Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle has long been the only TV stand-up show worth watching. In this week’s episode (Series 4, Episode 5), it reached a new peak of brilliance.
The episode, entitled ‘Migrants’, is the first time that television has managed to truly capture the essence of live stand-up. Today’s endless panel shows reduce skilled comedians to Christmas crackers competing to go ‘bang’ first, and Live at the Apollo airbrushes stand-up so that it’s bland enough for the simple palette of a TV audience. Lee manages to do the exact opposite, and the chaotic result is probably the best episode of Comedy Vehicle to date. It’s even better than the ‘Del boy falling through a bar’ episode which has, ironically, become a fan favourite.
Comedy Vehicle has always been a stand-out stand-up show, and Lee has always used deconstruction and self-sabotage to create a unique program which plays with the conventions of television and comedy alike. He regularly comments on the audience’s responses and his own aversion to writing jokes, but Thursday’s episode felt like it went one step further. Lee has spent three series pushing the boundaries, nudging the BBC further and further out of its comfort zone, buoyed along by critical acclaim, until he finally appears to be free to do as he pleases.
The spontaneity of live performance is often missing from TV stand-up. Many shows try and solve this by introducing a bit of audience interaction, but it’s usually fairly limp and the audience member in question has probably had to pass an entrance exam, CRB check, and full cavity search. Early on in the show, when a camera isn’t in the right position for Lee to address it, he doesn’t decide to restart the bit, he gleefully leaps on the opportunity to digress. As the cameraman hurries back around to the side of the stage, we’re treated to a first person view of Lee telling him “nah, it’s too late now mate.” And from that moment onwards, Lee hasn’t just broken the fourth wall, it’s as if it was never there. He is the first open-plan TV comedian.
He tjem launches into a wonderfully grotesque description of a Staffordshire Bull terrier jumping up to reveal its penis, which is reminiscent of the ‘vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ’ routine from 90s Comedian. TV’s standard ‘shock-comics’ pale in comparison to his artfully hideous imagery. This repetition is a trademark feature of Lee’s style, building to a crescendo of ridiculousness. Even a woman on the front row accidentally smashing her glass isn’t enough to break his flow. While he would usually take this as an opportunity to pause his routine to criticize the audience, he seamlessly integrates it into his narrative. He’s apparently allowed to not be precious about his material. He’s completely malleable, adapting to the atmosphere of the room and the audience’s actions. While this seems like a key skill for a comedian, it’s something that rarely translates to screen. He is free to play.
The ending is magnificent. Lee begins another repetition-laden routine and, just when the audience think that they know how he works, he surprises them once more. The sheer audacity of a man ending a TV show with seven minutes of an impersonation of a Sunday Times columnist eating a poppadom is a breathtaking middle finger to convention and expectation.
In the interrogation scenes that divide up the series, Chris Morris perfectly sums up the episode “the worse it gets, the better it gets”. That’s what TV producers need to realise: whether it’s Stewart Lee or Russell Howard, for stand-up to be truly great, it needs a real audience, real interruptions, real improvisation, and real failure.
Click here to read my review of ‘A Room with a Stew.’
Click here to read my interview with Stewart Lee.
Click here to find out why you should read his book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate.’