Stewart Lee is the undisputed master of anti-comedy, or, if you like, meta-comedy. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical technique, which in German goes by the name of the “verfremdungseffekt” (alienation effect) he antagonises his audience in order to elicit a response, like the archetypal mad scientist engaged in some Pavlovian experiment, or better still, a guest conductor coaxing an orchestra to give of their best. Condescending and narcissistic, exposing the artificiality of his stand-up routine by reading aloud from prompt cards extracted from his jacket pocket, he treats the majority of his audience as if they were an unnecessary irritant, unable to appreciate his lofty genius. But it’s all done tongue in cheek, accompanied with impromptu sound effects, especially when he grabs a metaphorical trombone from the brass section of the aforementioned orchestra and performs some fart-like raspberries down the microphone. And I loved it. At one point in Act Two, I was crying so much with laughter I thought I might keel over from a comedy-induced heart attack. I suspect Lee would have carried on, regardless.
A red neon Tornado sign and red curtains adorn the stage in Act One. Lee begins by telling us how the Netflix platform erroneously described his act in terms which clearly reference the film Sharknado: “Reports of sharks falling from the skies are on the rise again. And nobody on the Eastern Seaboard is safe.” He naturally speculates whether they described Sharknado as alternative comedy on the same site. We must bear all of this in mind, since the set will meander through various detours before returning triumphantly to the same subject matter, like the recapitulation section of a piece of music written in sonata form.
During the course of these mental peregrinations, he mentions a review of his work by Alan Bennett published in The London Review of Books. This allows Lee to mimic the famous Yorkshireman’s voice to good effect, and he explains that the pandemic has enabled him to perfect his mimicry. He now knows “All the impressions. Alan Bennett. [dramatic pause] All the impressions!” Bennett seems to think that the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman would have liked Stewart Lee, as would J. L. Austin, the British philosopher of language, most famous for his theory of speech acts. As for Goffman, “He’d have been flailing around in a tsunami of his own urine by now,” comments Lee, before turning on the venerable old man of British comedy: “This is the kiss of death, this Alan Bennett review. I hate Alan Bennett!” With that, Lee is swallowed by a fake shark at the rear of the stage and the curtain falls on Act One.
Act Two, by contrast, offers us a blue neon sign bearing the word Snowflake, and a similarly coloured backdrop incorporating a snowflake design. Having changed costume in the interval, Lee is now wearing a powder blue jacket, several sizes too big for his frame, together with a snowflake-themed T-shirt. After all, he admits, he’s let himself go during the pandemic. Now that he’s hit fifty, he’s a candidate for some chair-based activity in the local leisure centre.
A van in Nottingham bearing the legend “Robin Hood’s Jacket Potatoes” is the first in the firing line. Given that the legendary outlaw is thought to have lived in the latter half of the 14th century, this fact is not lost on Lee while he waits patiently in the queue. As he smugly explains, the potato wasn’t introduced to this country until the end of the 16th century, which means the whole naming convention behind the business is based on a chronological error. Ever the know-it-all, Lee succeeds in making the woman cry.
A quick detour to London follows, to the Comedy Club in Soho, where his career as a stand-up comedian began. In those far-off days, Lee recalls how the male strippers from the nearby Raymond Revue Bar would maintain their tumescence, though not full erections, by sitting together in chairs and masturbating. Lee helpfully provides the legal definition of an erection. It’s apparently 45 degrees of elevation. He wonders if, as a result of Brexit, we are no longer burdened by red tape when it comes to such matters.
Throughout the show, comedians get it in the neck, none more so than Dave Chappelle, who we are told, insisted that the hundreds of white light bulbs in his London dressing room must be replaced with red ones and that a rotisserie chicken should also be provided for snacking purposes. Lee, by contrast, claims that his needs are much more Spartan. All he asks for is a pork pie, some Bovril and an unpublished Franz Kafka manuscript.
Ricky Gervais’s Afterbirth series (Afterlife) is then characterised as an orgy of wank crying. Lee goes on to demonstrate how a Gervais routine might unfold if he really was prevented by the agents of political correctness from uttering any forbidden phrases, which tend to be a staple of his one-man shows. We now understand why, in Act Two, there is a lectern on the stage complete with a bottle of beer! After several failed attempts, all that Lee can manage are a few grunts and howls. Dropping back into his own curmudgeonly character, he points out that a contributor to the Internet forum Mumsnet claimed the present routine went on for far too long. But how can you quantify just how long such a routine should be, adds Lee? He’s got a point.
Alan Parsons, writing in GQ magazine, stated that Stewart Lee represented “the rancid tip of a cesspit” for his use of the c-word in connection with women. But as Lee pedantically and gleefully points out, cess doesn’t have a tip. It’s flat. Then, in an attempt to expose Parsons’ hypocrisy, he reads out another quotation from the same author about bananas. Parsons states that he likes the flesh of his bananas to be firm… just like he does his women. What’s more, he certainly doesn’t like them bruised or damaged. Oh, dear, the words pot, kettle and black come immediately to mind.
Next up is Lee’s nan, whose voice is rendered in her characteristic Brummie accent. At the chiropodist’s, she’s offered some broth by a member of staff. However, she’s told that the hot broth can’t be served at any of the workstations, only in the waiting area. In the words of his nan, “It’s political correctness gone mad, Stew!” Lee, however, demurs, and suggests it might have something to do with the Health and Safety at Work Act. His nan, though, is unimpressed. She belongs to a demographic that would have used an electric fire in the bathroom had they so wished. In fact, they’d have put it in the bath to keep warm, suggests Lee. As a final contribution, his nan exclaims, “They’ve banned Christmas, Stew!” In Lee’s version of this triumph of the woke brigade, visitors to the Pallasades shopping centre in Birmingham are no longer regaled with Christmas carols playing over the tannoy, but instead are subjected to the phrase “Hail Satan!” repeated over and over, and exhorted to “piss in the eyes of the infant Christ!”
At last, we reach the Sharknado reprise where Alan Bennett makes a welcome reappearance, for it seems that he has written a new play in which Sharknado is relocated to Dewsbury and Leeds! As he reaches the conclusion of his narration, Lee berates an unfortunate member of the audience for leaving moments before the climax.
The show then draws to a close with a story about Lee being bitten by a false widow spider, only to meet a man with a false leg at the doctor’s surgery who has also been bitten by a false widow. He’s about to introduce the wife of the man with the false leg when the anecdote peters out. He then follows this up with three Boris Johnson jokes, which essentially use the same material, musing on the fact that Johnson happens to be the real mayor of London, not a clown mayor, which means that Ken Livingston is not the real mayor, locked away in a shipping container. Move forward a few years and he uses exactly the same language when Johnson is appointed Foreign Secretary and then later becomes Prime Minister. As a final flourish, fake snow falls while Lee plays acoustic guitar and sings a song about being a snowflake, in other words an individual with a sensitive nature.
All in all, the Darlington show was a thoroughly entertaining evening for those who like that sort of comedy. I understand you can catch a version of Snowflake Tornado, filmed in York, on the BBC sometime in the autumn of this year.