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I’ll Give it to You Straight Like a Pear Cider Made from 100% Pear
I’m a big fan of Stewart Lee. Of course I am, he’s a comedic genius. I’ve got just about every radio and TV performance he’s done, including all the DVDs. I’ve been aware of him since at least 1993 when he did (along with his comedy partner, Richard Herring) Fist of Fun on Radio 1, back when Radio 1 was experimenting with comedy at night.
Lee and Herring had already been working on radio for years beforehand, starting with Week Ending, the Radio 4 ‘satire’ show which they’d criticise with “Thank God it’s Satireday” when they wrote for the critically-acclaimed On the Hour. The show would later transfer to TV as the critically-acclaimed The Day Today (although due to a dispute Lee and Herring would not be involved).
Next up they had their own series Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, loosely based on the sort of low-rent nonsense show you’d see on the cheaper specialist US tv channels, changing the name from Leonard Nimoy but keeping the sci-fi background of the presenter. Lionel was played by Tom Baker, giving a wry narration bookending each show with profound philosophy and recollections of his seedy past. It could be claimed that Little Britain copied this idea, even employing the same actor.
Over the years Lee and Herring would get programme after programme on TV and Radio, almost always running for two series per show. Lionel Nimrod, Radio 1 music shows, Fist of Fun on TV and arguably their best work, This Morning with Richard Not Judy.
After the second series ended they went their separate ways, an amicable split. Each took their act to a professional level of stand-up, having already toured as a double act. Stewart Lee achieved national notoriety after the Jerry Springer: The Opera blasphemy debacle, gave up stand-up and became an arts reviewer, before eventually returning to stand up. He’s carved out a niche as ‘the comedian’s comedian’, although he’s a man who gets mixed reviews.
“The worst comedian in Britain. As funny as bubonic plague” – The Sun
“One of the best stand-up gigs I’ve witnessed in over 20 years.’ – Time Out
“He’s the most exciting comedian in the country, bar none” – The Times
“Surly, arrogant, laboured” – The Independent
“Interminable” – The Guardian
“One of the most intelligent and courageous comedians currently at work” – The Observer
‘The cleverest, funniest, most cliché-free comedian on the circuit.’ – Ricky Gervais
So when I got the chance to finally see him live on the 20th June 2009 I snapped it up with fervour. I hadn’t really paid more attention as that was all I needed to know. So I was even more thrilled that Richard Herring was also on the bill. It was a benefit gig with a line-up of comedians to promote the Cardboard Citizens charity which helps to get homeless people into performing arts.
The Hackney Empire is a huge, plush place and was about 1/3rd full when we took our seats. By the time the host, Jarred Christmas came out it was virtually full. He was very funny, particularly biting about his disappointment with Transformers 2 which had just come out.
Also on the bill was Simon Amstell (who I hadn’t known was a stand-up, I just knew him as the pop interviewer from Channel 4) who was also very funny. One of his stories was about him being unlucky in love (due to shyness) and how he tried to seduce a younger man who he thought was being given to him by the guy’s mother. If you can see him, you should.
Richard Herring came on, very funny, mostly about sex (as he seems to do an awful lot of these days) and then the black hole of comedy which is Josie Long. My high levels of buoyancy were then crushed as she did an interminable joke-free set with graphs – graphs! – and her oh-so-hilarious (no, not really) routine of Frankenstein’s monster booking a restaurant table. Worse for me than my companion because I’d heard her do it once before and I knew how poor it was going to be, even as she commenced. Eventually she left, not before time. No really, not.
I think about now there was an intermission. Suddenly the place started to fill up. People started appearing out of nowhere, standing at the back, sitting in the aisles, there was a tangible buzz of excitement. Suddenly I realised that other people were as excited as me about what was about to happen. It all went quiet and Jarred Christmas announced Stewart Lee.
And there he was, right in front of me. My comedy hero. He was real, no longer just a figure on TV.
He was spellbinding. Over the year my memory has faded but I recall a magnificent routine about Richard Hammond being the worst member of Top Gear. An interesting idea. He told a tale about being at school with him, how he protected the younger boy from bullying and the horrible way Hammond had treated him in return. I won’t spoil the punchline here. Months later the newspapers went into a frenzy about this segment
He finished with a long routine about Magner’s Pear Cider. If you’re a fan you know how he’ll relentlessly pick a subject apart until he’s destroyed its edifice, revealing the truth. He was mercilessly funny, finally finishing with a song. The sight of a guitar at the back of the set throughout had filled me with dread, but Stewart (who had previously demonstrated his music abilities on the Simon Munnery radio show, 29 Minutes of Truth) played it well and sang with a soft melancholic voice.
Stewart Lee’s a divisive comedian. You either love him or don’t understand. During his set I was watching the audience’s reaction. It was about 60/40 who got him and who was looking around puzzled. Amusing to see how many people just didn’t understand.
Finally, a surprise for me was Brendon Burns, the Australian comedian. He was the first comedian I’d ever seen live at a comedy club in Exeter many years ago. He was still as funny as ever, but my companion and I had to leave before he’d finished.
Altogether a great night out, despite the vacuum of humour which is Josie Long. If you get the chance to see any of the others, you really should.
I was glad to have witnessed it, but wished I had had a camcorder to record the night. However, a large chunk of Stewart’s act was performed again in front of a Scottish audience on his latest DVD If You Prefer a Milder Comedian…
Please buy it, apart from a dodgy start with a bit of dry ice the DVD is hilarious and is as close as you can get to being there. Buy it, the more they sell the more they’ll make. You won’t regret it.