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Photograph: Global Panorama

Stewart Lee: 41st Best Stand Up Ever!

Fans of stand-up comedy can be forgiven for falling out of love with the art form, as the material and techniques we see often today have been done a thousand times before. While many popular comedians are funny, no joke is as funny the second time you’ve heard it. For those suffering from stand-up fatigue, the kind of comedic saturation that increases each time Netflix releases a new comedy ‘special’ (50+ and counting!), Stewart Lee’s tirelessly self-aware ‘41st Best Stand Up Ever!’ is essential viewing. His lateral thinking, impeccable timing and sheer guts really set him apart from the crowd.

Lee performs with a quiet confidence. His material is potent, and his demeanour even more so. He doesn’t panic when good material fails to get a laugh. His expression barely even changes. Instead, he ridicules the audience for not laughing enough, as if they didn’t get the joke. He deconstructs it, explaining exactly what the punchline means and why it is funny – and through his pithy delivery manages to make this hilarious. Here Lee walks a very dangerous line, always on the verge of patronising the audience so much they stop laughing. Fortunately he never crosses this line, and the sense of danger only adds to the fun. “All I’m saying is, the jokes are there. They’re there. But some of you might have to raise your game…”

This routine works because, by all accounts, it shouldn’t. It seems like a basic tenet of comedy that explaining a punchline takes away the fun. And yet it is in this conventional grey-area where Lee thrives. Just as a naughty schoolkid enjoys disrupting their classroom, Lee and his audience know the rules of comedy well, and delight in breaking them.

Lee takes aim at lazily written observational comedy, which he defines as “when the comedian pretends to have the same life as you”. He parodies the hackneyed routines we’ve all seen before: “women – why do they take so long to get ready??” And then, in a stroke of genius Lee goes a step further. He imagines observational comedy as an insect: “who here has ever killed a grasshopper? You know what I’m talking about”. Of course, nobody can relate, and the observational technique fails miserably. He shows how what’s funny about observational comedy has nothing to do with comedian’s craft, but the people in the audience thinking about their own lives after a little prompting.

It is expected that a comedian will flatter their audience by complimenting the city they’re performing in. Lee does not play this game. He refers to Glasgow as “a city where all emotions are regarded as the same”, and describes the the venue as “a cesspit with lights”. Of course, the Glaswegians in the audience don’t take offense – the joke isn’t at the expense of them, but of comedians who shower their audiences with meaningless compliments.

In many ways, Stewart Lee is an anti-comedian. But this does not mean he is anti-comedy. By bending, breaking and subverting the unspoken rules of comedy Lee manages to be not only funny, but also insightful and refreshing. Without doubt, he deserves the title of 41st Best Stand Up Ever.