Stewart Lee returns with a show of two halves, tackling the public’s perception of his act alongside the culture wars, in one of his most technically accomplished and unashamedly meta shows to date.
Stewart Lee is probably the most influential comic of the last 30 years. This a fact not lost on him, or indeed his audience, as he repeatedly reminds us during Tornado, the first half of his latest show. He makes The Times’ coronation of him as “the world’s greatest living stand-up” a centrepiece of the ridicule of his own act, alongside the five-star reviews he regularly receives in The Guardian, and has no hesitation in satirising the adulation his audiences have for him. But it’s true – he’s defined intelligent stand-up comedy for at least two decades, and his audiences are not only willing to stay the course with him through many of the more outré techniques he employs, but are actively excited by the prospect of them.
the mechanisms of his stand-up continue to test the same boundaries he’s been exploring for some time now
Indeed, this is where the show flirts with dangerous territory. I’ll avoid covering the content of the material itself, as much of this relies on being unfamiliar to the audience – although all the usual tropes of a Lee show are present. Flights of rage, apparent nervous breakdowns and opaque cultural references are the flesh and bones of his shows, and here are applied gamely in the pursuit of Lee’s bêtes noires – namely the public’s view of his works, and the repositioning of political correctness as wokeness. But the mechanisms of his stand-up continue to test the same boundaries he’s been exploring for some time now. He’s always been fascinated with deconstructing the form, and especially with seeing exactly how far he can push the tension and release at the core of stand-up.
This is what Lee is known and loved for amongst comedy fans – he’s seen as a pioneer, as a fearless innovator and an elevator of the genre to something more than just stand-up. But problems arise when these techniques remain unchanged; he points out the audience’s familiarity with his approach, as ever, but this time it really feels as if we’re right with him – or even one step ahead. Don’t get me wrong, the room is still filled with laughter, and at times it’s impossible not to wonder at the man’s sheer chutzpah, including a nearly 10-minute sketch on edgy comics “saying the unsayable” that includes basically no words. But where does he go from here?
a performer like Lee never really trades off nostalgia, and a left-turn feels more necessary than it’s ever been
The show lacks the unifying thread of some of his more accomplished scripts, and feels at times a little like a best-of. It’s to be expected, I suppose. It’s only natural for comics to return after an enforced 2-year hiatus with material that they know the audience will be receptive to, and Lee’s call-backs to previous routines get the laughs that such in-jokes naturally will. But a performer like Lee never really trades off nostalgia, and a left-turn feels more necessary than it’s ever been. His next show, Basic Lee, begins previewing this autumn, and apparently sees Lee “enter[ing] the post-pandemic era in streamlined solo stand-up mode” after “a decade of ground-breaking high concept shows involving overarched interlinked narratives, massive sets and enormous comedy props.”
The show sounds like exactly the chaser that Snowflake/Tornado naturally implies, and suggests Lee himself is aware of the difficulties of his approach no longer shocking his audience. Either way, the current tour is still a masterful show from a comic that stands head and shoulders above anyone else working in the UK today. His fearlessness remains unparalleled, his gall unmatched, and his set still feels like watching a magic trick. It’s at times excruciating, like a comedy hostage situation, but utterly essential viewing.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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