What the duck?

STANDFIRST:<br/>In his new show March of the Mallards, vitriolic comedy-master Stewart Lee appears to be looking to nature for inspiration. 'How come?', asks Emma Lennox in an exclusive inerview for The Skinny

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 12 Mar 2007
Has Stewart Lee gone soft? Not only does he describe his new style as "friendly and inclusive," but he's chosen the cuddly title March of the Mallards for his new stand-up show. The cute 2005 documentary, March of the Penguins, starring Hollywood's favourite tobogganing marine bird, seems an unlikely launchpad for Lee's cutting humour. Lee explains the reference: "March of the Penguins made out that penguins were moral therefore nature is moral. But equally you could have chosen mallards. Instead of being seasonally monogamous they reproduce by gang rape and they have sex with dead ducks. So what is our morality and is it natural? Or is it a construct that we need to keep society together?" Dissecting a flawed allegory with a damning, meticulous logic puts us firmly back into Lee territory.

Lee's stand-up mixes social satire with the ballsy antagonism of a juvenile delinquent. Incurring the wrath of the Christian right in 2005, Lee became an inadvertent comedy martyr when accused of blasphemy by funded mentalist group, Christian Voice. Lee retaliated the best way he knew how; by writing the palpably vitriolic 90s Comedian. Blatantly trespassing the boundaries of taste, the last half hour is an uncomfortable, if funny, celebration of freedom of speech. Lee admits it was a difficult show. "With people trying to ban things that I'd done, the last show was a direct response to what you could and couldn't say. It was about trying to break the audience up into little groups and show how people react to different things. It was a kind of formal exercise. If you've never seen a stand-up show then it's not a very good idea for 90s Comedian to be the first one you see."

If you know anything about comedy, however, 90s Comedian is a masterclass in delivery and crowd manipulation. Lee can split the room, turn his back on his audience or talk without the mic, bringing an intimacy to the gig whilst proving that comedy is more than just a good punchline. His experience directing theatre has had a positive impact on his performance as a stand-up. "It's made me think a lot more about the shape of the room, how people interact with you, the use of silences, and how to try to recreate things. It's been really fantastic, but I think theatre can learn more from stand-up than stand-up can learn from theatre." Such as? "To not to be boring, and talk to people in a language they understand and not patronise them." No fan of pretension, Lee prefers anarchic comics Jerry Sadowitz and Arthur Smith to 'slick' and 'polished' American style comedy that he's witnessed at industry-based festivals. "I'm not what the industry in Montreal want as a stand-up. They want a comic who looks like they could be in a sitcom: they're not really interested in stand up as an art form in itself. Most American comedians don't have more than about seven minutes: they're about getting spotted. It's weird because they invented it, and now they've blown it. The best comics in the world are all British, and some good Australian ones."

The critics seem to agree that Lee is one of the best, but with a career entering its 20th year, he hasn't always received such favourable comments. The best quotes from reviewers, including "interminable" and "surly, arrogant and laboured" are now available in pin badge form from Lee's website. "Funnily enough all the things the critics used to slag me off for, they now like," says Lee, enjoying the irony. In the past Lee has suffered from incompetent booking agents, he lost "a life changing amount of money" with Jerry Springer the Opera, and he continues to be ignored by nervous TV execs. Nevertheless, he is rejuvenated by his work on stage. "In stand-up no one else gets in the way. You just do it and if they like it they'll come. Then you get paid. In the last two years it's been really great just being able to do stuff I like and make a living out of it." With the ability to make people laugh at their own laughter, or the randomness of a discarded ballet shoe, Lee's humour is inventive and intelligent. "Hopefully I'll be able to hang different ideas on this March of the Mallards show, but I might not be able to. In which case I'll just dress up as a duck."
Stewart Lee's The March of the Mallards, 8pm, 9 March, The Stand, Glasgow, £10 (£8).