Day 6: Stewart Lee

I’m sharing one stand up set I really like every day this month, and today’s comes from across the world. Here’s British comedian Stewart Lee at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in 2006, and my take on what makes it special:

• WORDSMITHERY. Fuzzy descriptions lead to fuzzy images in our brains, and it’s harder to laugh at what you can’t picture. But by using specific language, the picture can pop - and so can a joke. From his very opening, Stewart chooses his words carefully (“clandestine global evil”). We delight not just at his ideas, but also the conscious way he relays them into our brains.

• PAUSES. It’s notable that for someone with such dexterity with words, Stewart is able to also get big laughs from their absence. But silences can give an audience time to anticipate what comes next, and there’s glee in that anticipation. On his pope joke, for example, he punctuates one punchline with multiple pauses: “…it would not seem inappropriate (pause) to lick (pause) a sugar effigy of his face.” Each pause gets a laugh, as does the final line, turning a punchline that would otherwise just get one laugh into a three-pronged joke. His use of pauses here also foreshadows his later bit, where Stewart comments on how the audience laughed before the punchline, and that bit is the source of my final bullet point…

• BREAKING THE SCRIPTED WALL. On the one hand, we know a comedian’s material is scripted, but on the other hand, we still want it to feel like it’s being said for the first time. One way to heighten the sense that we’re hearing something new is by planting an error and then talking about it. Even though on some level we may know the commentary on the error is itself planned, it feels more present. Stewart crafts this into his set brilliantly, first by getting the audience to laugh early, and then by talking directly to them about it. We move away from jokes about a topic to jokes about a joke. We’re then given an original take on jokes themselves, and all of it feels fresh.

Hope you like it, and if you want more Stewart Lee, check out old episodes of his innovative show "Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle" on Amazon Prime.