Alistair Casey

Stewart Lee is performing at the Corn Exchange this Sunday, and one gets the sense that he enjoys playing a university town. The venue where he will perform Vegetable Stew is one he references in minute detail in his critically acclaimed 2009 TV show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (watch the ‘Rap Singers’ segment – one for YouTube). His meandering and often semi-fictional monologues, generously interspersed with hilarity, will appeal to educated comedy fans who will return to him "every year until [he is] 80" as he puts it, with a chuckle.

Lee began as a stand-up in the days of alternative comedy three decades ago: it is therefore understandable that one of the topics he lists as a possibility for the Cambridge show is "comedy in the `80s", along with the related and now prescient issue of "the Tories". Other topics which he mentions for potential inclusion in the show are, "Adrian Chiles, moving to the country, national identity and charity".

Those familiar with Stewart Lee’s work will be aware of his sharp forensic satires on any given subject; characteristically, the topics he focuses on are esoteric. He devoted nearly 30 minutes in his last touring show to discussing the "tragedy" that the Magners Pear Cider advertising campaign had supposedly wrought on his own family heritage. What is so refreshing is that he subtly mixes the real life experiences and familiar idioms of his Midlands upbringing with ridiculous concepts. Having "Give it to me straight, like a pear cider made from 100% pears" as a family motto is ludicrous, but after hearing him describe his grandfather’s experiences of the Dresden bombings in this context makes for a highly interesting and warm show which also challenges the audience to discern between fact and fiction.

alistair casey

What Stewart Lee wants to do is quite unique in this modern age of bland and unchallenging mass-entertainment which provides audiences with identical experiences. Lee wants to bring reliable, loyal and appreciative crowds to smallish venues and make them laugh, with everyone having a slightly different experience each time. He tells me that in his last show he performed satires of both "crowd-pleasing" Michael McIntyre and "offence-generating" Frankie Boyle material. He is very aware that he is different from other comedians: "I’m not going to be doing that – the axiomatic modes of doing stand-up – I’m going to be doing something else and you are going to have to listen to that." And audiences continue to do so, probably because he can introduce them to his sharply-written and off-the-wall ideas. Stewart says that "if audiences like it they are welcome to come back", turning on its head the notion that the customer, in the case of comedy, is always right. He provides the show – the audience can take it or leave it.

In previous tours Lee has talked about his experiences of saving Richard Hammond from bullies at school (which turn out to be mostly fictional), and his irritation at his mother’s insistence that he, like her favourite comic Tom O’Connor, could be working the cruise ship circuit. Another example of his humour is a uniquely bizarre take on the death of Diana, which he explores with calm, deadpan humour. From this one is given an insight into what Stewart Lee’s time on this earth has been filled with.

Lee talks very fondly about his time studying English Literature at Oxford, saying that he now appreciates, in retrospect, "how often things that [he] read, talked about or was encouraged to think about come up when [he is] writing or performing". His work is a testament to this, with sketches teaming with references to important figures in literature and learning: Samuel Beckett being converted into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, or Chris Moyles’s work being translated into English by William Tyndale. He reflects on whether he would still choose to go to university today: "I am not one of these test cases from some incredibly deprived background, but I am the sort of lower-middle class person that absolutely wouldn’t apply today, take on that debt."

Lee is critical of the Coalition Government’s attitude towards fees and higher education generally, sending a message that it doesn’t value education for its own sake. "Semantically the debate is being fought on the wrong terms; they are winning the argument on practical terms by saying ‘you can’t expect this all to be paid for by the Government’, and there might be something in that. There may be a need for a rethink on how stuff is funded and paid back." He is quick to point out, however, that "what they are missing is the core of it, the emotional centre of it. They can only see what you learn in its future financial value. Many people who have gone on to do great things, and even those who didn’t but had their lives greatly enriched by what they learnt, didn’t go into further education with the view of the financial value of their learning. Like poets or writers. What possible financial value is there in being a poet?" he muses. "The mark of a civilised culture is whether it places a value on knowledge and culture for their own sake, and the Government are saying they don’t."

Like poetry, presumably his style of creative, non-mainstream stand-up is another craft with a low financial value. Sadly, Lee is familiar with making economic sacrifices for his art. With McIntyre-style stadium comedy becoming more ubiquitous by the day, the romantic notion of the impoverished yet creatively uncompromised stand-up may go the way of other dying traditions, memorialised in the museums of the future. It is not yet known how an exhibition like this would be staged; presumably as a waxwork of Mr Lee on stage, mic in hand. Until then, Stewart Lee will be nourishing his fans with his ‘Vegetable Stew’.

Stewart Lee will be performing at the Corn Exchange on Sunday 6th March.

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