“Smug elitist liberalism. Who is this cunt? …I hate Stewart Lee. He’s like Ian Huntley to me,” reads a listless Lee to a backdrop of soothing jazz. These are only a couple of gems from his extensive collection of hilariously disproportionate and unwarranted hate-mail. All too often misunderstood in a career marked distinctively with little commercial outreach, Stewart Lee has performed boldly original and outstanding stand-up for over twenty years. However, whilst staying faithful to the punk-rock ethos of alternative comedy and to political correctness, Lee has arguably reached the heights of his ‘mainstream’ success so far, having recently been awarded Best Male Comic at the British Comedy Awards after completing the second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle for BBC2.
The rise of alternative comedy coincided with the Thatcher era, fertilised by the humble beginnings of Peter Rosengard’s Comedy Store in a Soho strip-club in 1979, compered by the prolific Alexei Sayle. As a movement it was fundamentally a reaction against the tiresomely right-winged, casually sexist and racist humour that predominated in working men’s clubs (the likes of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson), but was also towards a preference for more experimental approaches to explore and exploit the conventional ‘set-up, punch-line’ structure of the archetypal joke. Nowadays whenever the term ‘alternative comedy’ is wielded, the question that prevails is ‘alternative to what?’. Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World, apparently blandly named to deter the new TV-fame found audience, certainly contrasts the stagnant tide of much of contemporary mainstream stand-up.
Accompanied by both the flashing lights and smoke that one could associate with Live at the Apollo and by the experimental krautrock of Amon Duul II, Stewart Lee walked out onto the stage. Rather fittingly for us viewing Carpet Remnent World at Nottingham’s Playhouse Lee was upon the same stage that Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians was first performed, the play which precociously questioned the moral nature of stand-up back in 1975. What then unfolds in Carpet Remnant World is a heavily self-analytical exegesis and profoundly post-modern piece of stand-up where Lee satirises everything from the banality of ‘McIntyre-branded’ observational and topical comedy to the so-called ‘boundary pushing’, Boyle-esque humour that is too often just an excuse for easy laughs at the expense of vulnerable targets. Disillusioned by modern society, Lee leads us to ponder comedy’s metaphysical nature and coaxes us to laugh at the lazily contrived forms of stand-up that we are so frequently served-up and have become jaded into accepting as the norm.
His masterful and divisive control of the crowd makes for a delightful journey, as he springs a double bluff or turns on us for laughing where we should not. Lee’s stage presence is nothing short of compelling: self-assured but more importantly self-aware. Even an untimely loss of voice served only to enhance his performance, providing a layer of gruff desperation. Lee’s unique take on the ‘middle-aged-man-with-a-child’ routine sees him swigging from a wine bottle, despairingly resembling only remnants of a past self – what could once have been scathing political satire now amusingly confined to a dilute Scooby-Doo frame of reference.
Carpet Remnant World, though deliberately less provocative than previous works, is no less potently funny and in a way more thoughtful. In a show allegedly “about nothing”, Lee expressed from the offset that by its closure the disparate ideas of his routine would be strung together to create the “illusion of structure”. Indeed, following a brief pseudo-failure of timing, Lee concludes with a meaningless through-line on the discovery of a utopic carpet remnant world that leaves an impression of pseudo-success. There are many souvenirs one can gather from Carpet Remnant World, but at the very least it demonstrates the capacity for stand-up comedy as a form of art to be perceived with the same depth and sense of purpose as theatre, film or literature. As Griffiths wrote in Comedians, “A joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience. We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones… illuminate them”.
Stewart Lee is touring the UK with ‘Carpet Remnant World’ and will finish up in August at the Edinburgh Fringe.