Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Gervais’

Last night my lovely girlfriend took me to see Stewart Lee in his new stand up show Carpet Remnant World at the Leicester Square Theatre. I’ve been a fan of Lee since I was very young, following his career from the days of Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard not Judy, so was amply excited to be seeing him live for the first time.

Clearly Stewart Lee’s comedy stylings have made significant transitions over the years, abandoning his collaboration with Richard Herring (although they invariably still refer to each other in their solo stand up), securing himself as Britain’s most controversial comedian. This controversy isn’t a product of vulgar or politically incorrect material – although this does form some of his stand up – but his arrogant, self-promoting comedic style. Lee has always come across as a very self-assured comedian. His material consistently displays a weight of intellect that he is clearly proud of whilst often dealing offensive blows to rival ‘lesser’ comedians. Despite seeming pompous and proud on stage, his satirical japery always seemed artificial, like an act. I’m sure he is proud that his sets promote a level of intelligence and an awareness of current affairs; I’m certain that he does indeed feel that his comedy manages to transcend the ‘low brow’ comedy of some commercial stand ups. Lee has long been the darling of the fringe comedy scene but, importantly, he never genuinely appeared to believe his own hype. Until now….

Carpet Remnant World described in three words: Elitist. Offensive. Laboured.

But aren’t these also three particularly apt words to describe how Stewart Lee’s act has always appeared? They are indeed, it’s just that in his most recent show they no longer seem like elements of an act. Instead, they are so fervently present that they create a show that above all doesn’t work but worse still portrays a comedian that has a genuine disdain for his audience.

Let’s dissect:

1. Elitist: As described above, Stewart Lee has long promoted his work as an antidote to commercial stand up and observational comedy. He often demonstrates that his style of comedy is superior to others, that he is some kind of comedic anti-hero destroying the established regime in favour of a comic style with a greater depth of intelligence and socio-political reference beyond the grasp of the common man.

This is true, to an extent. His comedy is certainly more challenging than a lot of comedians on the circuit currently. Unequivocally, there is a subtlety, an ambiguity to his stand up lending itself to a more ambivalent, thought-provoking show. It’s just that in Carpet Remnant World it seems that this has somewhat got to the head of Stewart Lee. He is incessantly snobby about alternative forms of comedy – in his eyes, lesser forms – such as commercially celebrated observational comic acts like Peter Kay and Russell Howard, rather championing his own ‘high brow’ comedy intellectualism to the point of narcissism.

Interestingly though, despite his constant criticism and perpetual self-aggrandisement, the biggest and most consistent laughs of the night came from a repeated impression of Scooby Doo. How does that irony sit with you Mr Lee?

Moreover, Stewart Lee seems genuinely bitter about winning two British Comedy Awards (for Best Male Television Comic and Best Comedy Entertainment Program), driving him to attack those that he considers beneath him intellectually. Not only is this an ungrateful slap in the face of the panel who selected him (including comedic actor and director Reece Shearsmith and the commissioning editors for Sky, Dave and Comedy Central, to name but a few) but in his outbursts he further condemns the fan base he has developed as a result of his BBC Comedy Vehicle. I appreciate that he does not seek commercial success, rather he would prefer to comfortably sit on the fringe with his comedy morals intact, but how can you publicly criticise anyone that has shown you support without any sense of gratitude. In an interview with the Guardian’s Emine Saner, Lee was asked whether he was at all jealous of millionaire comedians like Michael McIntyre. Here is his response –

“Not really. I wouldn’t want that level of recognition. It’s quite difficult as a comic if you’re that famous to know whether people are laughing at you or whether they’re just excited about seeing someone famous in a football stadium. It’s hard to go badly under those circumstances, and going badly is a big part of what I do”.

Perhaps this explains why he appears to have such a problem with the recognition he has received of late. There is a simple solution though: don’t do a comedy show as part of a primetime BBC schedule. If you are so profoundly opposed to any sign of commercial success then ensure that you remain in relative obscurity, by playing only to low level crowds up and down the country. No Comedy Vehicle = no awards.

2. Offensive. Again as discussed above, Stewart Lee is known for his offensive attacks, not just against rival comedians but his audience also. Readily he delves into a seemingly ill-prepared joke which insults a local stereotype of the location he is playing in. For example, in Stand Up Comedian, filmed in Glasgow, he regularly insults the Scottish with a combination of regional stereotypical opinion and an attack on Scottish heritage. Yet, Lee always had the wit to carry it off in a way that reveals its artifice. The jokes are not needlessly offensive, supported by a degree of intellect and a structural preparation that engages the audience, allowing them to see past the overt, explicit insults.

However, in Carpet Remnant World these insults are much more personal supporting the idea that the show is no longer an act. Throughout the set Lee repeatedly criticises people for not understanding certain jokes, implicitly labelling them as inferior for having less of an intellectual capacity. He even sought to divide the room into sections, those that got his material and those that were simply there as a result of his new heralded, British Comedy Award, fame. These insults were not subtle, such as those witnessed in previous shows. They were so frequent and delivered with such bitterness that they were beyond tacit, satirical digs. At times the show had the impression of a witch hunt, scanning the audience for people who weren’t laughing as to belittle their intelligence, to the point of discomfort. I genuinely believe that there were some people in the room who laughed defensively, who smiled along so as to gain the approval of an elitist comic. This then has interesting implications on Lee’s aforementioned response – “It’s quite difficult as a comic if you’re that famous to know whether people are laughing at you or whether they’re just excited about seeing someone famous in a football stadium” ….. or laughing out of fear of embarrassment.

As observed above, Lee was also highly critical of his comic rivals, in particular the Russells, (Howard, Kane and Brand) and Michael McIntyre. He audaciously knocks their comedy successes making it clear that their brand of energetic observational comedy is inferior to his. With this is mind, who is Lee really chastising, the comedians or their fans? Inherently he is rebuking the fans for their poor taste in comedy – in his opinion. As Guy Stagg of the Telegraph puts it, “But McIntyre is not the real object of this scorn. It is the people who find him funny. The people who are so unsophisticated that they laugh at observational comedy. Because comedy snobbery is just a vehicle for other, more poisonous forms of snobbery.” Shockingly, Lee has selected a quote from this damning article to advertise his show. This choice denotes an intensely obnoxious pride, one which is heavily misplaced.

Stewart Lee is often described as a left wing comedian, and with his regular dissection of the Tory party, David Cameron in particular, it is easy to see why this is. He certainly appears to align himself with the left, yet his style of comedy is inescapably right wing. It is not inclusive, it is very much elitist, seeking to undermine those that don’t fit in with his intellectual ideals. Once again I am amazed that he so comfortably seeks to repel his fans who have dispensed with time and money to see his show. I know it’s not very anti-establishment but he should certainly feel privileged.

3. Laboured. Stewart Lee’s material has often seemed very laboured, full of hesitation, repetition and self-reference. This has always been part of its charm though, as you see how disparate thematic material is eloquently drawn together by the end of the show. His delivery is slow paced, with recurring repetition for emphasis, especially of particularly important thematic references. Yet, in Carpet Remnant World Lee’s jokes are far too laboured. His hesitation is such that it damages the fluidity of the show, but worse still there is simply not enough material, a fact he happily reiterates throughout the night. Lee constantly refers to the fact that he hasn’t had time, nor the experiences to create an interesting comedy set, instead spending the last year looking after his 4 year old son and driving around the North Circular. I gather this is supposed to be subversive whilst preparing the way to eventually disprove this statement. However, he is not able to successfully achieve this as his initial statement is quite true; there is not enough material in the show. As such, he relies too heavily on repetition, which only serves to damage the quality jokes he does have; a prime example of this is the Scooby Doo based ‘jungle canyon rope bridge’ skit, which started on a hilarious high but unfortunately ended disastrously as it was continuously redelivered in needless iterations.

I fully understand the set’s closing metaphor too, which seeks to unite Stewart Lee’s meandering themes into a final conclusion with the show’s supposedly ironic title. He compares his set to the characteristics of a Carpet Remnant World, of taking snippets of ragbag material and combining them with a sensitivity and artistry that somehow manages to create a satisfying whole. But it didn’t…. It really didn’t. His set did not come together as a satisfying whole, as he promised early in the show. Alternating sections seemed disparate at best, and a typical Lee-esque cohesion was never really achieved, leaving the audience feeling somewhat lost.

By now Lee devotees out there may well be thinking that I’m the Russell Howard loving, comedy philistine that he so fervently seeks to alienate in his show. Patently that is not the case though. The problem isn’t that I didn’t ‘get’ his jokes. It wasn’t that they were above my head. I fully understand his side swipe at lower forms of comedy. His reference to Boyle’s law, his retelling of a joke in French, his attack on those comedians that end a set with a solemn personal story – clearly references to Frankie Boyle, Eddie Izzard and Richard Herring respectively. And I in fact share his disliking of Michael McIntyre’s and Russell Howard’s particular brands of comedy. He just does it in such a way that is far too explicitly offensive, only serving to insult the audience members that may well enjoy them.

To end this rant I will refer to one last joke from Stewart Lee’s set, one which I feel entirely encapsulates what was wrong with it. Halfway through the show he criticised Ricky Gervais for becoming as arrogant and offensive a person in actuality as his act entailed. This was the bitterest irony of the night, completely highlighting that he himself has undergone a similar process. His set was clearly no longer an act; there was patently a genuine dislike for his audience, combined with a pretentious feeling of superiority.

Stewart Lee. Elitist, offensive, laboured. Oh and hypocritical, mustn’t forget that.

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For anyone that read my review of Life’s Too Short, you will be aware of how much I adore the co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Mr Gervais has already plunged into stand-up comedy, forming another successful string on his comedy bow (to a point…. Fame began what was a downward spiral in his live shows. Animals and Politics were incredible. They were clever, thought provoking and above all, hilarious. Ricky certainly deployed a comical egotism in these shows, which was very likeable, but somehow in later tours it no longer seems like an act. He has become Brent, offensive and arrogant, but worse still, the shows suggest a laziness and complacency that can accompany award-winning success. He introduced Animals as a ‘lecture’, and it certainly had the feel of one, just hosted by the cool, young teacher in school. You leave the show having learnt something, a testament to Gervais’ comic writing and intelligence. But in his last 2 shows, you don’t. They didn’t really seem structured and barely skimmed their relative subject matters – Fame, for example, barely dipped a comic toe into the trials of being famous, a subject vast in scope and its potential for comedy).

Smooth operator...

Enough ranting…. It seems about time that Stephen Merchant took a punt too. I’ve always found him hilarious. He has proven time and time again, especially over the course of the XFM shows, that his Bristolian vowels and proficient improvisational ability are perfectly suited to the comedy circuit. However, a feeling of trepidation also felt entirely natural when I heard about the prospect of a live show. I mean, this man has been involved in the comedy industry for the best part of 15 years and only now is he getting involved in stand-up (this is not entirely true. Having committed myself to some research – or in other words, reading his Wiki page – I see that his career actually started in stand-up, although in his own words, it didn’t really set him on the path to stardom, “The first week I did really well …The second week I died on my arse. I realised that stand-up was not that easy after all.”) He certainly looks comical, with his squinty eyes and lanky 6ft 7″ frame, a physicality which he uses very effectively in the show combined with a close range camera and a big screen! He is also patently a very established comedy writer, but I was intrigued to see how well he could transfer his penchant for situational comedy to stand-up.

I was not let down.

First I must say what a tragedy it is that his tour sold so badly. We actually managed to obtain free tickets for the night, seemingly alongside many others up in the circle, for answering a simple question on See Tickets’ Twitter page (it was actually my girlfriend that did it <3). Having been asked a few hours before we (she) even saw the question, we really thought that there was very little chance of bagging free entry. To our toothy-grinned surprise though, See Tickets were not just giving out one set but multiple. Even better, they were simply tweeting the same download code to every ”winner” which was therefore visible to everyone! (Was this an administrative error, or a sign of how nonexclusive these tickets were?) We didn’t even need to enter the competition to obtain our seats! So my lovely purple-headed girlfriend clicked on the link and got us our tickets. Unlucky to everyone who paid £35 a pop to sit in the stalls, including my brother, ouch, sorry bro.

Watch a clip of the show below, as Stephen talks about venn diagrams….


It’s a real travesty that the show sold so poorly. I put it down to the fact that he has been marketed as Gervais’ sidekick, an almost anonymous face in comparison, when really he is a successful comedy creator in his own right. It must be really disheartening to Stephen Merchant, perhaps forming an insecurity about creating another tour in the future. I sincerely hope not because the show was great! Significantly, it’s his insecurity that makes him, and the show, so loveable. Stephen is innately awkward, bumbling around stage (apt considering his gaming cameo as the voice of Wheatley in Portal 2), much like his character Oggy ‘Nathan’ Ogmonster in The Office. This personality trait is even reflected in his management of heckles – as one unfair patron shouted that “No one gives a shit”, he charmingly responded with an almost childlike defensive torrent of “Just leave it mate”. In fact, the show is really devoted to this insecurity. ‘Hello Ladies’ refers to Merchant’s difficult search for a partner, with the content of the show detailing his struggles, from the obstacle of his height to the dangers of sexual endeavours.

Merchant is particularly likeable as a comedian. His delivery, accent and tone are all very engaging, supported by pacey and well-constructed jokes. He even ended the night on an impromptu reimagining of a play he wrote in school, entitled ‘Choices’. Although I felt that it dragged on somewhat, and would probably be more memorable if it was cut half way through, it was a brave success. Not many comedians would risk bringing on two strangers to perform with him on his first tour. The skit was thoroughly enjoyable, demonstrating a naivety of script and such a hilariously superficial treatment of potent social issues that it was believable as a childhood play. For me this was the real mark of its success, not only was it consistently funny, it was entirely feasible as a real play he wrote as a teenager.

It’s a bit of a spoiler but see the play below:


Generally, I have nothing but praise for the show, a very pleasant surprise indeed. However, I did have a few minor quibbles. Unfortunately, you can’t help seeing Ricky Gervais in his performance. There is a very similar style of delivery to many of his jokes that is inescapably Gervais. Although it still worked perfectly, I cannot help but think that he is doing himself a disservice by not distancing his act from his comedy partner. In fact, Stephen actually declares in Hello Ladies that a significant reason for doing the show in the first place was to get away from Gervais! Moreover, Merchant also has an egotism on stage, often referring to his Golden Globe successes. Somehow this manages to be endearing though as part of the act, like he is overcompensating for what he lacks in good looks or average height. It’s just worryingly reminiscent of Ricky. It has to be said that this was not at all damaging to Hello Ladies, but he must ensure that he does not let this egotism consume his actual character – like Gervais seems to have done – or he will lose the very thing that makes him so likeable.

Overall it was a top show, and a real surprise. Absolute bargain for free too!

…. so perhaps that explains why the set up has been shamelessly replicated from The Office.

I’m a huge fan of comedic writers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I adore their catalogue of work, spanning sitcoms, stand up, podcasts and radio shows. The Office is one of the most interesting and emotionally engaging comedies that I have ever seen. It was one of the first mockumentary style sitcoms (ignoring undervalued earlier examples like Operation Good Guys), and the juxtaposition of hilarious, sometimes even slapstick, comedy with romantic, emotional plot lines is truly praiseworthy. I welled up like Gwyneth Paltrow at the end of the Christmas specials and I attribute this to the incredible creation and development of the sitcom’s key characters. Although they are entirely different, every character is immediately likeable. In following the series, you inevitably become more and more enamoured with the characters, feeling a real investment in their successes and failures. You are desperate for Tim and Dawn to get together, willing Brent to stand up to Finchey, and it’s a testament to the writing skills of Gervais and Merchant that they provide this conclusion. With The Office they haven’t just written a comedy, they have told a story.

I believe the above paragraph demonstrates effectively my love and admiration of The Office. So when I learnt about the arrival of a new sitcom from the pair, focussed on the trials and tribulations of Warwick Davis (I ❤ Star Wars!), I was suitably excited. That’s what makes it so disheartening to discover how bad it is….

I have watched the first three episodes and apart from the odd snigger I have been entirely disappointed. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it’s just not very funny, but as that is something innately subjective I will skim over it for now. The biggest fault I have witnessed is that it appears to be a shameless amalgamation of The Office and Extras. Obviously the premise is similar to The Office, a mockumentary comedy following a business manager. It is shot in very much the same way, with regular cut aways to Warwick Davis being interviewed, just like Brent. Furthermore, the celebrity cameo appearances are unavoidably reminiscent of Extras. Unfortunately the comparisons are far more damning than these quite superficial ones.

Warwick is Brent. His mannerisms, his speech, his attitudes are all exactly the same. He has a pretentious ego, assuming that everyone knows who he is and admires him, with a feeling that the world owes him something. He even speaks with the same tone and pace. Talk about Mini Me.

Watch this clip:


It seems insane to me how similar they are. It doesn’t help that both of these scenes have taken place after a failed comedic skit. The awkward, ill-placed confidence of Warwick’s wedding speech reminds me heavily of Brent’s welcoming talk with Swindon and his blundered motivational speech.

Comparisons are noticeable in other characters also. The dreary secretary is Maggie from Extras. Both are bumbling females, perpetually making mistakes, often ruining opportunities for the male protagonist. They speak out of turn, they say the wrong things and every episode cause embarrassment. Also, Warwick’s inept accountant plays very much the same character as Stephen Merchant in Extras as Gervais’ agent. Both characters are completely incompetent; they are entirely ineffectual in their jobs, and are seemingly kept on out of pity. It is an interesting irony that the accountant, played by Steve Brody, also played Brent’s bumbling agent in The Office Christmas specials.

Another gripe I have, beyond the blatant repetition, is that I am unsure why Gervais and Merchant really need to be in the show. Perhaps it’s going somewhere and there is a significant reason why they need to be in it, but so far it’s seemed like nothing more than a vehicle to massage their egos. Their role has been to demonstrate how successful and profitable they are, in comparison to a failing Warwick Davis, a man who is desperate for their attention and friendship in the hope of securing future acting roles. The show is as much about them as Warwick, which completely undermines the whole premise. In episode two Johnny Depp came to speak with Gervais, and part of his response was “I write and direct all my own stuff”. This line really stood out to me as a needless pitch of self-assurance and perhaps explains why they feel they deserve to be central characters in the show, for no real reason.

I will endeavour to watch the rest of the series in the hope that I will be proven wrong. I’m not confident.