On Stewart Lee and the art of stand-up comedy

In the last week or two, I’ve become obsessed by the comedy of Stewart Lee. He’s an English stand-up comedian, originally famous as half of the Lee and Herring duo in the 1990s, making Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy for television. His career has taken a lot of twists and turns since then, but in the last few years he’s emerged as a unique voice with a series of shows that don’t really resemble anything else I’ve seen.


His stated goal is an unusual one for a comedian:

Within a few years these “jokes” as we comedians call them, will have been entirely purged from my work in favour, exclusively, of grinding repetition, embarrassing silence and passive-aggressive monotony.

He refers to this process as “refining my audience”.

This may not seem like good way to sell a comedy act. Yet the result is, I think, the funniest act I’ve ever seen. Many times in the last week, I’ve spontaneously burst out laughing in the middle of a supermarket aisle or while cooking or something, when I happen to remember a particularly surprising part of a Lee routine. I’ve watched the same routines repeatedly: they have a re-watch value that I’ve not previously seen in comedy, and which reminds me more of good music.

“Sounds great, Mike, where can I see some?”, I hear you ask. Well, hypothetical interlocutor, it’s not quite as simple as that. There are lots of clips on YouTube, but it’s in the nature of a Lee routine that it builds into a coherent whole through the full 30 or 90 minutes, so that decontextualising any part of it robs it of much of its significance. That said, a decent shortish introduction would be this eleven-minute routine which seems to be about American attitudes to the death of Osama Bin Laden.


So my point is that you should all rush out and buy Stewart Lee DVDs — you’ll thank me. I’d especially recommend the second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (six half-hour sets), and his two most recent full-length shows If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One and Carpet Remnant World.

Except …

And stop me if you’ve heard this before

You can’t buy these DVDs in America. Or, at least, you can at great expense get imports, but they’re region-2 encoded, so won’t play on legal American hardware.

And I have to ask once more, whose benefit is this for? Being the huge Stewart Lee fan that I am, and having a lot of American friends, it’s a dead cert that I would by now have bought multiple DVDs as gifts for my friends in the States. I want to know how Lee or his distributors benefit from the unavailability of his work outside of Europe.

In the mean time, the only recommendation I can make to my American friends is that you go and download Lee’s shows from The Pirate Bay.

But really.

Come on.

13 responses to “On Stewart Lee and the art of stand-up comedy

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  2. One exception would be his work recorded for Go Faster Stripe – ironically when Comedy Central and the BBC weren’t interested in doing anything with him.


    I’ve no idea why they didn’t just do the UK DVDs as region-free but I expect it is the usual thing of some higher-up corporate policy that means that someone in the US holds the rights – probably as some bulk deal – but isn’t interesting in exercising them.

    I’ve had a look on Amazon.com and the transcripts of the shows are available on Kindle – and they’re worth reading because the foot-notes are almost as long and almost as funny. (And he acknowledges ripping off techniques from music, like repeating a mistake so that it becomes a riff).

    Like you, I’ve not been able to warm to Richard Herring in the same way, but I do really enjoy Simon Munnery (who Lee has used as support, and credits with having stolen a couple of jokes for Comedy Vehicle – Lee having worked on Munnery’s own earlier shows). His ‘Attention Scum’ series never made it onto official DVD – although unofficial ones are easily acquired. There’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t quite work – you can see why it never really crossed over – but it’s balanced by some great stuff, and of course Lee was a writer on the show.

  3. Thanks for the GFS pointer — I’ve now bought, downloaded and listened to Pea Green Boat.

    I’ve very familiar with How I Escaped My Certain Fate. It was my introduction to Lee — I read it before I’d ever seen or heard any of his performance. I’ve now read all of it twice and parts three times. It has extraordinary re-read value.

    I want to like Simon Munnery, but having watched the first episode of Attention Scum I am not optimistic.

  4. The ‘problem’ with Attention Scum is that the quality is so variable – there’s ongoing clips from what is essentially a single stand-up routine being delivered at different locations – stretched out over 6 episodes with a load of weaker sketches inbetween (Kombat Opera, 24 Hour News man).
    Almost as if 60 minutes of material had been stretched out over 6 episodes.

    The GFS DVD has a straight stand-up performance – but it’s a bit of commitment on trust (I’d seen him live a few times, once as Lee’s support).

    Don’t know if you’ve noticed Lee’s got a regular newspaper column at the moment??


  5. I’ll give Attention Scum another go, but I have to admit I am enjoying This Morning With Richard Not Judy much more, juvenile though it is. But Lee’s recent solo standup is in a different league.

  6. I’d give it a miss, maybe take a chance on ‘Hello’ from GFS which is live.

    He was an early 80s games programmer too.

  7. Yes; but he was Spectrum, and I was VIC-20/C64, so we are natural enemies.

  8. JFI: I watched episode 2 of Attention Scum last night, in the hope that it would click for me. It didn’t: I laughed once in half an hour, and even that was really just a “huh!”.

  9. The 2 DVD set is available at US Amazon for about $11 + shipping. Apparently some folks are doing arbitrage. Also, how many people still have DVD players? Even with region encoding, you can always use VLC to watch or rip the video with Handbrake. After all, who even has a PC with a DVD drive in it anymore?

  10. The 2 DVD set is available at US Amazon for about $11 + shipping. Apparently some folks are doing arbitrage.

    Interesting, that’s new.

    Also, how many people still have DVD players?

    The particular friend I want to buy for, for one.

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