Stewart Lee was famous the first time round for his part in the overrated double act Lee and Herring. This was during the mid 1990's, they had a few TV shows and (significantly better) radio shows. At the time I thought they were ok but didn't notice once they'd gone. In my mind they sort of melded with The Mary Whitehouse Experience (remember that?) and other average mid 90's comedy.
My re-introduction to him came via a mate of mine* who told me I had to see his new show "Stand up Comedian" which came out around 2002**.
When I watched it for the first time it was at the Glastonbury festival and I could not believe how great it was. It actually blew my mind. It was in a different league to the stuff I remembered from the mid 90's. There was so much going on in his delivery, expressions and turns of phrase that my brain couldn't take it all in. He seemed really angry and yet very passive. He appeared fiercely moral but still clearly decadent. Above all these things he was intelligent and, crucially, not ashamed of his intellect. This last point is important and I'll come back to it.
In short though, I was converted.
I then spent a few years ranting at people telling them about this guy who was really funny. Then the DVD of his stuff came out (I'd seen him a few more times since) and I had my chance to gather more converts! This brought no positive results whatsoever. Click here for my flatmate's reponses and here for another mate's first impression. No one got it.
I now realise that he was simply a few years ahead of his time. The rest of the UK is catching up with him and that's why he's got a second BBC TV series coming out soon.
However, one of the reasons the rest of the UK is catching up with him is because Stewart Lee's ability as a stand up has managed to help change the comedy landscape. He is a significant influence on many major stand up comedians who are more successful that he'll ever be***. Two obvious examples are Russell Brand and Ricky Gervais. The former would not dish out the verbage that he does if he'd not been affected by Lee's lack of shame regarding intelligence. Ricky Gervais's stand up sets would not have worked in quite the same way either. Particularly regarding his awesome piece about The Bible.
Stewart Lee's influence seeps into you without you really noticing. It's not entirely positive, there's a price you pay for being as honest with yourself as he is, but ultimately my world would be poorer had I not been correctly told "you MUST see it Nick, it's genius".
*Tom Binns, famous for his bonkers character Ivan Brackenbury but a brilliant stand up in his own right.
**ish? I think he toured it a lot before it came out on DVD.
*** Possibly by design. He's clearly uncomfortable with fame.