Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

Tony Allen spends 2000 words discussing his favourite piece of television comedy.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is one of those shows that improves with repeat viewings and I have been giving YouTube and the BBC iPlayer facility a right bashing lately, watching and re-watching each of the six episodes.

While I liked Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle Numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 and watched them all several times, they bear no comparison with Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle No 2, which I have watched countless times. Everyone who comes round my flat has to watch it, and express an opinion on it, before I will allow them talk about anything else.

The reason for my obsession is that I am determined to discover what it is that makes me laugh so much, given the fact that I profoundly disagree with the premises upon which so much of the comedy is seemingly based. Where to start?

The format of the show is a recording of Lee’s live stand-up act in front of a studio audience interspersed with pre-recorded sketches.

I have always liked his stand-up; I applaud his playful experiments with form and content, even if they don’t always work. One familiar motif that permeates all of his stand-up is a seemingly improvised verbal doodling - pedantic variations of a set up in search of a punchline; a parody of conversational slack where ‘good old days’ nostalgia is a tool of prejudice. What appeals is the almost hypnotic repetition laced with a knowing devilment, this shameless honesty about the hit and miss nature of what he’s doing, offers an insight into his creative process.

The sketch component is similarly adventurous and doesn’t always involve Lee himself. A small rep company of top quality (if little known) comedy performers (notably the under-rated Kevin Eldon) provide the core team, with occasional appearances by eccentric performers from the fringes of entertainment being used in one-off esoteric in-jokes.

One of the recurring sketches starts off with a one-line simile from the stand-up – “watching Channel 4 is like volunteering for a deluge of raw effluence to be poured into your living room” - a couple are sat on a sofa in front of the telly, they are channel hopping looking for something to watch that doesn’t insult their intelligence. “See what’s on 4” Says hubby. The wife clicks the remote control and a torrent of raw effluent comes gushing out of the telly screen, flooding the room and thoroughly drenching the pair of them. The sketch is repeated a little later in the show and again the trusting couple don’t quite see it coming and again they are caught in the deluge. The metaphor works, I share the sentiment, it is a ludicrous exaggeration of my own experience and I hoot with laughter, long and loud. So far, so good.

Although Stewart Lee vents much merciless bile on the likes of ubiquitous and insipid TV presenter Adrian Chiles, the creepy show biz monster Andrew Lloyd Webber and the ever youthful and self-similarly talentless duo Ant and Dec, the most contemptible ta rget of his humour is that square-eyed bunch of moronic philistines - the great British public, every last one of us.

While I clearly believe Stewart Lee to be one of the funniest and most intelligent stand-up comedians of the last 20 years. I also believe, unlike Stewart Lee himself, and here’s the rub, that ‘Del Boy falling through the bar on only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face’ is a delightful moment in British situation comedy and if some cheapskate programme maker is going get the viewing public to vote on the funniest moments of British Comedy and make a programme out of the results, then I would be very surprised if ‘Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face’ didn’t figure somewhere in the top ten. It’s a classic piece of knockabout comedy; the arrogant smartarse slipping on a banana skin, pomposity punctured by a fall; the only victim of the piece is Del Boy’s ego; similar gags pepper the history of comedy from Aristophanes on. They were relevant then and they are relevant now and will be in what is left of the future.

But what makes ‘Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face’ particularly funny is the fact that it condenses so much information so quickly. No sooner has the set-up been introduced - opening up a whole sit-com episode’s worth of comic possibilities of how the swaggering Delboy and space cadet Trigger might cock up their initial meeting and possible date with the two women they assume are giving them the eye - than it’s over - Bosh! Del Boy lolls on the non-existent bar, disappears and is no longer a player. Trigger pulls a bewildered face. End of. We are denied. Apart from a neat piece of slapstick, it is also a sophisticated little joke against our expectations. A joke I might add, worthy of Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee deliberately refuses to see any of this and chooses to believe that the viewing public is merely laughing gratuitously at Del Boy falling over. Not only that. Stewart Lee’s even got himself a telly programme to express this opinion, In Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle No 2, he insinuates that the likes of me and the viewing millions, who continue to vote for Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face, are beings with lower intellects. True, I never had a higher education but I know what I like. Conversely Stewart Lee is higher educated and is very clear, emphatic even, about what he doesn’t like; he spends a great deal of the stand-up section of the show going on and on about Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face. He pursues it to the point of indulgence and then makes a deliberately lame attempt to deconstruct and understand what he is lambasting; he physically acts out Del Boy’s fall through the bar and then continues what is now a bigoted discourse while lying on the floor. His tone increasingly accusative... He repeats his mantra… He berates the audience… The repletion is relentless… He’s getting angrier… He’s shouting... He’s losing it... He’s banging his head on the floor “The funniest thing ever… Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses… and Trigger making a face…”

Lying on the stage hugging the microphone and slagging off the audience is a Stewart Lee homage to Bill Hicks - an echo of a moment early in Bill Hicks’ career when, still only a teenager, Hicks got irredeemably drunk and collapsed on the stage and lay there hugging the mic and spending most of an extended set blaming the American people for their apathy.

Stewart Lee gets to his feet after only a few minutes.

He times his punch line perfectly “That’s what you like isn’t it?”

He leaves the stage. I have enjoyed it immensely. I am laughing and I’m still not sure why.

By the end of this opening piece of stand-up Stewart Lee has made it demonstrably clear how he feels about Del Boy falling through the bar in Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face. Already he has done it to death. And just so there’s no mistake about the nature of the offending item – the original 1990s clip from Only Fools and Horses of Del Boy falling through the bar and Trigger making a face’ is shown again. And I laugh at that too. I find it very funny; I always have done.

Then what follows is a long sketch with Stewart Lee as a roving TV reporter at a traditional village ceremony deep in middle England. He is interviewing participants who annually celebrate Del Boy Day. In front of the assembled populace, a giant Del Boy effigy is being hauled into place next to a giant bar made from a tower of hay bales. Among the local oddballs being interviewed are the ‘Del Master’ who is decidedly uptight and defensive and is wearing a costume, which over the years has accrued many bizarre local additions, notably a wig made of a mat of wooden excercise beads. Also prominent is the hapless bloke who has come through a rigorous selection process to be this year’s ‘Trigger man’ and who will be giving the bewildered look. He is wearing a turquoise coloured Jacket (same hue as Trigger’s original suit). It has colour-co-ordinated Morris style ribbons; he also wears a hat full of turquoise plastic fruit and flowers – such attention to detail - brilliant. Meanwhile the vicar, and his choirmaster are sorting through their nylon stockings in preparation for dressing up as the women giving the eye. He, Like most of the other villagers interviewed, is quietly bonkers – a disturbingly normal sort of English bonkers - but bonkers nonetheless. The sketch ends with the whole community in candlelight and led by the Del-master, chanting the words of the original sitcom script and then cheering the disappearing Del Boy effigy as it collapses through the hay-bale bar; the sequence is a sublime multi-layered piece of knockabout satire. It is truly hilarious!

If that wasn’t enough the show concludes with a final Stewart Lee stand-up set, the content of which is unsurprisingly familiar… Del Boy etc etc.

Lee is now a beaten man; he drapes himself precariously from a balcony at the side of the stage and hangs there pleading his lost cause with whoever will listen. His anger is laced with despair. The relentless repetition and the acceptance of failure has echoes of the joke structure of Bill Hicks’ Advertising and Marketing masterpiece which concludes with Hicks publicly addressing his adversaries and conceding, ‘This is your world isn’t it? You probably sleep like babies don’t you?”

The denouement of Stewart Lee’s stand-up set is worth waiting for. Upside down and wagging a finger at the camera, He concludes his rant with a flourish…

“…had Sir Isaac Newton shared the sense of humour of a member of the public, he would have been so amused at the simple effects of gravity that he would never have got round to making a comprehensive study of its causes”.

He’s repeats “... A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF ITS CAUSES”. He turns on the audience shouting, “THAT’S THE PUNCHLINE! WILL YOU BE REPEATING IT AT WORK IN THE MORNING? NO!

It’s wonderful. I love it; and at last I understand why. I am laughing at a man who believes he is right and who is obsessively, relentlessly on it; shouting, screaming, bending the truth, swearing black is white and publicly humiliating himself to defend his argument. I’m laughing at his failure and his arrogant and macho refusal to seriously self-deprecate. Tony Hancock explained his own comedy so… ‘Look at me. I am absurd. I am you.’

Finally, a minor conceit: while still hanging off the balcony and no less belligerent, he admits that he has overstayed his welcome, that the punch line that he’s worked so hard to set-up has failed; now “in dead time” he will attempt to manipulate the audience into giving him a round of applause, allowing him a dignified exit. They have in fact enjoyed every minute of it and show their appreciation readily. He stands unceremoniously but defiant and leaves to their continued applause.

Cut to the couple on the sofa representing the viewing public

He: “Argh! Pretentious rubbish!”
She: “Put it on 4 again”

Cue deluge of raw effluent.

It’s a brilliant coda to a magnificent piece of comedy and were I ever to be sat listening to a programme that elicited my vote on the funniest moment in British comedy I would have to vote for Stewart Lee going on and on about ‘Del Boy falling through the bar on Only Fools and Horses and Trigger making a face’ on Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle No2.

I’d get the two for the price of one.

Tony Allen 2009