Because of a cancelled flight, I have a very rare evening of solitude (sitting around in an airport hotel) with no immediate demands on my time. Being an enormous fan of Stewart Lee, I took the opportunity to watch Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote the words for (along with composer Richard Thomas).
Well, that was two hours wasted.
First, it’s just really boring. Everything takes twice as long as it ought to, because every line of every song contains repeated words, or is itself repeated, or has individual syllables dragged out over multiple lines. So we have endless lyrics like:
One day you’re seventeen, seventeen, seventeen,
Then, just before you’re eighteen, eighteen,
You realise you’re fifty-six!
Slice off some of that flab, and this bloated two-hour show could run a tidy sixty minutes with no loss of material.
Which would be good, because then the show would only be a waste of one hour. And a single laugh in one hour is better than a single laugh in two hours.
Then there is the sheer nastiness of the show. You would think that someone making a musical about Jerry Springer would have something to actually say about the freak-show mentality that keeps Springer afloat — that having something to say would be the reason to have written the show in the first place. But no. The first half of JS:TO essentially is a Springer episode — gawping at losers. And the second half, which I hoped would cleverly distort the situations to comment on what we’d seen, just had nothing to say.
The attempt at profundity at the end is wince-inducing, and was done better and more efficiently fourteen years earlier in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where “Be excellent to each other” gets the job done in five words rather than what felt like fifteen drawn-out minutes.
I wouldn’t even be bothering with this review — I wouldn’t have bothered watching the last three-quarters of JS:TO — were it not for Stewart Lee’s involvement. It was because of him that I expected wit and insight (you can find both in abundance in his Carpet Remnant World); and because of his involvement that I’m so desperately disappointed.
It also casts one of his other works into a lesser light. As I’ve noted before, my first experience of Stewart Lee was his excellent book How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Quite a hefty section of that book is taken up by an account of his persecution by a small segment of evangelical Christians who were offended by JS:TO; and by Lee’s eloquent defence of the show. Having finally seen it, that defence is rendered fatuous and his complaints vacuous. In fact, he set out to make as offensive a show as he could, succeeded, and then complained when people were offended.
I wonder what Lee would say about JS:TO now, with the distance of a decade. I wonder whether he’d recognise that he attracted precisely the kind of attention he courted, that he reaped exactly what he sowed? I’d like to think so. Because from my current perspective, the sections about it in his book now read like adolescent It’s-Not-Fair whining.
Oh well. Series 3 of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle should be on BBC2 soon — the final cuts of all six episodes have been delivered to the BBC — and that will be marvellous. (I base that on the two previous series, and on having seen him honing some of the Series 3 material live in Cheltenham a few months back.)
If Jerry Springer: The Opera demonstrates one thing, it’s that stand-up is Stewart Lee’s natural medium.