It’s a brave and foolish person who tries to take a photo at a Stewart Lee show. Brave, because you will be singled out and shouted at. Foolish, because what’s the point? Just watch it instead.
Early in tonight’s gig, Lee turns his ire on someone brandishing a phone up on the balcony and it immediately ruins the flow of his routine. Admittedly, it wouldn’t have ruined his flow nearly as much if he hadn’t stopped to point out how much it had ruined his flow. This incident, the first of several such interruptions, is a mirror of his comedy: self-aware to the point of distraction and repetitive to the point of distraction. And yes, that’s kind of the point. Despite a running gag about parents bringing their unsuspecting kids to the show, everyone here must know what they’re in for.
“Reports of sharks falling from the skies are on the rise again. Nobody on the Eastern Seaboard is safe.”
Stewart Lee is in Brighton for four dates on this tour. He’s performing two sets every night, each with a discrete theme and throughline. The first, Tornado, begins a long and winding journey with the amusing discovery that the TV show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle was (mistakenly) described by Netflix as being about sharks falling from the sky. The quote above isn’t a spoiler, by the way, and if you’re planning to see the show on this run you’ll be very familiar with it by the end. You know what you’re in for, right?
One of the highlights of the first half hinges on a review written by Alan Bennett in which the playwright earnestly compares Stewart Lee to various obscure academics. It’s a neat section – the sort of thing that Erving Goffman would probably like. Anyway, Lee pulls out a great Yorkshire accent to mimic Bennett’s endearing turns of phrase, and later warps his style brilliantly. Although he rips into the review, it’s clear he’s got lots of respect for the guy. This in itself is refreshing, given how much time is given over to taking potshots at other (lesser) comedians.
We have no idea if the Netflix cock-up ever really happened, but it makes for an entertaining yarn. Lee sometimes seems to get tangled up in random asides, with plenty of self-demeaning anecdotes about ageing, but he knows what’s he doing (and lets you know about it). The first half concludes with him wrapping up these loose ends with a satisfying twist, like one of the better episodes of Columbo. It’s funny and impressive, and it doesn’t even matter that the midpoint finale fails due to a technical hitch.
Lee pads every step of his act with hints about where he’s going with it, and it’s this meticulous structuring that seems to make him so irate at being interrupted by the sight of a mobile phone. But sometimes the fun happens in the gaps. A non-gag in the second half escalates into contagious laughter, which Lee keeps afloat by adeptly berating the audience for laughing at nothing. Which leads to more laughter, and so on. It’s a strange moment, and Lee is loving the absurdity of it. Eventually he has to ask the audience to stop laughing – so he can carry on with his routine. (In the spirit of self-referentiality, we should mention the fact that he asked local press to mention this fact).
The second set is entitled Snowflake, which does a little of what you might expect, and a lot that you won’t. We get some hit-and-run references to Brexit, but the main focus is a defence of political correctness. He makes the very good point that people who think PC politics has “gone mad” have often simply confused it with health and safety legislation. He has fun with this idea, and soon spirals into hilariously extreme imagery. A more sober approach sees him recollecting facets of his younger days to remind us what 70s racism was really like. And it’s an effective message. However, rather than attempting to explore the bizarre civil war that’s erupting in our culture, the show sees him simply reasserting his liberal position. Stewart Lee is exactly what his critics think he is, and he’s fine with that.
Trying to explain the appeal of this comedian would be a fruitless task and the background info required to do so wouldn’t leave much space for anything else. So let’s not go there. Yet without the context of Lee’s thirty-year career, his show wouldn’t function. His material is often about his career, just as much as it is about the material itself. You see where this is going… Commenting on a stand-up show that habitually comments on itself is possibly fruitless as well. We’ve now realised it’s a brave and foolish person who tries to review a Stewart Lee show. Brave, because his shows take the piss out of his reviews. And foolish, because what’s the point? Just watch it instead.
Brighton Dome, Tuesday 18th February 2020
Tickets available here
Photo by Idil Sukan