Review: The Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle 1×1

Sarcasm perfected

In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, BBC2

Some say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Oh, like they’d know.

They’re wrong of course: the lowest form of wit is punning, and if they’d watched Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on Monday they’d have realised they’re wrong, too. Because Stewart Lee has perfected sarcasm.

Officially, the 41st best stand-up in Britain, Lee – for slightly old-timers like me – is one of the man-gods of comedy: he’s one of the original creators of Alan Partridge and the writer of Jerry Springer: The Opera and one of my favourite ever radio comedy shows, Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World (now being repeated on BBC7), among other things. 

So it should be no surprise that the credits of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle read like a who’s who of comedy greats, given he’s worked with just about everyone worth mentioning in the business already: guest-starring Kevin Eldon, produced by Armando Iannucci, guest starring and two jokes written by Simon Munnery and – wow – script-edited by Chris Morris.

Despite that, the show’s actually quite traditional: Lee essentially does a half-hour stand-up routine, interspersed with the occasionally sketch to illustrate his point. He’s done it before in shows like Fist of Fun, so why not do it again, particularly when he’s so good at it? Indeed, you can spot influences from other shows all over the place, from the name (hints of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product) to the comedy vehicle Lee drives in the credits and some of the sketches (Simon Munnery’s Transit van in Attention Scum!).

But the show itself is all Lee. Lee’s style is to take something he finds ridiculous and stupid and to relentlessly pick holes in it through rigorous analysis, each word carefully considered for maximum comic potential. We are, after all, talking about a man who analysed the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ with Venn diagrams.

The target for Monday night’s analysis was ‘toilet books’ – books whose one ambition is to be read by someone on the toilet. Chief recipient of the abuse was Chris Moyles’ auto-biography. Lee was able to spin whole routines out of single lines of the book, mocking, for example, the lack of human curiosity exhibited by Moyles’ pals demonstrated by: ‘When I told my friends I was writing a book, some of them asked me what it was about.’

It was a little ‘grumpy old man’ of Lee but funny all the same, particularly when he went on to one of So Solid Crew’s books, helpfully illustrated by pictures of the author wearing various hats, and pointed out that "Yes, I am disrespecting you. I am disrespecting you to the max."

There were a couple of moments that didn’t work: the sketches were largely superfluous, merely illustrating points Lee had already made, rather than adding anything, and the Irish writers sketch was poor; and there was an overly-long segment in which Lee laboriously pretended he didn’t know what rappers are, by claiming over and over that they’re the guys that hang around the back of the car park, playing on the disabled ramp, purely for the slight pay-off of a punchline "Now, clearly this book isn’t aimed at me."

But other than that, this was intelligent, funny stuff that actually makes you think and stays with you afterwards, which is more than can be said for Horne & Corden.

Here’s a YouTube trailer, followed by the episode itself:

  • YES, YES! I totally agree on what did and did not work – I loved that he was playing the intellectual card (I especially liked the bit about you’d be stupider if you read all the books now in print, whereas in the 18th century that was an edifying achievement). And the rapper bit was rather… meandering… I got that it was kinda slowed down repetition like rap does but man… it dragged…

  • There are two kinds of people: those who agree with me instantly and those who take time to agree with me. Congratulations on being in the first group!

  • nick s

    The “rap singers” bit is stand-up at its purest: Stew’s clearly testing the limits of the audience, seeing how far it’s prepared to go with him on a ramble, and the offhand delivery of the payoff makes it work more than a splashy punchline. It’s the kind of thing that rarely makes it onto television, other than live concert footage.
    And I’m not sure I’m going to be able to listen to certain R4 comedies again without listening for that rise and fall in pitch.

  • pxpl

    As obvious as this seems to me now… I just figured out the other day that I can get I-player’s for most channels through the ps3 web browser (hooray argos catelogue skyplus for free!) so i watched episode 2 of Stewart Lee on the weekend and i was a bit disapointed.
    I normally enjoy Stewart Lee ( ilove his anti-Braveheart rant) but I found the repetitive nature of the show to be rather hard work it was like three gags stretched out over the course of 30 minutes (I mean do we need the sketches re-inacting the angry sentance the man has said about ten times before hand!)
    Yes Stewart watching Channel 4 is like allowing sewage to flood your front room. It was midly amusing the first time you said it… demonstrating this twice in sketch form less so AND if I ever hear you say “Del Boy falling through the bar and Trigger pulling a funny face” I think my brain will burst with frustration.
    Maybe I was just too hungover to deal with extreme repetition.

  • MediumRob

    Episode two was pretty bad, I agree. Which is sad. I’m hoping episode three is going to be better. Fingers crossed!