Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

Monday, March 16, 2009 by

Not long ago, Stewart Lee was trading on the fact he hadn’t been on TV in a long time.

Though his double act with Richard Herring had a huge following both on television and radio, they disappeared from the nation’s screens at the end of the decade, for reasons that have never been clear – even to the duo themselves – but seemed to involve little more than the personal dislike of a single executive and subsequent reluctance of anyone else to take a chance on them. Indeed, Lee’s most recent live show hinged around the bitterly amusing story of how the cancellation of a planned BBC2 series left him short of work, out of pocket and performing material he wasn’t interested in to an audience who weren’t interested in him… while dressed as a giant insect.

Awning has spoken

Awning has spoken

"The sat-nav is off!"

"The sat-nav is off!"

Ironically, the success of that same show led to renewed interest from BBC2, resulting in a series that has actually made it to air. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, rather like the BBC’s 1970s mainstay Dave Allen at Large, takes the form of lengthy and laconic ruminations on various subjects in front of a live comedy club audience, with short sketches (featuring longtime associates Paul Putner, Kevin Eldon, Michael Redmond and Simon Munnery) acting as surreal and frivolous punchlines.

From the opening sequence of Lee driving his ridiculous ‘Comedy Vehicle’ around in a pastiche of the titles of The Pink Panther Show set to shrill, jaunty music (South African kwela song Tom Hark, most famously a hit for ska band The Piranhas), it’s hard to shake the suspicion this show is a deliberate counterpoint to what has become the norm during his absence from the small screen. Television comedy has changed a good deal in the meantime, with taboo-breaking and an increasing reliance on cutting edge technology and interactivity – something Lee and Herring themselves did much to pioneer – seemingly considered as important as actual jokes.

This show is a step in the absolute opposite direction, albeit one robustly supported by a writer and performer with over two decades of experience and enough time spent away from television to tell what works and what doesn’t. It’s all the better for it.

This first edition tackles the subject of ‘toilet books’, with Lee examining several popular tomes he clearly would not have personally chosen to read, among them the works of Dan Brown and Chris Moyles. All of these are subjected to merciless scrutiny, albeit in a manner that seems more tongue-in-cheek than vindictive. Indeed, there is a fair smattering of inspired silliness throughout – notably a superb visual gag about former Grange Hill star Asher D conducting a drive-by sausage-on-forking – and it could be argued some of the more incisive gags (such as Moyles’ choice of the title The Difficult Second Book) had basically already written themselves.

Some will undoubtedly berate the show for an apparent tendency towards ‘predictable’ targets such as The Da Vinci Code, as recent reviews of his live shows have done with regard to sections on Stuart Maconie and Del Boy Falling Through The Bar. The important detail is Lee has plenty to say on these subjects – much of it both new and extremely funny – and any such criticism is doubtless founded more on a personal jadedness with the subject matter than with any problem with the actual material. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see such familiar subjects tackled with gags that batter their literary construction, factual veracity and underlying political leanings, rather than just scoffing at the number of people reading popular books in public places.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is a much-needed breath of fresh air, presenting material that is both intellectually and ideologically challenging in an upbeat, laid back and easily accessible format. Lee himself has suggested the show was concieved as a ‘liberal’ mirror to Grumpy Old Men, using the same sort of observational approach to frame less reactionary material, and with a bit of luck it may prove just as popular as the rantings of Clarkson, Wakeman and company.

And who knows, maybe it’ll open then door for a couple of other sidelined ’1990s comedians’ who really ought to have been back on the small screen a long time ago…


19 Responses to “Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle”

  1. Tom barnes on March 17th, 2009 3:31 am

    By which you mean Adam and Joe?

  2. Graham Kibble-White on March 17th, 2009 11:02 am

    I rather enjoyed this. Sometimes it *did* seem like the targets were a little old-hat (We know Harry Potter is for kids! We know Dan Brown is shite!) but Lee’s delivery is just so likeable… and the whole rambling thing about ‘rap-singers’ was both boring and excitingly brave.

    It’s series-linked in the KW household!

  3. Louis Barfe on March 17th, 2009 12:34 pm

    In part, it was simply refreshing to hear comedy that attacked the infantile, coarse and trivial nature of a lot of modern ‘culture’, rather than pandering to it and becoming part of it. Mostly, however, it was just incredibly funny. And yes, the ‘rap singer’ bit was very audacious, but not remotely boring from where I was sitting.

  4. Billy on March 17th, 2009 3:31 pm

    I lost concentration during the rap singer bit and missed the joke

  5. Dave on March 18th, 2009 12:57 am

    It was the measured delivery that really made it stand out. In amongst the wall-to-wall shrill “love me! love me!” comedy it shone as an oasis of wry observation.

    God it’s good to have him back on ‘telly…

  6. Amy on March 18th, 2009 3:16 am

    I loved the rapper tangent, too, as well as the long bit where Chris Moyles’ friends react to news that he’s writing a book. Lee is a very confident comedian and deserves this show!

  7. TC Raymond on March 18th, 2009 7:24 am

    Attacking poor Moylesy Poylesy was rotund, and long-winded. Ultimately I bamlem Jack Bauer. I love ham pizza and a movie actress.

  8. Colin on March 18th, 2009 9:22 pm

    The joke about the rapper almost lost me but when I worked out the whole thing was to underscore the line ‘this book wasn’t really aimed at me’ all I could think was, ‘Genius at work here’…..brilliant. I would rather see him standing there and talking to a camera……quite possibly indefinitely…….excellent.

  9. Alex Gray on March 22nd, 2009 4:06 pm


    “…Lee examining several popular tomes he clearly would not have personally chosen to read, among them the works of Dan Brown and Chris Moyles …it’s quite refreshing to see such familiar subjects tackled with gags that batter their literary construction, factual veracity and underlying political leanings, rather than just scoffing at the number of people reading popular books in public places.”

    What the blazes are you on about? Apart from Asher D’s book, he appeared to have read the first page of Chris Moyles’ “Difficult Second Book” and there was no evidence that he had read anything at all of the others he mentioned (Clarkson, Brand, Brown, Rowling). As for “battering their literary construction, factual veracity and underlying political leanings”, that’s guff. Brown’s literary construction lends itself to being battered (he writes as if his prose is converted from stage directions), but Lee just made up a line. A funny line, yes, but that doesn’t make it intelligent criticism. It just makes it a sneery one-liner from a comedian who didn’t bother to research his material. He didn’t actually refer to the content of “My Booky Wook” (I haven’t read it either, but then I’m not the one claiming intellectual superiority by dismissing it purely on the basis of its title) or the Harry Potter series… or the Clarkson books. That just leaves the Asher D book (which he did seem to have read, and on which subject he actually was quite intelligent and funny – though the sausage-on-fork thing was a rather embarrassing lapse into reference-in-place-of-actual-joke) and the Chris Moyles book. What does Lee attack Moyles for? Not his literary construction, not his factual veracity, not his underlying political leanings, but… knowing and admitting to his own limitations.

    I don’t buy this theory that Lee’s rant is any less reactionary than those of the Grumpy Old Men. It’s sneering, posturing, made from a position of ignorance, aiming at easy targets… and missing them. He really has become a lazy comedy slag.

  10. Rob Williams on March 23rd, 2009 2:27 pm

    And what’s Russell Brand then? His Ponderland is just based on getting tired local news clips and such and commenting that something ‘funny’ will come because of them. Stewart Lee might not be trendy, but his experience counts for a refreshing type of comedy show where it isn’t the star but the subject shines through. Its time the chance was given to other 90′s comedians to take their place at the top table, step forward Adam and Joe plus Mel and Sue…

  11. Nick H on March 23rd, 2009 10:27 pm

    He’s obviously not a fan of slapstick, then…

  12. Samson J Thomas on March 24th, 2009 12:00 pm

    Alex Gray, you’re quite a rude man aren’t you?

  13. Ben on March 24th, 2009 1:04 pm

    “I’m not the one claiming intellectual superiority”

    Happy enough to wave your willy about on a public comment board though, eh? A review is subjective. Go write your own if it bothers you that much.

  14. Graham Kibble-White on March 27th, 2009 10:23 am

    Shame the second episode – which I only looked at this morning – was so poor. Del Boy, falling through the bar? When was this recorded? 1999? Hey Stu, how about taking a pop at the trend for wobby cameras, these talking head clip shows and the dominance of The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire while you’re at it?

  15. Graham Kibble-White on March 27th, 2009 2:07 pm

    Oh, TJ, this review is being quoted in today’s Independent!

  16. Chris Jones on April 10th, 2009 11:37 pm


    Don’t know why you referenced 1999 in the reply. Oh, I see, it was so you could make your own ‘lazy comedy slag’ reference to ‘The link’ and ‘Who wants to be a’.

    The Del boy bit wasn’t talking about the clip itself, but the 100′s of Andrew Collins style clip shows that champion it.

  17. Jim Blim on April 22nd, 2009 7:07 pm

    Stewart Lee is a talented comedian but his targets in this series have been weak and his tendancy to repeat to camera to add emphasis wore thin after the fourth or fitfh time. Wore thin. After the fourth or fifth time. I have no doubt that he has better material to offer and although it’s good to see him on BBC2 I feel he’d be better suited to BBC4 where he could let rip more a la Charlie Brooker.

    Talking of which. I think Mr Brooker could have one good major channel series in him before being banished from the beeb. How about a return for Chris Morris or Victor Lewis Smith? Oh nostalgia!

  18. Colin on May 16th, 2009 3:31 pm

    I watched all the episodes and enjoyed them, I laughed out loud some of the time and cringed a couple of times, the sketch about the apples (on and on and on….). I also felt that I may not have been at the correct academic level to quite get what was going on here…..was he deconstructing the comedy format/joke or trying to subvert the TV comedian format……over all loved the stand up but didn’t much like the sketches….apart from the channel 4/5 sewage sketches… comedian great live but a little too intelligent perhaps for the masses……?

  19. Cameron Borland on December 31st, 2009 5:30 pm

    Lee is, without doubt, a charm free vacuum who has bathed in a bath of shit. Emotionally unintelligent and intellectually retarded, he offers up a form of comedy that is both visually appalling and aurally disingenuos. A twat in other words. Top marks to him for foisting this crap and people buying it.