Stewart Lee is back…although it probably seems like he’s hardly been away.

The prolific stand-up comedian, writer, and documentary maker (to name just some of the strings to his bow) is this week bringing his latest show Basic Lee to the Oxford Playhouse – the theatre where he is also a patron.

It comes less than a year since his last visit, for the Snowflake/Tornado tour, and the city is again being treated to a week of shows at the Beaumont Street venue, with Lee shunning shorter runs at larger theatres for a cosier and friendlier atmosphere.

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“The tickets would be more expensive everywhere else. They will fall into the hands of touts who will charge more for them, and the show will not be as good in the big venue,” explains Lee.

“So it is more fun to do a better show in a more cost-effective way for a longer run at The Playhouse, which is a great experience and the staff are nice.

“Also, I like the city so I am happy to be here for a week and will wander about looking at things. I was a student here. Sometimes the memories are bittersweet, but I like the familiarity. I hope the weather is cold.”

Luckily, the St Edmund Hall graduate (and Honorary Fellow) has a few things lined up to keep him occupied when he is not on the stage during his Oxford run – some highbrow, others less so.

“I will go to all the galleries and museums, walk over Port Meadow and go up Cowley Road to Truck records. I will try to get into various colleges to see various stained glass windows and art works, which they get tax relief on, but it isn’t always possible.

“I will go and look at as many churches as possible and treat myself to a street kebab one night, probably from one of the vans by the Ashmolean Museum. If I can get a lift, I will go to The Rollright Stones and have a megalithic day out.”

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee. By tim Hughes

Stewart Lee played the Jericho Tavern, supporting Brummy band The Nightingales. Picture by Tim Hughes

After a decade of ground-breaking, high concept shows involving overarching interlinked narratives, big sets and comedy props, Lee enters the post-pandemic era in streamlined solo stand-up mode. Billed as ‘one man, one microphone, and one microphone in the wings in case the one on stage breaks’, Basic Lee represents a back-to-basics approach to stand-up.

“It’s not really possible to keep a show on the road for 18 months at the moment if it’s too tied into the politics of now, as it is so volatile. I started writing this show in August and I am already on the third government of its run,” Lee admits.

Read again: Stewart Lee tests his audience’s patience to the limits 

“Also, the last tour had a big set with moving parts, but it all had to go into storage for two years because of Covid, so I don’t want to attach the new show to a big concept like that. I wanted to allow more room for improvisation and looseness without being locked into such a tight structure.”

The Basic Lee UK tour looks like a gruelling schedule for a man who is, by his own admission, not at the peak of fitness.

More than 30 years of stand-up comedy has left him ‘bald, grey, fat, deaf, with high blood pressure, and only able to exercise while sitting down’. So what drives him on?

“Well, I try to meet the demand without diluting the show by playing big, horrible places. There’s about 250,000 people nationwide that want to see me and I try to break it down into manageable sized rooms, where you can still get a real vibe going and you aren’t just shouting into the dark at a room that sounds from the stage like the rush of anechoic white noise you hear when you put your ear to a shell.

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee. Picture by Steve Ullathorne

“Also, I am in a zone now where no-one has ever been before. No-one has ever written as much stand-up as me and kept it developing and changing. I’m not saying I’m the best stand-up, but I am pushing forward in my own way.

“I am interested in the old-fashioned notion of seeing what happens if, instead of treating stand-up like a route to films or monetisable celebrity, you continue to treat it as an end itself into your 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s.”

So don’t expect to see him taking the well-trodden path of hosting TV game shows or chat shows anytime soon.

“I don’t want to do anything except stand-up,” he says. “There are documentaries I could have or should have done, but you only tend to get things like that now if someone can measure your attraction via online follower counts, and I don’t do any social media.”

Aaah yes, documentaries. The 2020 King Rocker film he made with Michael Cumming, chronicling the life and times of Birmingham band The Nightingales and their idiosyncratic lead singer Robert Lloyd, received critical acclaim and was obviously a labour of love. Has he got any similar projects lined up?

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee. Picture by Steve Ullathorne

“The Nightingales doc was crowd-funded and paid for by us doing benefits. There was no further funding forthcoming to do anything similar on a viable level despite its critical acclaim,” he says.

“I can only afford to do those sorts of things if I have done other work that has subsidised them and, obviously, we are all trying to catch up from a two-year break. It would also need to be something – as The Nightingales doc was – that my wife [fellow comedian Bridget Christie] would feel was worthwhile enough me taking the time off to make.”

The chemistry between Lee and Lloyd was one of the King Rocker’s highlights. Could we see them share the screen again in a Mortimer and Whitehouse-style series?

Probably not, admits Lee, adding “it’s hard enough for Mortimer and Whitehouse to get funding for a Mortimer and Whitehouse series!”.

Regular audiences will know that Lee’s stage persona loves to, ahem, analyse his fellow comedian’s acts. So, which of them get most offended– the ones he mentions, or the ones he doesn’t?

Oxford Mail:

“The character of Stewart Lee onstage isn’t your pretend friend, or a pretend normal bloke. He is a man who does comedy for a living, so it makes sense that he would talk about his experiences of the business, as that is his ‘truth’, says Lee (the off-stage one).

“Most of the comedians whose acts I talk about, I would imagine, can see that I have watched, and arguably even enjoyed, what they do. The only stand-up I have mentioned in the last few years on stage who I feel really is not very good at the art form on any level is Ricky Gervais.

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“I expect on some level he knows that and is ashamed of the extent to which he has been able to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It is a tragic situation really.”

Talking of fellow comics, does he think Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has created unrealistic expectations about what a comedian can achieve?

“I hope Zelensky is able to capitalise on his profile with a successful Edinburgh fringe run in the near future,” he quips.

  • Stewart Lee’s Basic Lee is at the Oxford Playhouse from Monday, January 30- Saturday, February 4.
  • Go to or call the box office on 01865 305305.