Stewart Francis

The master of the deadpan one-liner is closer to Woody Allen than Russell Howard - that's a good thing

Not to be confused with Stu Francis of Crackerjack grape-crushing 'fame', Stewart Francis is a Canadian comedian who specialises in bone-dry quips. Though often bracketed with the similarly styled Milton Jones and Tim Vine, the 51-year-old sometime Mock the Week man is, for this writer’s money, the reigning king of the one-liners.

Squeezing in a one-off Belfast stop as his long-running Tour de Francis winds down, the funnyman’s hair is shaggier than usual and there are signs of a paunch beneath the suit jacket. Towards the end of the show, he even reads some new jokes from a scrap of paper. But Francis remains a supremely slick performer, his set honed over years of gigs and television appearances.

There’s no social commentary and precious little politics, and by the end we probably know less about Francis than we did to begin with. In fact, with this much misdirection we could be forgiven for thinking the deadpan wordsmith is a serial killing, sexually deviant racist, who can’t remember his kids’ names, locks his wife in the boot of his car and wants to write a mystery novel (‘Or do I?’).

Francis is relentless, piling up hundreds of puns and non sequiturs over the course of an hour. He rattles through a dizzying array of subjects, from transvestism to bestiality, The King’s Speech to the Special Olympics, Patrick Kielty to the KKK. There’s even some surprisingly politically incorrect stuff, including the dreaded 'R' and 'S' words. But Francis somehow gets away with material that would normally have disgruntled punters jamming the phone lines on Stephen Nolan.

Still, you suspect a lot of the audience have heard much of it before. But it’s a bit like going to see your favourite band play their greatest hits. No one is too bothered hearing about Francis’s therapist, who says the comic has a preoccupation with vengeance (‘We’ll see about that’), or about his late father, a roofer (‘Dad, if you’re up there…’), or his daughter, whom he named after his mother (‘Passive Aggressive Psycho turns five tomorrow’).

No laugh is too cheap. Francis talks about his ‘riveting’ job at the shipyard, ponders why frisbees appear larger the closer they get (‘Then it hit me…’), and introduces Olaf, his ‘strong Finnish’. But there’s some more experimental stuff, too, such as the curious opening skit about an imaginary ventriloquist’s dummy, which is funny almost in spite of itself. Indeed, the only time the show feels like it’s faltering a little is when Francis moves onto the topic of Osama bin Laden. Serious Stewart isn’t who we came to see.

But for the most part this is a delightful blend of razor-sharp writing, masterful timing and innate likeability. Francis’s wordplay and meticulous delivery make a welcome change to the bludgeoning, throwaway patter of, say, Russell Howard. It’s like an organic smoothie to Howard’s Sunny Delight. Indeed, when he’s on form, Francis is closer to the genius of Groucho Marx or Woody Allen.