Posts Tagged ‘Stand Up’

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, after the amazing success of the first night of the Dialogue Festival and with the prospect of seeing Richard Herring in a small church, to say I was excited is an understatement.

And you know what they say about having high expectations setting you up for a fall? Well, let’s just say they weren’t bloody wrong!

The second night, called TechnoBabble, kicked off with an off the cuff introduction from the man himself, Richard Herring. To the delight of the low capacity crowd (maybe 25 – 30 people), he ignored the script he’d been given in favour of some improvised comedy, actually ridiculing the cheesy, planned lines he had been handed. Our appetites whet, Richard then left to perform an intro at another venue, leaving us with our first act, so to speak, in the form of Perez Hilton.

When advertised, infamous blogger Perez Hilton was described as a ‘special guest’. Although he lives in America, he’s such a D-List celebrity that it was fair to assume that First Direct had flown him out to London for this very show. This was not the case…..

To be honest, I didn’t have any real desire to see him in person, so was more than happy to view his smiling bonce from 600 miles away. But it seemed a little cheeky to advertise him as a guest when really he was only appearing via Skype. Jesus, I could probably get him on Skype now! Essentially, Perez’s set formed an introduction to a story telling method known as ‘pecha kuchas’. A pecha kucha is a collection of 20 slides, each with 20 seconds of spoken word creating a narrative. What does pecha kucha even really mean though? I assume that it’s Japanese for something like ‘tedious and annoying’; almost sounds like Ashton Kutcher too, fitting. Mr Hilton was to deliver his own pecha kucha (recorded I might add), which was then to be followed by a live Q & A.

This idea was pretty pointless and uninteresting right from the outset. What would Perez Hilton even have to offer us as a story? Maybe an enlightening commentary on the socio-political atmosphere in Libya? Ah no, just a shitty explanation of how he came to fame. Just what I wanted….

God was clearly present that night in the church though. Proof for all you atheists if ever you needed it! Perez’s set was immeasurably improved by a technical failing which meant that there were no slides present as he was talking. Consequently, the audience had no idea what he was referring to whatsoever (like we cared anyway) which made every new slide more and more hilarious. It didn’t ever matter what he had to say anymore. As soon as he opened his mouth to another failed slide the audience could not help but snigger.

The Q & A wasn’t any more successful. Richard Herring had not yet returned so instead a random techy from the back grabbed the mic to converse with Perez. No-one may even have registered that this was another f*^k up if the anonymous replacement hadn’t opened his conversation with “Sorry Perez, if I knew I was doing this tonight, I would have been better dressed.” Well done that man.. that’s that illusion shattered. In all fairness, if this poor guy was a last minute stand-in then he didn’t do a horrible job. It’s just unfortunate that he had about as much charisma as some wilting spinach. He chatted away to Perez for a bit, asking particularly uninteresting questions, notably from a piece of paper that had clearly been prepped 5 minutes earlier. After 5 or 6 questions he started looking to the crowd for questions, he had run out and was desperate for some support. Sadly he was not to be rescued yet. The audience had patently lost interest in this part of the show and were no more engaged by the prospect of getting to talk to this “celebrity”. No-one wanted to ask a question, apart from one bloke who requested “Can we see your slides?” to the delight of the crowd. It got to the point that the surrogate compere actually planted some questions with a few members of the audience in the hope that it would seem a successful, even ongoing part of the show. Disastrously though, with such small numbers in the audience it became clear what he was doing, with only Perez assuming that everything was going swimmingly, not drowning like he was.

Everyone clearly wanted Richard Herring to talk to Perez, optimistic that he would vehemently rip the piss out of him. Replacing him was always going be a tough gig, made all the worse by the failings of the technical team. I ASSUME that they have one but there was no sign of it at all!

Thoroughly disheartened at the night so far and in real need of something entertaining, they then proceeeded to have 4 ”guest” bloggers come on to the stage having apparently won some sort of prize – what was it, to be eaten alive by an angry audience? Clearly no-one in the crowd was interested at this point, especially after the first blogger, physically nervous, read awkward Monkhouse-esque jokes from her phone. Chants of “Herring, Herring, Herring” echoed in the back of my mind….

Luckily 2 of the speakers were at least interesting however; one, Jon Morter, the legendary marketing machine responsible for putting Rage Against the Machine at Christmas number 1, and Trisha Champaneri, a girl whose passion for sport maintained the interest and humour of what was the definition of a ‘tough crowd’.

With hours having passed and disillusioned patrons leaving before the end of the nights proceedings, things were not going well. But wait, next up are Richard Herring and Josie Long! This can only get better surely?! Well yes, technically, but only because the start of the night had been complete s@#t!! What followed was a complete shambles, labelled as a ‘tweet off”. From the outset, I and seemingly everyone else (including the organisers) had very little idea about what this involved. I assumed that this was going to be some kind of mc battle, updated for the technologically minded middle classes. What we got instead was a confused combination of nervous chit chat, mixed in with a few tweets every now and again. And what a surprise, technology was to play another villainous part.

It was obvious immediately that this part of the show had not been tested beforehand. If it had been, the organisers would have soon realised that using only a quarter of the screen to display the 2 twitter pages was entirely ineffectual, making it almost impossible for the audience to see what was going on (especially myopic people in the second row :[ ). Instead it became an absolute necessity for audience members to use their mobile phones to follow what was happening on Twitter, a consequence which obviously lost some of the crowd. Moreover, both Josie and Richard seemed at a loss as to what they were supposed to be doing, tweeting each other or talking to the audience. Most people would struggle to do both effectively, nigh on impossible when you are trying to make people laugh. This resulted in a disastrous, clearly untested techno-fail, readily accepted by both of the comedians:

DialoguefestRH (Richard Herring) – “so I am aware that if we are tweeting we can’t entertain the audience here coz we can’t speak, but if we speak we can’t tweet”  and “this does not work at all”

dialoguefestj (Josie Long) – “PLEASE DON’T TELL THE REST OF THE INTERNET ABOUT THIS GUYS”,  “Why have I done with this with my life?” and “this is purgatory”

It was bitter irony that they both used their Twitter pages to criticise the night whilst they were supposed to be attacking each other. The idea was inevitably doomed from the beginning; in order for the ‘tweet off’ aspect to succeed it was vital for the comedians to direct their attention solely to their Twitter pages, thereby creating a continuous, fluid conversation with each other. However, in doing this they would ignore their audience, in this way obliterating the stand-up aspect. No disrespect to Richard or Josie, they did their very best to entertain a horrendously disheartened crowd, and for what it’s worth they managed to keep us entertained.

To close the night, Richard Herring delivered a thoroughly enjoyable stand-up set. It was a refreshing bout of success on a night where the byword was disaster. Although most of the material was recycled from previous shows (Hitler Moustache / What is Love Anyway?), it was truly delightful to hear him passionately deliver what are very well-written comedy skits. Having seen him twice before, I can easily say that I will never tire of Herring’s comedic talent. He has an obvious skill for comedy writing – he did write for Al Murray’s Pub Landlord though, ouch – and when this is combined with his fluid delivery, his impeccable timing and his natural improv skills he cannot be bettered. He is also great at attacking hecklers, as one Australian female soon found out.

It’s just a shame that he was unforgivably let down by the poor organisation of the event. They were lucky to book such a renowned comedian for such a small-scale gig; I’m sure that won’t be happening again! The biggest irony is that the night, devoted to the use of technology, especially in regards to communication, was let down irrevocably by the tech used in it.

TechnoBabble??  TechnoBollocks.