Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee

Date of birth: 05-04-1968

'A majestic creature in slow, obvious and painful decline'

An appraisal of Stewart Lee's Content Provider stand-up special

Stewart Lee had promised to write an article for Chortle about the imminent airing of his stand-up special on BBC Two. But his publicist told us he was far too busy doing the washing and the ironing to submit anything. So instead we have secured the services of comedy archivist Ewal Street, of, to assess the show…

In his new television stand-up special, Content Provider, Stewart Lee hurls himself around a rubbish-strewn stage in Southend-On-Sea for two patience-draining hours, visibly struggling for breath as he rages against digital media, Brexit, Trump, his own audience, all other comedians, and ultimately himself. 

Employing his trademark neuro-linguistic crowd manipulation, and all the camera-savvy tricks he developed for his TV series Comedy Vehicle, Lee achieves a four-dimensional rendering of the stand-up experience never before seen on the flat plane of television. 

So why do I find myself, a dispassionate observer of his erratically variable output in the medium for three decades now, worrying about him?

As a child in the Seventies, I was taken on holiday each year to a secluded cottage on the West Coast of Scotland. There was no television reception there, which was torture to me. You can perhaps imagine how excited I am about the forthcoming box set of the complete Goodies, which will allow me to finally make notes on classic episodes I was prevented from documenting in my notebook the first time around by my heartless holidaying parents!

One summer night, as I lay awake reciting Monty Python sketches to myself and doing all the voices, a great whale, (I do not remember the exact species as I have always struggled with the natural world and its infinite and unknowable variety), beached itself in the small hours and its mournful, and all too human, cries drew my mother, my father and I, dressed in John Pertwee pyjamas, down to the moonlit shingle. 

The leviathan’s breathing was heavy and laboured, its distress obvious, and we were too weak to roll it back into the churning black sea.  My father set off to drive the thirty miles to the nearest phone and my mother and I watched, hand in hand, as the mighty beast slowly expired in front of us in the dim light of the gathering dawn, moved by its majesty, edified by its obvious suffering.  By the time the RSPCA arrived the whale was dead and I knew that one day I too would die. I can only attribute my inappropriate response to this revelation to panicked hysteria. Reader, I laughed until I cried.

I had forgotten the exact emotions this experience stirred in the six-year-old me, until I downloaded a press preview file of Stewart Lee’s Content Provider, due to be screened on BBC Two this Saturday, July 28. For here was another majestic creature in slow, obvious and painful decline, yet nonetheless capable of communicating, perhaps accidentally, some profound truths, not least the certainty of our mortality, the frailty of our flesh, whilst simultaneously finding new ways of exploring the limits of the TV comedy format.

After a strong start as a rule-breaking solo stand-up in the late 1980s, even popping up on the forgotten cable channel BSkyB’s The Happening in 1990, Lee eventually went on to spend the best part of the opening decade of this century in the wilderness, by which I mean he didn’t appear on television.  During this period Lee built his stand-up reputation with acclaimed live shows, and eventually, in 2008, he secured a BBC Two series which saw him stuffed, at his executive producer’s insistence, into an unsuitable suit, (think Jack Dee circa 1989), his filleted leftover material interrupted by often underwhelming film items, which aped The Day Today, The Fist of Fun, and Asylum without remotely equalling them. 

The first series of Comedy Vehicle’s relationship with the three series that followed recalls Blackadder’s tentative debut, which nonetheless saw a confident subsequent flowering, a process I have written about in my book on the ‘alternative comedy’ TV movement of the 1980s, Goodbye Mother-In-Law, and subsequently in my online blog of the same name. It can only be the unprecedented acclaim heaped on Lee’s contemporary live shows that saw the somewhat uneven series re-commissioned by an openly reluctant BBC. 

And we are lucky it was, for Lee’s undoubted Indian summer was the four-year period from 2009 to 2013, encompassing a sustained and substantial period of work, totalling ten hours of stand-up in four years; namely series two and three of his BBC Two show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, for which he developed and road-tested twelve bespoke half hour routines, and the 2009 and 2011 stand-up shows If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One and Carpet Remnant World.  

Post Bafta and two British Comedy Awards, the more extreme approach of his fourth Comedy Vehicle series, however, tested both his suddenly suspicious, BBC staff stuffed, studio audience, the viewers at home, and presumably the patience of Shane Allen and his BBC comedy department to boot, who soon asked Lee to vacate his spoiled slot, with some sympathetic fans appearing to view the series as an elaborate and deliberate career suicide note.

But Lee’s ghost continued to haunt the cathode ray tube, a spectral presence speaking through the bodies of others. In the last year the avant-comedy stylistic tropes Lee popularised, though admirably never claimed to have pioneered (seek YouTube for Kevin McAleer on Friday Night Live  in 1988 or any Ted Chippington footage for proof), are also evident in the television work of newer acts, praised for the very processes the younger Lee was once condemned for.  

These youngsters, in turn, have gained worldwide acclaim on the stack-‘em-high global content platform of Netflix, which understandably deems Lee himself, with his bloody-minded half hour routines about obscure right-wing British tabloid journalists, Hackney Weight Watchers, and varieties of English crisps, ‘too parochial’. 

Meanwhile, the same ongoing worldwide Culture War that gave us Brexit and Trump has seen the liberal comedy cabal Lee once called home under siege from the bedroom demagogues of the Alt-Right. Indeed, the Judge Dredd and Mad Max writer Brendan McCarthy observed on Twitter, ‘Stewart Lee is an archaic left wing relic. Milo Yiannopoulos is more on the zeitgeist. I don't agree with all of his views, but at least people like Paul Joseph Watson can be funny about subjects that Lefties like Stewart Lee are shit-scared to go anywhere near.’

Even his fellow comedians seemed to tire of the now acclaimed Lee during his golden years, much as I refused to see Mamma Mia on principle, solely because I was sick of my Mother telling me it was the best film of all time (It isn’t by the way, mother! I think you will find that that particular honour belongs to our old friend Mr Spinal Tap!). 

For the outrageous Frankie Boyle, Lee was ‘irrelevant and flabby’; for last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award winner, the XFM DJ John Robins, Lee was ‘a part of the same hypocrisy he’d have you believe he exposes’; for the controversial rasping comedian Andrew Lawrence he was a ‘rancid fucking imposter and Oxbridge cunt’; while the TV comedian and music theatre star Jason Manfield blames his own perfectly creditable three star Guardian reviews on the fact that he ‘isn’t Stewart Lee’.

To cap it all, the ongoing campaign the once presentable Lee fought against physical decay for the last decade has suddenly, and convincingly, been lost, and he has become, in the words of the acclaimed writer-producer Armando Iannucci, ‘a human bin bag’. Where does this leave the man described by the character comedian Al Murray as ‘the Grand Poobah of stand-up’, seemingly both too young to be a has-been, and not quite old enough to be a legend?

Well, it left the suddenly unemployed Lee doggedly monetising his new Content Provider live set, a show he hoped would hold together in the face of the most volatile political climate of our lifetimes, for 18 months and 214 dates, until finally filming it in Leave-voting Southend On Sea last April, at the unexpected request of the new controller of BBC Two, Patrick Holland. 

While he’s unlikely, in the changing climates of both television and politics, to ever benefit again from the baronial largesse that allowed him four BBC Two series, it would nonetheless be a sadistic pleasure to be allowed to watch Lee’s physical and mental decline at biannual intervals in TV special sized chunks culled from his tours, as he clings to an outmoded value system in the face of a world that considers him a relic, Lee positively revelling in his own perceived irrelevance. In a landscape of instant content Lee has, by accident or design, achieved that rarest of states – a special kind of scarcity. 

You could consume Lee’s new live show at your convenience on the BBC iPlayer from Sunday. Or you could stay up, as I will, late into the night on Saturday, uncork a nice chardonnay and some naughty nibbles, and watch with a resolutely unconvinced Mrs Goodbyemotherinlaw as the mighty beast slowly expires in front of you in the dim light of the gathering dawn, moved by its majesty, edified by its obvious suffering. Reader, I laughed until I cried.

• Ewal Street, television critic and archivist, 

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Published: 23 Jul 2018

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