“ Underbelly / 56 Cowgate (entrances on Cowgate and Victoria Street) / Edinburgh. 03 Aug 2007 - 27 Aug 2007. „
The advantage of any live performance, from theatre and music to stand-up comedy, is that each event is somehow an individual and unique experience (unless we count the comedy of Peter Kay), the nuances of which will become lost in time but the memories of which can stay with you forever. Now officially proclaimed the 41st Best Stand-Up Ever in a meaningless Channel 4 poll that the comedian prefers to embrace as fact, particularly as many of his friends were placed further down the list, Stewart Lees entire career remains haunted by his mothers relentless repetition of a witty observation made by 1980s gameshow host Tom OConnor on a cruise in the early 1990s, which provides the bitter foundation for Stewarts new show.
There is a lot of maverick anger here, directed towards the general public with their wrong opinions as well as Channel 4, the sponsors of the huge inflatable cow carcass in which this performance takes place this month, largely moving away from the religious topics with which the 41st best comedian and director of Jerry Springer the Opera is more associated. Clearly annoyed by the factual poll that ignores the more obscure comedy of his contemporaries, Stewarts new show seems designed to provoke and annoy any mainstream comedy fans who may be approaching his work for the first time, taking his penchant for endless, irritating repetition and running it further into the ground than ever before. The success of such routines is based on a Fast Show/Little Britain-style anticipation of the coming remark, dissected as far back as the memorable Boy Who Cried Wolf sketch on Lee and Herrings Fist of Fun that refused to embellish the fables events to comic effect in order to produce a comic effect, but unlike some of Stewarts more recent shows the result tends more towards tedium than humour in the end, the accounts of Tom OConnor and Del Boys descent through the bar not standing up to repeated retellings (it was brilliant Stew, he thought there was a bar there, he fell through the bar. He was only acting, there was a crash-mat, but it was brilliant).
Of course, irritation of an audience that doesnt get it is precisely the comics intention, perhaps motivated by the benefit gig he organised earlier in the year for the King of relentless tedium Ted Chippington, but I found it hard to join in with the laughter as the audience members who felt proud to be in on the joke managed to stretch their anticipation beyond all limits to prove they were keeping up. Despite proving disappointing when compared to Stewarts last two shows since his return to stand-up, this is still an enjoyable fifty-five expensive minutes of comedy from one of the worlds leading experts in the field, even if ideas are re-used and improvisation is limited; Stewart has always admitted an admiration for performers like Billy Connolly (and of course, the brilliant observational wit of Tom OConnor) who can ad-lib a different set each night, but he is more comfortable sticking to a rigid structure. The recycling of old ideas continues in this show, which builds on material from as far back as the original Fist of Fun radio show with the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider, but as usual the old joke is given new life and meaning, as well as a new punchline, in the newer environment.
There is a nice degree of honesty in this show, as much as its predecessor which detailed a literally intrusive endoscopy procedure and spiritual revelation, and its nice to see Stewarts new wife and baby son being included in the material, while admitting that his mother is the basis of the show. His explanation for his appearances on panel shows to earn some money are also revealing, embracing the medium less enthusiastically than Mark Watson in his show, and as always its enjoyable to see the self-proclaimed expert on all forms of good entertainment beating Marvel comic fans in the audience by having far too much knowledge of its characters. But primarily, this is Stewart Lees self-confessed downward spiral from fame, designed to provoke and annoy as much as entertain in order to move the performer off the bottom of Channel 4s list and to the top of a non-existent list of artistic integrity and genius compiled by, and known only to Stewart and some of his friends. You want to be popular, and subversive? You want to be admired more for your recent, obscure endeavours than for your more popular television work? You want to replace old, tired catch-phrases with new ones that are exhausted even before the show has ended? You want the moooooooooon on a stick.
41st Best Stand-Up Ever! plays at the E4 Udderbelly in Bristo Square from 1st to 27th August (not 15th) at 7.30pm, lasting fifty-five minutes. Prices are £12.50 to £14.00 (£11.00 to £12.50 concessions).
Next review: Tom Stade Setlist.
Underbelly on Cowgate is the original Underbelly and the thriving home to some of the best talent and bars in town. 'Make a pilgrimage to Underbelly' Scotsman. 'A vertical Glastonbury, every nook filled with bohemian activity' Telegraph. Bars 'til 4am.