Most of the television I watch has some sort of soporific purpose, or at the very least is kind of there for passive enjoyment, to help me unwind, to offer mild escapism etc etc. And this is not necessarily a slight on the majority of what I watch. We’re not huge TV-watchers in my household, and generally turn to it towards the end of the evening once work/chores/general cultural stimulation are out of the way/no longer an enjoyable or viable prospect. However, one series is proving a little more thought-provoking – Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
As this clip illustrates, Lee increasingly pulls apart his stand-up routines, becoming ever more self-critical and self-aware, stepping away from the initial narrative to pull apart a punchline or critique a particular train of thought. It starts with otters and estate agents and ends up somewhere very, very different.
The routines are generally challenging, yet ultimately satisfying, for this deconstruction. As an audience, I think we are increasingly aware of the standard tropes, methods and techniques of performance (in this case comedy), and Lee plays on this understanding.
He is lucky in that he has been in stand-up long enough to have built up a strong, loyal following. This material generally benefits from a supportive audience, willing to see where his routine may go. These routines would be a lot different, and perhaps a lot less effective, if they were performed in front of a ‘cold’ audience looking for cheap laughs. It requires patience.
Lee plays on the type of audience he has built up, and attracts. They want to work a little, they want to pick out and appreciate the more obtuse references, and they want to see him picking apart the conventions of stand-up comedy. He plays to a literate, and a comedy-literate audience.
This type of comedy is kind of like comedy with footnotes. Indeed, his recent book is full of them, and dissects his comedy in much the same way his performance does.
This adds a sense of danger that the best stand-up should offer. At any point the routine could completely fall in on itself. Half the fun is in seeing just how far he can probe and push things, whilst still keeping it entertaining. Also, like some of the best stand-up, it has the duality of appearing off-the-cuff, whilst also, on reflection, seeming incredibly controlled, considered and skilful. The pacing and the timing are exquisite, but are pushed to their very limits.
So, why this sort of comedy?
Well, perhaps we, as an audience, are looking for a less linear narrative in storytelling, in whatever genre. We are bombarded by all kinds of sources in our everyday lives. No longer do we experience world events purely through the simplicity of an evening news broadcast or a newspaper report. Our world is a multimedia one, in the broadest sense of the word. We are (or think we are) increasingly media savvy. We can spot a cliché a mile off. We collate and consume multiple sources in coming to our understanding of the world. We need something more complex than a linear story.
Maybe the deconstruction is there because the audience will be desconstructing anyway – it just pre-empts the audience, by acknowledging the ‘act’ and the nuts and bolts that hold it together, before (or as) the audience does. This is also an opportunity for some unexpected laughs – as this is comedy, after all.
Perhaps this form of comedy also reflects (and even indulges and legitimises) our solipsism. It is a self-consciously and deliberately self-absorbed routine. It echoes our self-centred nature, where we constantly deliberate our thoughts and actions, as well as others’ perceptions and conclusions about us. Here is the internal narrative made stand-up routine. By so overtly mirroring the thought patterns of the ‘Me’ Generation (for want of a less horrible and lazy term), perhaps it also challenges that worldview, and illustrates how limited it can be.
Or maybe this is all cod-philosophy and pseudo-intellectualism, and it is just all about otters. Because otters are inherently funny, aren’t they?