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Liam Williams: The Philip Larkin of British Comedy

17/01/2014 12:42 GMT | Updated 18/03/2014 09:59 GMT

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Liam Williams is the most soulful, daring, intellectually unabashed young comedian in the country. His Foster's-nominated debut hour, which plays at the Soho Theatre this week, is comedy-as-poetry, his very own 'Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', a mock-heroic bildungsroman of a set splashed with haggard beauty, Yorkshire melancholy and wanking-at-ten-past-three candour. This is laughter in the dark night of the soul, lit by a pale fire of precocity.

Bookworms will find a bed of crimson literary joy in this show, which essentially tells Williams' life story from Yorkshire to Camden and back again whenever he runs out of funds. Lawrence, Eliot, Salinger, Kerouac and McEwan are all name-checked. A rather fun 'pamphlet', which comes free with the show and almost deserves an article of its own, has fingerprints of e.e.cummings, all uncapitalised jigsaw-verse and dizzying thought-swirls.

But it is Philip Larkin whose influence looms darkest: the wit-lashed Northern nihilism; the coupling of the lyrical and the profane; the resentment of parents; the loathing for dead-end jobs; the coarse sexual self-pity. Compare, for instance, Williams' "She's probably got some lover that / Fucks her in her mortgaged flat / And picks her post up off the mat / In afternoons" with Larkin's 'High Windows'.

There are notes of other comedians here as well. There's Daniel Kitson in the dexterous mystique. There's Tim Key in the mood-music and faux-serious poetry recitals. There's a bit of Steve Coogan, too: Williams' self-interview at the start, like Alan Partridge's pre-recorded chat with himself in the masterful Mid Morning Matters, is both a reminder to the audience of his recent critical acclaim and a mock-cocky subversion of it. Williams oscillates between struggling artist and conscious caricature, now he's got universal broadsheet approval, a Foster's nom and a girlfriend, but one senses he will never be the shit in the shuttered chateau.

Like Stewart Lee, he smuggles in wry social commentary amongst the lyrical dandelions: his absurdist extrapolation of Time Out quirky date ideas is particularly astute, though perhaps the most conventional of his 'bits' (and the most accessible segment for a ten-minute slot on the likes of Comedy Roadshow. No bad thing at all). He also - like, say, Bo Burnham - satirises the studied whimsy of less original comedians (Venn diagrams!) from the safety zone of an artsy persona.

Williams gets away with all this pimple-scratching for two main reasons. Firstly, he wears the erudition lightly, almost reluctantly, and cauterises the undergraduate showmanship with a hot spike of self-awareness. Secondly, and more importantly, he is blessed with his own scorching idiolect, the sort of burning eloquence that you really don't see in comedy that often (Daniel Kitson excepted). It is so effortless, so drenched in poeticism it makes you wonder why you even bother to speak or write yourself (I've done my best here, but what's the bloody point).

Stopper 'Mongst The Wheat, his Yorkshire semi-pastiche of The Catcher in the Rye, has the rhythm of high literature, but the images are artfully artless ("the snowflakes fell to rest, fucking exhausted from their fall"; "the blanket of snow was like a blanket of snow"). Like the best Flight of the Conchords songs, the parody is so close to the style it mimics that it's almost too 'good' to be funny. Later, the depiction of grim schooldays is worryingly close in timbre to the first hundred, less intentionally ironic pages of Morrissey's (still wonderful) Autobiography.

The writing is remarkable enough, but Williams' delivery is something else. His movement and diction shimmer with the class and certainty of a seasoned character actor, a Jonathan Pryce or a Gabriel Byrne (this also comes through in his work with excellent sketch troupe Sheeps). His voice has a bracken-smoked bonfire rasp and luxuriates in the staccato cadences ("old Yorkshire git"; "he scowled and called me a c*nt"). He is a genuine writer-performer and, despite (or indeed because of) the allusions, a genuine original.

Williams is botanising the asphalt of observational comedy, ensanguining the sky of stand-up. This first set covers a hell of a lot: sex, loneliness, money, class, education, family, the past, the unfenced existence of the comic-as-artist, the arrogant eternity of death. If he is this perceptive and ambitious at twenty-five, God knows how good he'll be in his thirties and forties. Is Williams, as The Guardian apparently suggest, the voice of his generation? I bloody hope so.