BREVIEW: Stewart Lee – Content Provider @ Symphony Hall 27.03.17

Words by Helen Knott / Pics by Idil Sukan

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

For more from the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit

BPREVIEW: Stewart Lee – Content Provider @ Symphony Hall 27&28.03.17

BPREVIEW: Stewart Lee - Content Provider @ Symphony Hall 27&28.03.17 / Idil Sukan

Words by Helen Knott / Pics by Idil Sukan

On Monday 27th and Tuesday 28th March, Stewart Lee brings his new show, Content Provider, to the Symphony Hall.

Doors open at 7.30pm, with tickets priced at £25 (including £3 booking fee). For direct gig info, including full venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

After four critically acclaimed series, the BBC finally wielded its axe and killed off Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. If you never saw it, Comedy Vehicle featured a half hour Stewart Lee stand-up routine, interspersed by interview segments of Lee examining his performance, joke writing abilities and career. It was a clever, insightful and funny show, but it’s hard to imagine it had mass-market appeal.

Anyway, it’s gone now and Stewart Lee had some unexpected time on his hands. The result was Content Provider, an anthology of selected short prose from the columns he writes for The Observer ‘every time that David Mitchell was away’First published by Faber & Faber in July 2016, Lee is now taking Content Provider out on an 18 month UK tour as his new stand up show.

This is Stewart Lee’s first full-length show since 2011’s Carpet Remnant World, with his most recent tours testing out 25 minute segments of material for his TV work. As such, the axing of his BBC show is perhaps a blessing in disguise for Lee fans: a full-length show is arguably a better channel for his carefully constructed, reflective and analytical comedy.

As Stewart Lee is a fully paid up member of the metropolitan liberal elite, it’s safe to expect Content Provider will contain left-leaning attacks on the Tories, Trump and Brexit. However with the need to keep the show topical for a long 18-month stint, Lee‘s focus will also be on consumerism, narcissism and their role in today’s society. Hopefully at the Symphony Hall, as a local boy made good, there may be some Birmingham jokes too (Lee was born in Shropshire before growing up in Solihull).

But with Stewart Lee there’s little middle ground – most people either think Lee’s the best stand-up comedian in the country, or can’t stand his long, repetitive speeches and smarmy persona. And for all his five star reviews, Dominic Cavendish (Daily Telegraph) made public his decision to walk out of a Stewart Lee gig in 2013:

‘If Lee had a shred of interest or insight into the working lives of other people, he’d realise that those who give up an evening at the end of a week to see him deserve his thanks not his toxic scorn.’

Of course, you could argue that Cavendish missed the point; Lee is playing a character, he’s pretending to be scornful to be funny, and he’s pushing the confines of comedy as far as he can. But it can undoubtedly get under your skin if you don’t take it for what it is. And with all the bad reviews and negative social media comments that Lee posts on his own website, I don’t think that he would want it any other way.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle Series 4 – ‘Telegraph Review’

Stewart Lee performs at the Birmingham Town Hall on Monday 27th & Tuesday 28th March. For direct gig info and online tickets sales, click here.


For more on Stewart Lee, visit

For more from the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit