JUST before he brought his show to a close, The Times’s No.1 living stand-up comedian (as he himself never tired of reminding us) let the mask slip ever so slightly.

The comic creation Stewart Lee took a brief pause as the real-life Stewart Lee came forward to thank us for coming out to watch his rejigged Snowflake/Tornado show, after its enforced mothballing due to the pandemic. The man who has (by his own admission) been left bald, grey, fat, deaf, and with high blood pressure after a 30-year stand up career, looked genuinely delighted to be back on stage.

It was one of the few breaks he gave the crowd on the first night of his week-long run of shows at the Oxford Playhouse. The critically-acclaimed performer and writer was not here to make friends with his audience, or his fellow comedians, for that matter, repeating his oft-used mantra: “I can do jokes: I just choose not to.”

Lee’s work is so much more than just gag-telling. He has made a career out of subverting the stand-up genre, with intricately crafted stories, themes, and sudden digressions, mixing highbrow intellectual theory with blunt invective.

Oxford Mail:

Stewart Lee at a previous gig at the Jericho Tavern.  Picture by Tim Hughes

The show is split into two. Kicking off with ‘Tornado’, Lee rants about the fact that, for two years, Netflix’s listings for his Comedy Vehicle TV series actually contained the details for the disaster movie Sharknado instead. Weaving in a series of digs at comics Josh Widdecombe, Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr, US comedians in general and Dave Chappelle in particular – with whom he shared a venue and against whom he now bears a grudge – it culminates in a pitch-perfect Alan Bennett parody that neatly tops and tails the whole routine.

‘Snowflake’ is a passionate defence of political correctness, so severely under attack in these days of culture wars.


Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee 2015 touring  Photo Colin Hutton.

Proudly labelling himself as an advocate of the woke culture, and inspired by an attack on him by Tony Parsons in GQ magazine, Lee goes on the offensive – picking apart the criticism and then responding with plenty of his own.

His trademark techniques are in evidence – particularly when he mimics Ricky Gervais “saying the unsayable” through a long spell of attempting and failing to spit out words, resulting in a series of weird, revolting noises, gradually becoming ever-more ridiculous. Interspersed with Gervais’s casual swig of lager.

It must have lasted about five minutes but seemed like hours – Lee tests his audience’s patience to the limits with his forays into repetition, later admitting that a reviewer on Mumsnet described the piece as “too long”.

“That implies there is a correct amount of time for it to go on for,” he says. “And that she knows what it is.”

The audience is regularly berated, at other times he looks at us with pity for not laughing loudly enough at an obscure reference (“I expected more from you, Oxford”).

He finishes with a song – played on an acoustic guitar and sung with a surprisingly tender voice – but undercut with choice language and a flurry of snowflakes, culminating in a visual gag which is about as close as Lee gets to slapstick.

Monday kicked of a second Oxford run for Snowflake/Tornado, following a week of shows at the Beaumont Street venue in early 2020 – not long before the first lockdown.

“Well, I do like the Playhouse, and I am a patron of the building,” he says. “I was a student in Oxford over three decades ago though and, having made my peace with the place in recent years, I am more than happy to do a long run here. The staff at the Playhouse are really great and it is a very playable room.”

His tours take on hundreds of dates and last many months – even years. How does he make sure they last the distance, even if they get overtaken by political events?

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee.

“It was hard to hold the last tour – Content Provider – together in the face of the rapidly escalating Brexit story, but it worked out,” says Lee. “Because my shows have beginnings, middles, ends and narrative-like structures, you can’t just bin the whole thing, so I need to make them impregnable to news if they are to serve for 200 dates of a long tour.

“This usually means corralling off news detail into sections that can pop in and out without bringing the whole edifice down. As it happens, for this tour, the general trend towards the right, and against political correctness and so-called ‘woke’ culture, (both of which ideas I am a fan of), that has happened since I started putting this show together, has actually firmed up the main thrust of the second half, and lots of the silly characters I mention – Boris Johnson, Ricky Gervais – have become more prominent since the tour began, so it has worked out well.”

Ah yes, Boris Johnson. As a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan liberal elite, what’s his take on our Prime Minister?

“Well I think Boris Johnson is a massive lying **** bereft of empathy or morals. I hope the recalibration of British politics can survive the fact that Johnson’s massive lies have crashed many people’s faith in the notion of a functioning democracy.”

Lee has shunned the ubiquitous TV panel shows (or rather, he says, they’ve shunned him) – but what’s the most bizarre programme he’s been offered?

“Too many to mention, but probably one of those Comedy Roast things,” he says. “It’s just not my bag at all. I’m just not a panel show act either.

“When I did them, in 2006, I was conscious of trying to work as part of a group to set things up for the show but people just shut you down and crash over you, people who are normally perfectly nice in real life. It’s like The Stanford Prison Experiment.

“Also, I wasn’t prepared to just learn the generic news jokes the writers had written, which is what most people on them do, and which is why they all have the same one-dimensional beats and tonality. We lost a lot of good comics to panel shows over the years, potentially great stand-ups who had their horizons contracted in to being zingy one-liner monkeys. Some managed to find their way back. Most don’t.”

If you missed the show when Lee visited in 2020, then you’ve still got until tonight (Saturday) to grab a ticket. Even if you did see it then, there are enough changes to keep it fresh – and the original material is still hilarious second time around (depending on which side of the love him/loathe him camp you fall in).

“I seem to have joined that happy band of stand-ups whom proper comedy fans like – Rhod Gilbert, Dylan Moran for example – who hopefully can tour effectively whenever they want without being dependent on the whims of TV,” says Lee. “And then die. Hopefully on stage at the Oxford Playhouse from a massive drug and alcohol induced heart attack.

“Scatter my ashes in a cowpat in a wild flower meadow somewhere near Godstow. I was once happy there.”

  •  Stewart Lee is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday


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