Tim Hughes finds himself laughing until it hurts at a show by the deliciously provocative Stewart Lee at Oxford Playhouse

Stewart Lee comes on stage, gazes around in mild amusement and shakes his head. He has barely uttered a word, nor heard our reaction, and yet he has already formed an opinion of his audience – and he is not impressed. Or at least, he is pretending not to be impressed – which is, of course, the joke.

There’s a lot of that with Lee. While lesser comics play for straight laughs or stride around the stage with their headset microphones (both earning the ire of this unforgiving master of what used to be called alternative comedy), Lee leads us part way up his torturous garden path and allows us to reach our own conclusions. Kind of. He also delights in playing us off against each other, toying with the boundaries of what it means to be a comedian, and with the traditional form of the comedy gig.

“I’m coming to despise the character Stewart Lee in the way Rod Hull hated emu,” he grimaces.

There are laughs. Loads. It’s painfully funny – if you get it. We do, though he would beg to differ, insisting Oxford is a ‘strange place. “It’s not London is it?” he says. “It’s basically a farming community.”

At his best he is the funniest stand-up on the scene. And this is vintage Lee – which means we are in for some chiding, especially if we don’t laugh loud enough for the clever bits. “You’re not putting enough effort into being an audience, by being too mainstream,” he complains.

He also suggests that by playing the venue for a week, too many of the ‘wrong’ people are coming. Maybe one night would have worked better, he smirks.

He tells us early on he won’t be doing jokes about Brexit or Donald Trump, because he’ll be touring the material for months to come, and he doesn’t want it to go stale. However, he proceeds to do exactly that – his profoundly profane digs at the political ‘right’ in the UK and US getting some of the biggest laughs of the night – the first before the interval and the latter in the second half, in an identical set-up, which he tells us off for not realising is deliberate.

Boris Johnson comes in for a thorough roughing-up as does the toilet humour-obsessed ‘comedian’ Russell Howard (could you imagine two performers more diametrically-opposed?). The Howard-mocking extends way beyond the limits of what is comfortable. “I’ll still be doing this when you get back,” he tells a young woman who leaves her seat for a comfort break. And he was.

A section about why bondage was better in our grandparent’s generation is beyond funny. To the delight of this audience he also has a dig at the phone and selfie-obsessed under-40s. It goes on and on, and just gets funnier.

“Don’t imagine your indifference will make me bail out sooner,” he warns us. “This is for my benefit... I’m not enjoying it... but I’ll look back on it with excitement – like being in a car crash.”

Quite brilliant.

Tim Hughes 5/5

* Stewart Lee, Content Provider, is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday. All shows have sold out