Stewart Lee: Content Provider
In Content Provider, Stewart Lee's agenda is nothing less than all that’s wrong with the world in this social media age, from the insular echo-chamber of opinion, through selfie-taking solipsism to the instant gratification that means no experience is hard-won, leading to a generation of infantilised young adults defined only by the shallow.
They are the sort of ideas that are common in the liberal newspapers read by Lee’s own 21st-century tribe, the metropolitan liberal elite, as they grapple to understand the EU referendum or the Trump election. But the stand-up’s intellectual skill is to enclose all the various strands in one overarching narrative, while his comic one is to emphasise the theories through hilariously exaggerated example.
When he’s toured in previous years, it’s been to work up material for his Comedy Vehicle TV shows. But now the BBC has cancelled those to make more Citizen Khans and Mrs Brown’s Boys, he’s no longer constrained by the half-hour routine providing the opportunity for a more ambitious dissertation, which he boldly seizes.
The Western world may be increasingly divided, but Lee thrives amid division. First in setting his core constituency away from the tabloid-reading, Brexit-demanding masses. Then in dividing his crowd into ever smaller subsets, getting laughs from the manufactured friction between him and his audience – an effect that’s amplified on press night as he lectures us journalists on the likes of irony.
When it comes to the instant gratification part of his thesis, that is not a charge easily levelled at Lee. He has short, sharp jokes, but that’s not his trademark. Both points are made when he protests that he never intended a feud between Russell Howard following a decade-old bit contrasting the younger comic’s fundraising with his wealth. ‘I only had one joke about Russell Howard,’ Lee quips. ‘But it did last 55 minutes.’
In the section about Generation Download he considers the lengths people would have had to go to in the past to indulge and foster niche tastes, from music to S&M. It’s a meandering, wordy, repetitive routine deploying all the comic devices we’ve come to know from Lee, almost a parody of his own indulgent tropes.
But the old dog has new tricks too. In the first half, especially, he seems actually happy, frequently abandoning his defining grump to make himself laugh aloud, making clear his playfulness. That’s never more true than with the running commentary on his jokes, and occasional autopsy when one falls flat. And there’s no question of whose fault that is when it happens. ‘Who knows more about stand-up, me or you?’ he says with the same withering semi-mock-arrogance which lets him be the self-proclaimed moral arbiter of comedy, though that’s not without a grain of truth. Few other comedians would dare have dressed their stage with other stand-ups’ DVDs from Amazon’s virtual bargain bin.
Elsewhere he admits to being tired of the ‘character of Stewart Lee’ - the dichotomy of self between on-stage ego and offstage id not concerning your average panellist on Keith Lemon’s Celebrity Juice.
He subverts himself, too. At one point in the first half he admonishes himself for acting out a piece, something he vows he’ll never do. In the second, which contains several reflections of the first, the indulged youth – anyone under 40 – is portrayed with a balletic pantomime of phone prodding that’s an hilarious slice of physical theatre.
In a typical slice of iconoclastic pedestal-shaking, Lee offers a devastatingly dismissive attack on box-set favourite Game Of Thrones, without the fag of actually having seen it, of course. That would be needless research in a ‘post-fact’ world. One criticism of the swords-and-sorcery epic is that he learned all he needed to from a quote on a bit of merchandise. Indeed, it would be hard to summarise Lee’s work in a mug-sized soundbite.
In fact, Content Provider is said to be inspired by Wanderer Above A Sea Of Fog, 19th Century German painter Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic allegory of an apparently noble, wise and lonely man, staring aloofly out at the gloomy inhospitable landscape beneath him. It’s a perfect metaphor for Lee’s comedy. And you could get it on a tea towel.
Review date: 17 Nov 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett