To his critics, Stewart Lee is little more than a champagne socialist: an audience-hating, Oxbridge-educated comedian who cracks cheap jokes at the expense of the establishment for an audience of similarly well-off lefties. To these accusations, Stewwy responds that we should all just be thankful he is no longer the “amphetamine communist” of his earlier years.
Over the course of two hours, the topics covered at the satirical comedian’s latest show, Much A-Stew About Nothing, oscillate between the Tories, celebrities who support the Tories, UKIP, political correctness, immigration, unemployment, middle-age, and he even squeezes in a line about Russell Brand. In short, while Lee’s personal circumstances may have changed (in his own words, he is now an “impotent, vasectomised, 45-year-old father of two”), his angle has not. And, it appears, neither has his audience. It is for this reason that, unlike too many comedians with a similar stage-life spanning decades, Lee cannot get away with recycling old jokes. We are thankful for this; he is the same old Stew that my parents also love, typical in the topical issues he challenges through laughter.
For the most part, this is a good thing. Comedians reminiscent of the 90s Golden anti-PC Age are now few and far between, at least in the mainstream comedy circuit. It is easy to criticise UKIP MEP Paul Nutall for his bigoted anti-immigration slurs, but few others today could do it with the intelligence, wit and coherence of Lee; a lesson in the history of European immigration, beginning at the moment fish stepped on to land, revealed the absurdity of Nutall’s remarks, and had the audience in fits.
At the dawn of 2014, where his history of immigration concludes, Lee has plenty of new things to hate: Twitter, which he refers to as a “voluntary state surveillance system”; dog owners, who perpetually allow their mutts to shit outside his comfortable suburban abode; and what he describes as the rampant multiculturalism in the UK today, in which state schools are encouraged to celebrate Diwali, Chinese New Year, and “LGBT harvest day”, where we can find “all the fruits”, apparently.
I take issue with Lee on jokes like the latter. Ultimately, his success lies in his ability to challenge social anxieties through comedy. So it wasn’t really his whining about these pressures that made me feel uncomfortable so much, but more because of the sheer number of jokes that made punch lines out of stigmatised groups. Too often, I was forced to wonder whether we had really made it to the 21st century after all, or if I had been transported to a bygone era when being ‘liberal’ did not necessarily mean you agreed with gay or minority rights.
According to Twitter and other corners of the pixelated realm that Lee tries to avoid, in previous warmup performances he has reaped laughs from similar lines about Chelsea Manning’s gender and anal sex. Far from challenging stereotypes, Lee seems to be reinforcing them.
His comments about “oligarchs” (bankers, politicians and everyone else who lives in London now, according to Lee) would have been quite funny too if he hadn’t gone on with quite so much disdain about “their prostitutes”. More than once I almost choked on my own laughter when a funny joke took a politically tasteless turn for the worse.
Stewart Lee knows the power he wields over an audience. His tales are captivating, and his politics are, for the most part, refreshing. We are invited to laugh at how fed up he is with society – and laugh at ourselves, too, when we don’t respond well enough to his one-liners. Nonetheless, it is a shame that a brilliant comedian, who is still heralded as a beacon of political satire, does not allow the real victims of social anxiety “in” on the joke, and instead makes jokes of them.
Stewart Lee’s Much A-Stew About Nothing comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 24 January