last few minutes of his brutal, grimly extended "chiselling" joke/lamentation getting ready to cringe in sympathetic agony but damn, he came through.

One of my favourite parts of the several-hour Stewart Lee youtube marathon that followed was his performance at an entomological conference called "Pestival". Apparently he arranged to perform at Pestival wearing an insect costume as part of a pilot for a BBC series and when the BBC decided not to go ahead he felt he had to live up to at least part of his promise. This was the result (apologies if it's hidden somewhere in the FPP). Have that many terrible, terrible insect-related jokes ever been told so well?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:13 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Years ago, a friend tried to interest me in Lee (in the form of Lee & Herring), which I didn't take too. (A little undergraduate, heavy on the zany and catchphrases or repeating jokes.) But the recent Lee material is blisteringly sharp. There's a routine where he takes what a paper named as the funniest scene in a British sitcom (a bit of nothing slapstick from "Only Fools & Horses") and relentlessly prods and teases and tears into it for 20 minutes, until by the end he's imagining it being re-enacted in the future as a folk ritual in a rural village fete. It starts from funny, goes through discomfort ("won't you let this go") and finishes as absolutely hilarious.
posted by outlier at 4:42 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A thousand baited hooks: Brilliantly, the Pestival material about Robert the Bruce (which is not in the FPP) is a direct lift of the stand-up he was doing in some of his first televised material in 1991 - so, actually, you can see the difference in treatment between the same material delivered as a very young comedian and as a mature stand-up, without the usual concessions to classic material - this isn't a comedian revisiting the routine that made him famous as a treat for his audience, but a comedian finding an totally unexpected application for material he had discarded two decades previously.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:35 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

My favourite SL piece; You can see the beginings of his more recent standup in this Fist of Fun sketch.

As ever with him, persevere
posted by handybitesize at 5:53 AM on July 26, 2011

Cool find of the Pestival performance. (Thought I'm a little disappointed he didn't get the insect outfit and actually do 15 minutes of insect observational humor "How about those aphids, hunh? Anybody here got any aphids? You know what I'm talking about.")

I was wondering how he would carry it off, and was at first thinking he was just going to use all the time talking about how he got the gig and other meta- time-burners, but he did get down to real insect-specific jokes. And his re-purposing of the Robert the Bruce was really good.

It seems like over time he has taken his 'frustrate the viewer's expectations" approach from mere snottiness to using it to explore deeper truths. Like in his "Top Gear" bit: I'm sure I could enjoy 10-15 minutes of Jeremy Clarkson bashing, but he diverts us to The Hamster. Well, Clarkson is evil, but none of us that evil. But we will smile at evil if it's done with style; we are the Hamster, and the Hamster is the worst. Plus, with just a few asides he makes you realize that some of the GRAR-making out there is just for making money ("politically incorrect opinions which he has every Sunday to a deadline").

I think it actually rather rare, isn't it, where a comedian clicks to a whole new level at middle-age?
posted by benito.strauss at 9:27 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

outlier, here's the Only Fools and Horses bit, as done for the Comedy Vehicle TV show. He originally did it live as part of 41st Best Stand Up Ever and when I saw him do it at the Edinburgh Festival at least 8 people walked out when he was down on the ground, moaning the lines. He'd probably have preferred them to pre-emptively walk out due to a sax solo but still, it does show how fiercely he continues to react against mainstream comedy (of which the Only Fools clip is a shining example) and how some of the mainstream reacts to him.
posted by MUD at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Thought I'm a little disappointed he didn't get the insect outfit and actually do 15 minutes of insect observational humor "How about those aphids, hunh? Anybody here got any aphids? You know what I'm talking about.")

Bridget Christie, a standup comedian (and Lee's wife), has a stage character called A. Ant, who basically takes all the complaints women comics have about their portrayal in the media, and translates them to the hardship of being an ant comedian. I haven't seen it, and I can't find any clips, but I've heard she has a similar style to Lee in some ways.

So if she's still doing it, and you really want to see a comedian in an insect costume, you may be in luck.
posted by rollick at 9:57 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the review of that A. Ant show: the balance between surrealism and just plain stupidity is a thin and unforgiving one. Oh, but I love that line, and I'm very forgiving of those who walk it. I've always like the idea of the Edinburgh Festival; maybe this will give me the impetus to finally fly over.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

outlier, here's the Only Fools and Horses bit, as done for the Comedy Vehicle TV show.

Awesome! I'm only disappointed that non-UKers are unlikely to appreciate the premise.
posted by outlier at 1:09 PM on July 26, 2011

Awesome! I'm only disappointed that non-UKers are unlikely to appreciate the premise.

A british co-worker lent me a DVD a while back. I haven't watched the Fools and Horses bit yet, but I hope I saw enough Del-boy that I might get it.

I generally keep an eye on British culture, just enough so that I can understand British humor — even the local jokes that are meant for local people.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:34 PM on July 26, 2011

With regards to the Only Fools and Horses bit, it's wonderful, as he admits in his book, that he has so subsumed (former partner) Richard Herring's voice into his own psyche (from FoF & TMWRNJ) that even now, when he comedically faux-dialogues himself ("...he fell through the bar, Stew, Del Boy...") he produces Herring's interrogative voice. Fucking magic.
posted by hydatius at 3:57 PM on July 26, 2011

For those of you non-UK folk who want to watch that Only Fools and Horses bit mentioned above, you can see the scene it refers to here.

/spoiler alert

I really like the giant wicker Del-boy.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:50 PM on July 26, 2011

Thanks for this and for all the links. I'm a big Stewart Lee fan - and also coincidentally Evan Parker whom I saw play live in London.
posted by vacapinta at 2:23 AM on July 27, 2011

A friend of mine has recurring dreams about hugging Stewart Lee.

On an slightly unrelated note - I have been listening to Adam and Joe on and off on their 6 music show and I've been slowly trying to brew a joke for their homemade jokes section (i forget what it's called). I thought I'd step through it logically, so I'd need a setup and a simple punchline, think of the punch line first and work backwards... but unfortunately as my sense of humour has been a bit mangled from, a) finding the bad jokes in A+J funny, b) too much Stewart Lee c) watching the Aristocrats film and d)having a bad sense of humour, I decided I would try to make a joke that is unbalanced, putting all my effort into a setup and leave on a deflating, anti-climatic punchline.

So here goes:

Person 1: Knock tic tic tic noc, plonk plonk pink. Plinkity noc wooosh. Plinkity pinkpink. Tapa tapa tapa tapa klunk. Tapa tapa tapa tapa klunk. Weeee. pop pop poppop pop pop. boink wizzzzzzzzzz. Plopalop plopalop plop. Klang krash kr-kr-kr-kraashhz. Ziiip.
plink........ plink........ plink........ plink........ plink........
Shlop. shlop. shiiiing.
Shingata atatata Krak.
Shingata atatata Krak.
Shingata atatata Krak.
Pop top po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po top pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op pot lop pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip.
------Pregnant Pause--------
Pop lop po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Kop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop toj po op pop. lip. iiiip ip. Pop lip po op pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po top pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po top pop. ip. iiiip ip. Pop op po top pop. ip. iiiip ip.
tap tip tap tap tap taptaptaptaptaptaptiptap
Knock Knock.

Person 2: Who's there?

Person 1: Pivotal figure in early European free jazz and improvisation, percussionist Han Bennink.

Then I realised that this relies fairly heavily on at least two things- A knowledge and appreciation of avantgarde, free jazz music and a sense of humour that appreciates the form rather than the content of a joke. I now believe these will preclude me from even the slightest chance of airing my bad joke on Adam and Joe but I am occasionally haunted by a kind of recurring daydream where I meet Stewart Lee in the street and proceed to tell him this joke for half an hour - as he is probably one of the only people with the prerequisite knowledge to appreciate the multitude of levels of incompetence which this joke displays.
posted by pmcp at 7:42 PM on July 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

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