Stewart Lee

Should Stewart Lee’s current tour be on your group’s schedule this year? Paul Maguire, former judge at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards –previously known as the Perrier Awards – finds out.

This is not your normal stand up review because ‘Content Provider’ is not your normal stand up show. For at least the last ten years Stewart Lee has been at the top of his game. He is regularly cited as one of the most influential, iconoclastic and critically acclaimed comedians performing today.

Do not make the mistake of taking the Stewart Lee that is on stage at face value. This is an error that many audiences, critics, and even fellow comedians have made in the past. ‘Stewart Lee the comedian’ is in fact, a dramatic construct: an embittered, self-righteous, intellectual snob, who takes exaggerated positions for comic effect. 

Lee opens and conceitedly informs the audience that the first act is more enjoyable than the second act; which is cleverer. His usual biting contempt for the audience is not present. He is still as sardonic as ever, but gone is the vitriolic derision. He now delivers the insults with a knowing smirk. This has the effect of drawing the audience into the world of Stewart Lee, which is where they want to be and it also gives Lee free rein to disparage them at will, which is of course what they came for.

Content Provider’ is certainly not short on content. Lee powers through material about Brexit, the metropolitan liberal elite, the BBC and Sky and he mercilessly criticices other younger comedians. This is all done while he deconstructs his own jokes, parodies the perception of his own arrogance and maligns half of the audience for not being savvy enough to understand the subtleties of his act.

The main body of the second act is an impassioned treatise on how modern life is rubbish. He rails at  Game of Thrones as ‘Peter Stringfellow’s version of Lord of the Rings’, he complains that social media is an echo chamber, which is responsible  for the success of Brexit and Trump, and that has also allowed Gary Lineker to become ‘the champion of liberal progressive causes.’

He warms to his task and the old moody contemptuousness is back. He despises anyone under 40 years old. He states that everything that this age group does is now so easy to accomplish, that it lacks the value that struggle brings. To emphasize the point, he describes the trials and tribulations that his grandparents went through in the 1930s buying bondage and S&M gear, which today is easily bought with just the click of a mouse.

He is infuriated at the futile, vainglorious existence of the young; he cannot abide their compulsion to fill social media with endless photographs of themselves. ‘It’s not all about you’ he cries.

In this ‘cleverer’ second act the laugh quotient reduces, but the content is no less enjoyable. 

At the start of the performance, Lee introduces the notion that he had originally planned to base the show on the painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich. A picture in which a lone figure dressed in an overcoat and holding a walking stick, is viewed looking out over a foggy landscape of trees and mountain tops, suggesting self-reflection and insignificance of the individual amid the magnificent landscape.

He now returns to that theme. He concludes the show mocking the self-obsessed under 40s, ‘Here is a photo of me in front of the Taj Mahal, here is one of me in front of the Pyramids’. As he does this the stage fills with dry ice, Lee dons an overcoat and walking stick, he poses in tableau in an accurate representation of Friedrich’s painting. As the realisation of what he has just created hits the audience, he adds an inspired denouement that brings the house down.

Lee’s performance uses many dramatic and comedic techniques: he breaks down the fourth wall deploying a meta-textual narrative; his use of repetition builds tension while he holds his nerve for the payoff line and he references an obscure 19th-century painter, but a description like this is just superfluous.  Put simply this was a masterly performance of superbly crafted material, the only downside is the question that the show raises; will his next production live up to the ridiculously high standards set by this one.

Stewart Lee: Content Provider is touring UK venues until February  2018. Further details can be found on