THERE must have been a bit of glitch in the matrix on Monday.

On the opening night of his week-long run at the Oxford Playhouse, Stewart Lee said something nice about three of his fellow comedians. Okay, two of them are no longer with us, but it still represented a change in tack from a man who is infamous for sharing his harsh opinions of some of those who share his profession.

In fact, in his latest show, Basic Lee, he once again puts his favourite topic – stand-up comedy itself – firmly in the spotlight. It’s an art form he still obviously adores after more than 30 years in the business and can’t resist casting an analytical eye over.

Read more: Stewart Lee gets back to basics in Oxford - and can't wait to get a kebab

There’s more deconstruction on display than a MasterChef contestant reinventing a classic dish.

After a decade of high concept shows involving overarched interlinked narratives, big sets and comedy props, it is billed as Lee ‘entering the post-pandemic era in streamlined solo stand-up mode. One man, one microphone, and one microphone in the wings in case the one on stage breaks. Pure. Simple’.

Simplicity, however, is not something you can ever accuse Lee of. Unlike the audience members who arrived late, left early, or were caught looking at their phones – and you carry out any of these sins at your peril at a Stewart Lee gig – you need to pay attention because all the threads tie together neatly. Sort of.

In many ways, attempting to review Stewart Lee’s comedy is utterly pointless. As well as thankless and difficult. It’s never going to persuade disparagers that he’s funny, nor convince his true believers that Lee is anything other than a comedy genius. Which inspires one of the funniest moments of the show, with Lee sympathising with any female members of the audience who have been dragged along after suffering a bout of mansplaining from their other halves about his act. It’s a familiar theme for his stage persona – a wearisome attitude towards the sycophantic nature of some of his fans.

But the most noticeable thing about this show – if you take away the verbal attacks on audience members for disturbing his flow – was the feeling of warmth.

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee. Picture by Steve Ullathorne

It almost turned into ‘An Evening with Stewart Lee’ as the comic spoke with affection and admiration about the late Barry Cryer and Sean Locke, as well as the very much still alive Daniel Kitson. And there was genuine gratitude to the audience for coming out “in this window of opportunity between the pandemic and World War Three” to enjoy some live comedy, admitting that his physical and mental health both struggled during lockdown.

However, the mask doesn’t slip completely.

Comedians Kevin Bridges and his old double act partner Richard Herring both come in for some gentle ribbing, while Frankie Boyle took a heavier hit.

JK Rowling and her alter ego Robert Galbraith come up for discussion touching on the transphobia issue (despite Lee insisting he’s not talking about ‘that’), while he also expands on a conceit first mooted in early incarnations of his Snowflake/Tornado show about how TV comedy Fleabag ‘invented’ the concept of breaking the fourth wall.

In an even bolder display of rummaging through his own back catalogue, he shamelessly and repeatedly revisits a routine from 1989 (“complete with now-defunct cultural references”) about a fictional exchange with an evangelical Christian who asks him: “Jesus is the answer. What is the question?”

We just needed “these days, if you say you’re English you get arrested and thrown into jail”, and “the UKIPs” complaining about foreigners “coming over here” and we would be well on our way to a greatest hits tour.

Oxford Mail: Stewart Lee at Jericho Tavern, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

Stewart Lee at Jericho Tavern, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

Well, it’s one way of avoiding having topical material derailed by national events. As Lee told the Oxford Times in December: “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.”

The verdict? Well, if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket to this sold-out Playhouse run, you’re in for a treat. Pay no attention to the claims about this being ‘basic’: this is classic Stewart Lee, as funny, acerbic, and as finely crafted as ever.

Just make sure you switch your phone off.

  • Stewart Lee’s Basic Lee is at the Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until Saturday, February 4
  • Go to or call 01865 305305