When Stewart Lee was on TV a lot with Richard Herring in the 90s I quite liked him, mainly because I thought he had a nice line in self-mockery. He’d often do this character who came across like a self-righteous grad student, an arrogant prick who thought he was an intellectual and had the answer to everything in life, when really he had a simplistic and slightly boorish view of the world. It was clear that Lee himself was quite like that, and I thought that it was very self-aware of him to be able to take the piss out of that aspect of himself, even though he was also giving it full rein.
Then he stopped being on TV all the time, so I’d only catch him occasionally, which meant that it was quite noticeable that he was getting much less funny over time. I also started to realise that this smug, know-it all character that I thought Lee was doing wasn’t a character at all … it was just him. The humour wasn’t supposed to be in laughing at this character, the humour was supposed to be in the outspoken, iconoclastic things that Lee himself was saying. Except that they weren’t funny. They were just the sort of things I’d heard grad students in their twenties saying for years. (Hell, even I used to say some of that stuff.) It was like we were supposed to take Rik from the Young Ones seriously, rather than laughing at him.
(Possibly it really was a character, at least partly, because I have read that Lee likes to play around with personas, but it’s noticeable that this character seems to be very much like the real Stewart Lee, judging by the articles of his that I have read over the years.)
I saw him live in the 2000s at a comedy club, and it was clear that he was on the same quasi-religious journey that so many other comics were starting at the time, a journey that is now starting to reach its destination. The aim is to do away with the requirement to be funny, and be able to just preach at the audience about how you think the world should be. In fact, I remember Lee once saying that comedy is just a means of getting his views across, and he didn’t have any great interest in comedy per se. We don’t have a generation of comics, we have a generation of vicars. Lee has the condescending tone down pat, not to mention that weird village-idiot I-ve-just-done-a-poo-in-my-nappies smile he always puts on.
Then there was the cringe-worthy TV show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, which was dire. But worst of all are his newspaper columns. His TV show got close to being unwatchable, but his columns are definitely unreadable. I had to force myself to finish this latest one, which features student newspaper-level paragraphs such as this one:
Does Clarkson gaze at Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-the-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-Frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Dog-Whistle Get-Stuffed FactcheckUK@CCHQ 88%-lies Get-Brexit-Done Johnson and wonder why he isn’t prime minister?
Does this sound like a man on top of his comic writing game after decades spent honing it, or a man who is regressing back to his student days? Forget second childhood, what our comics are going through is a second undergraduate period.
Update: James Delingpole has also torn into Stewart Lee over his awful column.