Wed 28 Mar
words: NOEL GARDNER
Scarcely credibly, Stewart Lee thinks this might be one of the two or three biggest crowds which have ever come to watch him. More believably, playing to a room as roomy as St David’s Hall, with its varying levels and “fascist architecture” (I’m not actually sure this is accurate, but people laughed), is a mixed blessing for the 43-year-old comic. He is not the first entertainer to prickle at the realisation that his appeal is becoming less selective, but he enjoys an extremely rare freedom in being able to reference this in practically as much of his act as he likes.
As it is, “being popular is weird and not entirely a good thing” is the subject of, at most, a third of the two-hour Carpet Remnant World set. It would be hard to give a more accurate percentage, though: the act is split into fairly definitive segments, but throwaway jokes are reborn an hour later (normally accompanied by Lee asking if you caught it the first time), and there’s a healthy degree of improvisation. What he claims was intended as the closing joke before the interval (sexist stand-ups at the Montreal Comedy Festival redoing their boorish act in French and sounding seductive) doesn’t get a good enough response. “Now I’m going to have to do an extra 10 minutes to finish on a high note,” says Lee, interspersing jabs at “people who bring their friends” with exaggerated glances at the stage door.
Purportedly, the “friends” tag along with established Lee enthusiasts because they recognise his name from the TV schedules, then fail to follow the narrative or get jokes at all, diminishing the spread of laughter. Clearly, the vantage point of an audience member is going to differ from the gentleman onstage, but I’d venture that this is a generic gripe mined for comic potential, rather than a problem with Cardiff. People like Stewart Lee, a lot. (Others hate him a lot, which is why the closing section of the show consists of reading out abusive tweets and messageboard posts he’s discovered, but he certainly doesn’t get it any worse than Michael McIntyre, Frankie Boyle, “the comedy Russells” or Jimmy Carr, all of whom get clowned on at least once here.) People laugh really loudly and in some cases virtually without stopping. When Lee says, “you’re not a stand-up crowd really, are you?” it’s delivered as a zing but is obviously a back-handed compliment. A stand-up crowd wouldn’t let the comedian analyse his own jokes several times before allowing himself to move on, for one thing.
So what is Carpet Remnant World about? It’s about several things – Islam; repeatedly watching a Scooby-Doo movie with his son; Birmingham; buying underwear in Germany – but it’s ultimately about nothing. Or at least nothingness in comedy, which probably counts as something. The title refers to the desperate act of driving past outlet stores with these kinds of names, World Of Leather and suchlike, and trying to wring humour out of imagining actual worlds made of leather. This sort of arch self-mutilation of Lee’s profession is something that could have appeared 17 years ago on Fist Of Fun, his debut TV series with Richard Herring, but now it comes with many more layers and the accumulation of much essential knowledge. That is to say: to take something apart, you must first have a comprehensive understanding of how it works.
Stewart Lee clearly does, and not just because of the parts where he literally explains a gag’s construction. His act projects a lofty self-confidence and an admiration for the intelligence of his audience. I mean, granted he kept saying that people at his gigs were too slow and his career was moribund, but those bits were jokes. You do get jokes, right?