STEWART LEE / TONY LAW, 26TH NOVEMBER 2009, OXFORD REGAL
Would the cavernous Regal have been booked for Lee's new stand-up show - If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One - on the strength of his BBC2 series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, perchance? I rather think it would.
It being a late November evening, the auditorium isn't exactly warm, and it's an equally cool response that greets support act Tony Law. You sense he's already lost people when he begins by pondering why it only seems to be wolves who raise abandoned children ("Why is it that no other animals step up to the plate?"), and the acoustics and frequent accent switching don't help his cause.
For a comic widely renowned for having a dazzlingly offbeat mind, his material strays surprisingly (and disappointingly, for my liking) close to the sort you might be subjected to on a work night out at Jongleurs - the cheap mockery of South Africans and didjeridoo-playing trustafarian students, an expression of bafflement at the experience of eating in Nandos.
But there are flashes of something more interesting - the whirling surrealism of the segment about his penchant for tapping goats and griffins, for starters - and when he says he loves playing with Lee because he attracts all the town's liberals and that "We had all 580 of them in Portsmouth" I know what he means (as well as knowing at least two of said south coast liberals).
Ignore Stewart Lee's sardonic comments about the success of his Comedy Vehicle. That's just part of the self-deprecating comic persona which has this new show advertised on his website with a critic's comment "His whole tone is one of complete, smug condescension" and which sees him arrive onstage to flashing lights and loud intro music ("the entrance for a younger man") before starting off by talking about a visit to Caffe Nero. Despite professions to the contrary, there's no doubt that his long-awaited return to what he's referred to as the "idiot lantern" gave him exposure to a wider audience (while also probably helping some put a face to the much reviled name of the man behind Jerry Springer: The Opera).
If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One - no doubt many people's introduction to the live Lee experience - is classically constructed. From humble beginnings (the mundanity of that trip to Caffe Nero, fodder for the unimaginative observational comic), the show spirals smartly through a sequence of routines - reflections on what the phrase "quality of life" really means and the desirability of "visible otters" when buying a house; ruminations on Frankie Boyle's claim that comedians lose their anger and edge once they hit 40 (a claim to which Lee naturally gives the lie) - before climaxing not once but twice.
Much has been made of the most notorious segment of the show, an extended anti-Top Gear rant which finds Lee imagining in absurdly graphic detail Richard Hammond's death in that car crash and which has had the Daily Mail predictably fleck-mouthed in response. As ever, though, he's not being gratuitously offensive for its own sake (unlike, say, Boyle or Jimmy Carr), but rather making a forceful point about the show's hypocritical justification of its crassness as a supposedly noble assault on "political correctness gone mad". And his suggestion that Hammond's survivor's story On The Edge should have been published by BBC World rather than Weidenfeld & Nicolson because the license-payer funded the crash and so should reap the financial rewards is one of the show's most brilliantly acid observations.
As I've said on this site many times before, Lee's particular comic modus operandi is to lay bare the art of construction, offering not so much a running commentary on what he's doing as a guided tour of the backstage - pulleys, levers, trapdoors and all. In a recent Guardian piece previewing the show's six-week run at the Leicester Square theatre, Sean O'Hagan astutely described one routine from 2007's 41st Best Stand-Up Comedian Ever! as a "tightrope walk" - but that could apply equally to either of this show's climaxes.
First he takes a simple ad slogan and - through characteristic single-mindedness and relentlessness and a compulsion to break all the "rules" of stand-up (staying silent, dropping the microphone to the floor, leaving the stage, relying on nothing but his own projected voice in an aircraft hangar of a venue) - crafts a devastating (and devastatingly funny, it should be noted) assault on the misappropriation of art, culture and language.
And then, to illustrate his point that the "last taboo" in stand-up isn't jokes about this or that subject but "doing something sincerely and well", he sets out to reclaim Steve Earle's 'Galway Girl' from the ad men by delivering his own performance of the song. With Lee there's always the feeling of being dragged out of the cosy comfort zone, but now the sense of awkwardness is palpable, the tightrope frayed thinner and the weight of expectation of disaster possibly heavier than ever before. But he makes it to the other side - and in some style - and we rise in unison to applaud.
A milder comedian? No thanks - Stewart Lee'll do just nicely.