There aren’t too many comedians who would structure a stand-up show around a 19th Century painting. You can’t imagine Michael McIntrye or Russell Howard doing it. But then Stewart Lee isn’t like most comedians.
The painting in question is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by the German Romantic artist Caspar Friedrich. It depicts the back of a mysterious figure looking out across a hazy landscape. Lee refers to it throughout his new show, Content Provider, and seeks to explore the role of the individual in a “digitised free market society”.
Wanting a show he can tour until mid 2017, the aim was to avoid the kind of current affairs-related material that quickly dates. Some things are impossible to ignore though, and each half starts with a short, almost identical routine: in the first half about the horrors of waking up after the Brexit vote, and in the second about the horrors of waking up after the election of Donald Trump. It’s a simple and effective method of drawing parallels between the issues that led to the two events.
And if I hadn’t spotted that Stewart Lee was using this device as a neat comedic method, it’s okay, because he’s more than happy to point it out; Lee is well known for explaining the mechanics behind his jokes, especially if part of the audience isn’t finding something funny enough. In truth, Lee probably explains his jokes too much in a disjointed first half and consequently things drag a little.
Still, he pulls out some great lines along the way. He professes to be annoyed to be appearing at Symphony Hall for two nights – there are too many people in the audience who don’t get it. He blames the venue’s efficient marketing campaign and his fans bringing their clueless friends for the odd flat reaction to a joke. Some seats are empty, but he assures us that they are sold. He’s popular enough for touts to snap up tickets, but not popular enough for people to buy them at inflated prices. This suits him: “That’s my dream, the whole room sold out and empty”.
Of course, we don’t believe him. As an audience member at a Stewart Lee gig you feel like you’re there as much for his entertainment as he is there for yours. Although it’s a heavily scripted show, Lee seems to test new things out every night to amuse himself. Does a longer pause, a different noun, a different inflection, make a joke funnier? This might seem unlikely, but anyone who has read his 2011 book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, in which he analyses three of his own sets using comprehensive footnotes, will understand just how considered every facet of his performance is.
And what a performance. The fictionalised version of himself he plays on stage is clever, smug, arrogant, hypocritical, patronising, pompous, vain, and as wonderfully rounded as any comedy character going. Indeed, as Stewart Lee ages the character just makes more and more sense; of course this cantankerous, middle-aged man hates the under 40s and doesn’t understand Games of Thrones. In one skit he tries to appear relevant by knowing who the “rap singer” FKA Twigs is, but as the story unfolds and becomes more and more preposterous it becomes clear he thinks she’s a man from Gloucestershire.
The second half is much tighter and well paced than the first, and is all the more enjoyable for it. Lee starts to warm on his theme – exploring the idea that the digital world has fragmented communities and turned human interactions into marketplace transactions. He looks back to a time when all of the information, music, products and thrills you could wish for weren’t just a click away. You actually had to work for them and because of this they meant more.
Stewart Lee is self-aware enough to know that he’s as much a part of the problem he’s examining as the audience. After all, he’s a content provider himself, both in his roles as a performer and a column writer for The Guardian. He criticises the selfie culture, but his onstage persona isn’t immune to vanities of his own, mentioning his critical acclaim a number of times. He talks about the lengths he goes to in order to commodify his own work into profitable DVDs.
But his stand-up shows are not easy to mindlessly consume. To get the most out of a Stewart Lee set you need to listen carefully and attentively. As he jokes, “I hope that you’ve done the reading”. You have to make your own links, apply your knowledge of current affairs; in short, you have to think.
And whilst there may not be huge shared cultural moments anymore, like when half of the UK population watched Morecambe and Wise on TV in the 1970s, we did all share something watching a live comedy gig together tonight. Lee’s final monologue is poetic, memorable and leaves you with much to mull over. I go away wanting to be a bit more like the man in Friedrich’s painting, looking out at the world, instead of down at my little section of it.
For more on Stewart Lee, visit www.stewartlee.co.uk
For more from the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit www.thsh.co.uk