Stewart Lee : Content Provider
Scarborough Spa Theatre, October 4 2017
It’s been a couple of years since Stewart Lee visited Scarborough. Last time he was trying out material that found its way into the fourth and final series of his, “critically accalimed and very cheap to make” show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. This time it’s a far more polished effort, having started life as his Edinbugh show last year. Over a hundred dates later, here is is, on a wet night on the North Yorkshire coast, playing to a full house.
The show is in two halves, and Caspar David Friedrich’s picture Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog plays a central part in both of them, though particularly in the finale (but no spoliers). The stated theme is whether our experiences are being devalued by the atomisation of culture and the easy availability of every kind of thing we could ever want without the need to delay any kind of gratification.
He promises it will not be a political show, but he throws in some beautiful material about Trump and Brexit (including some nicely topical musings about today’s disastrous Theresa May speech at the Conservative party conference), and he does it in a fantastically adroit way across the halves of the show. There are also some cracking one-liners, such as coming to the conclusion that Nigel Farage is exactly the kind of man who would put on a pair of driving gloves before wanking, and the fact that the contemporary internet is very much like 70s Top of the Pops: full of pop music and sexual predators. Then there’s his description of Game of Thrones as Peter Stringfellow’s Lord of the Rings. He also manages to talk about digital content and Sky, but not before he’s called Eamon Holmes Rupert’s “bin sniffing truffle pig”, and has done a fantastic extended riff about “the observational comedians”. He also manages to throw in a few little morsels on the history of sado-masochism, just as a side order.
The key feature of a Stewart Lee show, however. is how he plays with the audience’s perception and expectations. The persona “Stewart Lee” is an embittered, arrogant but self-loathing peacock, sick of telling jokes to audiences who cannot understand his genius. To this end, he spends time beating himself and the audience up about how badly they have managed to deconstruct and understand the material, so he pulls it apart again. This is wondrously funny when you have an audience who do get the gag, and can laugh at how mercilessly both they and he are being taken apart. There’s much about the fact that North Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, simultaneously poking fun at the so-called Metropolitan Elites. Part of the fun is listening to him praising an enclave of the audience for managing to keep up, while bemoaning the lack response of the rest. It’s a schtick that has taken many years to perfect, but it is beautifully honed now, and a joy to experience in full flow.
That stated theme does resurface, and it’s true to say that as a show it does ask you to think about the value of culture in a society where things are so easily available, and whether, because we don’t have to fight for those experiences in the same ways our antecedents did, whether those experiences are as rich and vivd as the ones our anscestors enjoyed (hessian potato sack gimp masks aside).
The Turkish funk that gets played during the interval (deliberate choice, and referenced in the act) is surprisingly good. One song sounded a lot like Whale’s Hobo Humping Slobo Babe.
After the gig, he sits and signs merchandise. If “Stewart Lee” is belligerent, bitter and ranting, the real thing is a quiet, rather diffident, even shy, man. He’s asked about how he feels about not being on TV after Comedy Vehicle was not renewed,. He’s philosophical, and touchingly far more concenred about the more positive effects for his son, who thankfully won’t be so much of a target at school now perhaps. It’s nice to meet, and talk to, however briefly, someone whose work over the last three decades has had such a profound effect on the way I see the world, and who makes me laugh so much.
But the bottom line is this: yes, it’s clever, but first and foremost, its funny. It’s really, really funny.