Posted by: George | June 9, 2016

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

I am binging and re-binging on Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, now streamable on Netflix.

This is not just a stand-up routine. It is a series, written and performed by Steward Lee, the forty-first best all time comedian in the UK, with six episodes available, each of which focused on a theme, like immigration.

It is more social commentary than jokes, with an occasional joke, thrown in, not for laughs, but to make a point. After one joke-based sequence, Lee turns to the camera and says, “You see, I can write jokes. I just choose not to.”

It is also comedy with layers of meta-text. Lee frequently interrupts a sequence by looking to the camera and commenting on his routine. His stage performance is also interrupted with scenes from him being interviewed by a reporter, who sometimes sound more like an aggressive therapist.

The whole package is brilliant, as the Brits say. And I mean brilliant in both senses of the word.

The series is brilliant because it is wickedly smart. So, it is brilliant in this sense, even if this pronouncement is made by a non-Brit, even an American, the most un-Brit of non-Brits.

It is also brilliant in the sense that Brits use the word, to mean something like wonderful or fabulous or magical, but really more than all that, more the essence of all things good, like you have taken the British Empire at its broadest expanse and condensed it into a singularity that you just happen to call, yes, that word—brilliant.

As a bit of a teaser, without crossing over into being a spoiler, let me give you a sense of what you might expect. The “England” episode begins with one of the interview interludes:

Reporter: “This series only came about because some craven idiot at the BBC was impressed with an award you’d won. It’s pretty ridiculous . . .”

Lee: “Well, I’ve lost my way. . . . I don’t know who I’m supposed to be anymore. I’m a person who sits every night and looks at a mantle piece literally creaking with awards, and yet every single one of those awards is like a vampire bat sucking all the energy out of me.”

Reporter: “It’s kryptonite isn’t it.”

Lee: “Yea.”

Reporter: “And I suppose it looks now like you’re thrashing about, desperately trying to prove that you have an identity. You have hordes of writers on the show, and you don’t seem able to summon a thought . . .

Lee: “My only hope is that the final moments of this aspiring talent have been captured and that, in itself, will be entertaining in some way, like you’re watching an animal expire after its throat has been slit.”

Reporter: “A sort of snuff . . .”

Lee: “Snuff comedy. Yea. Yea. Let’s watch the talent and purpose ebb away from this character. Maybe there’s something comical about that. I don’t know.”

Before Lee launches into his parody of British anti-immigrant politicians, in particular, Paul Nuttail of the UK Independent Party, or UKIP (who once said, as if he were addressing Bulgarians for their own good, “You need to ensure that your brightest stay and make your own country economically prosperous instead of coming to the UK to serve tea and coffee”), he offers a parody of himself and his entire show. Satire wrapped in satire.

Here is how Lee begins his assault on Paul Nuttail of the UKIP:

He’s very worried about all these Bulgarians coming over, and he said in July, ‘Bulgarians need to make sure that their best and brightest stay in Bulgaria and make it economically prosperous instead of coming to the UK to serve tea and coffee.’ That’s all well and good for Paul Nuttail who lives in Liverpool, but I live in London, and what I want to know is how am I supposed to get cheap tea and coffee unless there is a massively over qualified Eastern European philosophy professor prepared to make it for me for significantly less than the living wage? Selfish, selfish Paul Nuttail of the UKIP. Paul Nuttail of the UKIP is truly concerned for the economic prosperity of Bulgaria, I don’t doubt it for a minute, but that is threatening my access to cheap hot beverages in the central London area and what I say to Paul Nuttail of the UKIP from Liverpool is this, ‘Paul Nuttail, of UKIP, from Liverpool, abandon your parliamentary hopes and your dreams of London and stay in Liverpool where you belong, for you are clearly the best and brightest that Liverpool has to offer. So stay in Liverpool and concentrate on making Liverpool economically prosperous, and not just by climbing over the hotel bathroom cubical and stealing people’s coats, either. But how to make Liverpool economically prosperous? If only there were some way for Liverpudlians to make a profit from going on and on about the past in a whinny voice.

Then, Lee launches into a brilliant (either sense of the word works here also) example of reductio ad absurdum:

But the UKIPs seem to object to the Bulgarians on the grounds that they are skilled, which is a whole new angle to the anti-immigration debate. Here they are, coming over here with their skills. . . . We’ve seen it all before haven’t we? We’ve seen, ten years ago, with the Poles, the bloody Poles, coming over here, they always come over here and they’re all Polish, coming over here and mending everything, fixing all the stuff we’ve broken, too illiterate to read the instructions for, and they fix it better than us in a second language. Bloody Poles. When I was a kid, forty, forty-five years ago, it was the Indians, wasn’t it? And the Indians, Pakistanis and Indians, coming over here, inventing us a national cuisine. Before that, in the sixteen-century, it was the Huguenots, the bloody Huguenots, coming over here from medieval France, religious heretics, coming over here, doubting transubstantiation. Bloody French Huguenots coming over here questioning the Eucharistic symbolism with their feigned ability to weave little jerkins out of lace. We don’t want your lace here. We’ve got corduroy. My name’s Paul Nuttail of the UKIP and I say that we need to ensure the best and brightest Huguenots stay in medieval France and concentrate on revising its relationship with the Eucharistic tradition instead of coming over here to the UK and teaching us to make hats out of lace instead of coming over here to the UK and teaching us to make hats out of lace. And before them in the fifth century, it was the Anglo-Saxons, wasn’t it? Bloody Anglo-Saxons. . . .

It doesn’t end here. Lee keeps adding levels of the absurd, wrapping satire in satire. It’s all, the entire series, worth watching more than once.



  1. Stewart Lee is indeed Brilliant. It’s awesome to see that his show has crossed the pond.


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