“I’m really delighted to be perceived as [part of the] out-of-touch, liberal elite by the Telegraph"Great Central

“Stewart Lee is not funny and has nothing to say” states one Telegraph review for Stewart Lee’s previous tour. Perhaps that critic was irritated by Lee’s ‘metropolitan elite’ reputation, or distinctively abrasive comic delivery. The quote now sits proudly on the promotional material for Lee’s current show, Content Provider.

On stage, Lee plays a character caught in a comedic Catch-22: if the material bombs, his audience are ignorant for failing to appreciate his humour; if it succeeds, it’s only because he’s the eponymous ‘content provider’, forced to manufacture gags to satiate his audience. The result: an absurdist and embittered figure, pathetically railing against the petty injustices of life.

Readers may be familiar with his hit Netflix stand-up series Comedy Vehicle, which ran for four series. His latest show takes aim at a Conservative government, Brexit, and Trump.

So where does the stage character end? And where does Stewart Lee begin?

As the quote on his promotional material suggests, Lee understands his audience’s liberal credentials. So I begin, “You are often held up as the crowning member of the liberal, metropolitan elite-”

“Are you saying I am that?” he interjects.

I stutter: “Well, I’m not sure…”

“I’ve been criticised for that so I decided to own it,” he finishes. “Anything I’m criticised for, I do more. And anything that [the right wing press] say I am, I become it.”

“Social media tells you what thick, horrible people think you’re like,” Lee continues. “If the Daily Mail write opinion pieces about comedy shows – none of which they’ve ever seen – they always call me a ‘foul mouthed comedian.”

Political commentator James Delingpole on Lee's stand-up

He leans back on the dressing room sofa, cackling to himself. “I’m really delighted to be perceived as [part of the] out-of-touch, liberal elite by the Telegraph, which is a vile paper. I want people with an imagination and a heart to come. I would explicitly state that it’s not meant for them. I did my ten years in the salt mines of the comedy scene, playing to whoever came along.”

“Stewart Lee is not funny and has nothing to say,” he repeats, shaking his head. “I wish I had put the guy’s name, because it was James Delingpole. It would make a lot more people come to the show! I got a really bad review from Toby Young once; if you’ve got Toby Young saying something horrible about you, that actually sells tickets.”

James Delingpole recently addressed the Cambridge Union, claiming that student ‘snowflakes’ exist in an out-of-touch liberal ‘bubble’ – Lee is often accused of being similarly blinkered.

“I’m quite happy to be providing comfort in the form of humour to a demographic whose values are being trampled.” The “politically correct, Guardian-reading terrorist sympathisers” of the Cambridge Corn Exchange, seated in the highest Remain-voting ward in the country, are right at home.

“I already knew what I wanted [the tour] to be before Brexit and Trump. They are sort of there in the background, like a drone. In a way, it’s funnier for the character that those things are happening. It’s funnier to have no power, to be defeated. The character on stage has lost; their tragedy is funny.”

And who exactly is the character on stage?, I ask. “It’s me, really, but he’s more extreme. He says things that I wouldn’t say, because he’s emboldened. He also never thinks that a gig going wrong is his fault; the problem is that the audience don’t understand it, or whatever.”

Lee is quick to underscore the ‘knowing’ aspect to his comic creation: “I am aware that it’s ridiculous for a successful man to be petty-minded about people who he feels have slighted him. It’s a joke. The difference is that a lot of stand-ups are working in one dimension. They are supposed to be a power figure. I am too but I also invite you to find me ridiculous, misguided, petty-minded, mean-spirited […] It’s one dimension more than most stand-ups.”

Lee’s pathetic, British anti-hero is arguably more nuanced than that. His smirks at the camera, acknowledging the comic artifice. In his work for TV, Lee plays off the studio audience against the home audience, exploiting the fact that he is simultaneously playing the same character to two separate audiences.

Paul Nuttals of the UKIPsBad Bern

Lee’s satire couldn’t be more different from the straight-talking American late night equivalent. So why hasn’t the BBC sponsored a renaissance of political satire?

“It’s not going to happen,” Lee continues. “They can have as many Geoff Norcotts [a pro-Brexit and Conservative stand-up] on-air as they want, the Government is not going to say ‘Oh, well done! You hosted Geoff Norcott on the News Quiz, so we’re not going to destroy you’. They’re going to destroy [the BBC] anyway.”

“From a commercial point of view, production companies are thinking, ‘Quick, let’s make some satire!’ But the problem is…”

He lets out an exasperated sigh. “The talent is out there, but they haven’t connected with it because they’ve been making stupid panel shows for years.”

Despite studying English at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, Lee is damning about the political cynicism Oxbridge can instill in some students.

“I think that Oxford and Cambridge are to blame for a lot of this. Both of them have these debating societies, like the Cambridge Union, where politics is an intellectual game for young men – it’s normally young men – to sort of outwit each other. It’s not about the ethics or the morality; it’s about the combative sport of debate.”

“And then [the politicians] walk away from it. A plane crashes, and they just walk out of it.”

Returning to comedy, I ask which comedians he would currently recommend.

Lee with long-time collaborator, Richard Herringstewart_lee_appreciation

“Most comedians think Daniel Kitson is the best. Josie Long and Nish Kumar are both really good at the moment.”

“One of the sad things about being better known is that it’s more difficult to go to see things; your presence in a room creates a problem. People don’t like to be on a bill with me sometimes because they say the people who come to see me are very judgemental of the other acts.”

“Don’t know where they got that one from,” I interject.

“Well, yeah…” A curling, wry smile lights up his expression. Stewart scratches an unshaven chin and adjusts his leather biker jacket. His trademark suit is hanging in the wardrobe: the interview is over, and the show is about to begin.

Stewart Lee is touring nationally till March 2018. More details can be found at http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/live-dates/

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