Stewart Lee Review: Live at St. George’s Hall Bradford
June 10, 2015
It is difficult to clearly articulate the varying ways that Stewart Lee’s comedic style is different to the traditional conventions of mainstream stand-up. Although Lee knowingly pokes fun at the industry he claims to be at the fringes of (with regular jibes at ‘popular’ comedians such as Lee Mack and Michael McIntyre), his interesting position in the British comedy scene needs further exploration to be understood.
At the root of Stewart Lee’s comical ethos is a deep dedication to the complex art of satire. That is to say that the elements of his well-crafted show not only make fun of his stage character and the peculiarities of British society, they also send up the established art of stand-up comedy itself.
For example, ‘A Room with a Stew’ begins by Lee unenthusiastically announcing himself off stage, followed by a brief section where he essentially gives an extended overview of what he will be discussing throughout the show. This unconventional opening appears to be completely unstructured and clumsy in places, carried along in the dreary and indifferent monotone of a man who seemingly does not enjoy standing up in front of his audience.
If you haven’t seen Lee before, this might sound like some sort of horrific anti-comedy. But, if you have experience you will know that all of this is actually neatly structured and helps to underpin the satirical persona that underpins any of his performances.
As the show progresses through the first set, Lee’s Sahara dry wit turns to an ironic mocking of Islam, and a direct mocking of the audience. Many mainstream comedians wouldn’t dream of extensively insulting the whole audience, but for Lee this is standard practice. The pretence here is that the viewers are simply not as sharp as him, or the rest of the country he has been touring around either.
Ironically, Lee does not patronise the audience by pretending that he is really making fun of them here. Rather, he displays his understanding of their intelligence by maintaining a continuous level of unwavering satire. Be in no doubt though, there are times when this tactic becomes uncomfortable. Yet, this isn’t the sort of discomfort that comes from watching somebody make a complete fool of themselves, like Ricky Gervais often does, the discomfort comes from occasionally not being sure whether you are in on the joke or not.
Stewart Lee is undoubtedly a comic who makes you think. This is not to say that his material is overly ideological, or morally weighted to make you feel bad about yourself. Rather, the jokes are often intentionally veiled under varying layers of meaning, with genuinely intelligent assertions about British life simultaneously being made. Alongside this is the sardonic delivery of a comic who pretends to be performing simple jokes, but is more often than not making fun of the basic material many other comics deliver.
With proclamations about the audience being comprised of all the Guardian readers in Bradford, some might consider Stewart Lee perceives his brand of comedy to be high-brow. The reality is that while Lee’s comedy is knowingly intelligent it is also intensely self-deprecating with a real sense of liberal awkwardness. As well as making fun of others, particularly the UKIPers of this world, Stewart Lee spends a good portion of his time making fun of his own pessimistic persona.
At times, through varied repetition, it seems as though Lee is wringing every drip of hilarity out of these set-pieces – to the point where he expects you to be able to reach the punch lines without him actually saying them. Despite feeling deliberately tedious in places, this is still funny and the majority of the crowd continues to go along with it.
Much of the shows hilarity flirts around the notion that Lee is a disorganised and under confident performer, who is actually paranoid about the quality of his content. Stopping to decompartmentalise certain quips, or to unpick the validity of the statements he has just made, again seems like a foolish thing to do. Surely the art is in the deception, right? Yet, as with the rest of the show, Stewart Lee really does know his audience. We are all aware that the extended sections of improvisation are actually carefully worked out, and we also know that the Lee has made the same wry comments in every other city he has been to recently.
‘A Room with a Stew’ is without question a hilariously entertaining roller-coaster of a show. If you prefer bite sized nuggets of easily digestible humour, this might not be for you. However, if you like your comedy served dry and you can handle a heavy dose of satire, then I can only recommend that you go to see Stewart Lee. You will not be disappointed.
Stewart Lee’s tour, ‘A Room with a Stew’, continues throughout 2015.
Tickets can be purchased from: www.stewartlee.co.uk