Opinion: What's The Meta With Stewart Lee?

stewart lee

I was interested to read that Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph failed to make it past the interval at Stewart Lee's show when he went on a Friday. I also had misgivings about the show on Thursday night, although I had no difficulty staying to the end.

I reviewed the show for The Evening Standard here and gave it four stars. I'm not suggesting that it deserved less. Judged in terms of laughter it was probably Lee's funniest show ever. The Leicester Square Theatre was full and, as I said in my review, there was a constant ripple of giggles. There was none of the awkwardness that Cavendish seemed to sense on Friday.

Lee once quipped that he would like to do Michael McIntyre's set as a kind of stand-up experiment. In some ways Much A-Stew About Nothing is the nearest Lee has ever come to a conventional Live at the Apollo/Roadshow performance. This may not be observational humour in the Peter Kay sense, but a lot of it was accessible and much easier to laugh at than some of Lee's more recherché routines, such as his vomiting-into-the-anus-of-Jesus skit.

The show was, as he reminded us, a work-in-progress for his next TV series and maybe puking-in-Christ's-bumhole riffs aren't the sort of thing that would play well on BBC2. But at times at the Leicester Square Theatre he seemed to be bending over backwards to play the populist card. There were gags about Ed Miliband and the Labour Party that wouldn't have seemed out of place in an Arena set by, say, if not Jim Davidson, then maybe Bill Bailey.

There were also various in-jokes and digs about fellow comedians that raised the biggest issue for me. Early on in the set Lee had a poke at Ricky Gervais, joking about the fact that he was only able to say things that Lee feels are politically incorrect because he was being "ironic".

Yet in his current show Lee plays what seems to me to be a similar game. At one point there's a gag about anal sex which he acknowledges that he knows is cheap but has his reasons for retaining it. The gag is funny and the later callback even funnier. But a cheap gag is a cheap gag, however you cloak it in postmodern terms and put it in imaginary quote marks like a comedic cordon sanitaire.

Then later on in the show he also did a routine which involves him using the term "bitches". Now, I presume Lee doesn't use the word away from the stage, possibly not even when talking about lady dogs. In fact he has said plenty to confirm that he is a card-carrying male feminist. But, and maybe it is just me here, why is he permitted to adopt this stage persona which it is surely what he objects to Ricky Gervais doing?

The trouble with Lee is that these days his comedy is so "meta" it is hard to know on what level to take his material. Dominic Cavendish's article suggests that he is going through that stage that Daniel Kitson went through when he felt he was getting too popular and felt that he wanted to drive away the fans that "didn't get it". Although some comments on the Telegraph website suggest that Cavendish misread the room or that Lee turned things round after the interval, there is also the possibility that because Cavendish went on a Friday the crowd might have been more of a fun-loving, boozy, weekend "out out" audience rather than an out-and-out Lee audience. 

Anyway, as I said, it's a great show and it does deserve its quartet of stars. It is just an unusually mainstream show for Lee. I never thought I'd see him doing seventies nostalgia/Jimmy Savile gags but there was even one of those. Bold as brass, no discernible irony. Maybe not quite Michael McIntyre, but maybe closer, when watched from the stalls, than Lee realises.




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