When I first saw Stewart Lee’s Content Provider at De Montfort Hall, Leicester in February, I had the ill-conceived and frankly deranged idea in my head that I could review it. In fact, I was so confident in my abilities that I spoke to the artist himself after the show and proclaimed my over-ambitious intentions to his face. “You’ll definitely be getting a five star review from me on my university-paper-website-thing called The Demon Online,” I burbled like a blithering buffoon, signing the imaginary contract in blood which meant that I actually had to write something and preferably a gut-bustingly hilarious, self-referential masterpiece of a review that was fit for publication in a student magazine. However, when I was drafting my ideas for the piece, I began to doubt my abilities. “What if Stewart Lee actually reads it?” I thought, “What if I try to be funny… and it’s just not funny?” So, to accommodate for these anxieties, my first attempt came across as if it was written by a pathetic, sycophantic fan (the reasons why still elude me). The embarrassing evidence is exhibited below:
Reviewing Stewart Lee’s Content Provider is beyond my capabilities as a writer. The overarching themes were so well thought out and meticulously planned that it has blown my mind. Therefore, it is impossible for me to say anything particularly interesting about it – having lost the capacity for thought. However, I have to write something. And this is it. All I can say is, find out if this show is on near you, go there and then watch it. It’s deep, funny and I agreed the ‘f’ out of it. I clapped.
Now, in my heart of hearts, I still consider that to be an accurate and honest review. Nonetheless, I was aware that this probably wasn’t the standard of journalism that was expected from The Demon. So, I gave up, resolving to spend the rest of my days as a bitter failure. That, or as a feral recluse, living on his own in an abandoned shed. But that was before I saw… it. The thing that would demolish my humble dreams like a toddler maliciously bitch-slapping a tower of cards that I’d spent twenty minutes building. There – on The Demon website – was an article entitled “Comedy Festival: Stewart Lee @ De Montfort Hall” and it wasn’t by me. I was stunned. “How dare they?” I thought, “What gave them the right to be at the same show as me, have exactly the same idea as me and be determined (or clueless) enough to actually get it done?” With his vanilla and “inoffensive” commentary on the show, that inferior writer had cruelly thwarted my plans of not writing anything and hoping that people would forget that I’d ever mentioned it. I was a mess. I’d even lost my deposit on that abandoned shed. So, what you are reading now—this worthless, irrelevant, “review”—has been forged from an alloy of pomposity, pig-headedness, and jealousy for the writer that got there first. However, the percentage of jealousy in this cocktail of satirical, feigned hatred for my fellow student is only slight because personally, I don’t review artistic comedy shows like I’m reporting the events of a f***ing football match. Anyway, without further ado, here’s my belated review.
Following the inexplicable cancellation of his critically acclaimed BBC series Comedy Vehicle, Serbian warlord and Morrissey lookalike Stewart Lee took his latest show Content Provider to De Montfort Hall for two nights. Having seen his Much A-Stew About Nothing show at the same venue two years prior, I had high expectations for this one. However, after an hour and forty-five minutes of being threatened with violence, patronised, insulted, and having the interests of my entire generation deconstructed and dismissed… I got my Stewart Lee: Content Provider book signed and I bought a t-shirt with a picture of his face on it. In fact, I’m wearing the t-shirt now, in the vain hope that somehow, his crumpled, two-dimensional face will transfer its writing abilities over to me via osmosis or something. It’s safe to say I was impressed. Perhaps even more so than last time. But I didn’t get a selfie with him—hold on to that information.
Having followed Stewart Lee’s work for a while now, I’ve become familiar with the traditional structure of his shows. Generally, the topics of discussion include: politics, current affairs, popular (as well as not so popular) culture, and his own life. However, the unique selling point of Stewart Lee is his trademark comic persona: an exaggerated and more condescending version of himself—it’s a little bit like my persona in this piece, only better. That, and his outright refusal to tell conventional jokes. Tim Vine, he beeth not. Instead, Lee favours unrelatable, absurdist anecdotes, rants, and mind-bending repetition. But for the last 20 minutes or so of each show, Lee transitions into a philosophical monologue and/or set piece that encapsulates the key themes of the night. All this, while constantly berating his audience for their amoebic intellects. Because, of course, the character of “Stewart Lee” operates on a much higher level than the peasants beneath him. Including you… and me, I guess (but less so me). Although, this time, it was probably more elaborate and artistic than ever before.
I don’t think anybody puts as much thought into writing their comedy shows as Lee. This is stand-up treated as a true art form. You genuinely leave one of his shows a more informed and thoughtful person. And it’s also very funny, I thought I’d remind you of that. I’m not just making this up so you go to a Stewart Lee show and it’s just a man recreating existentialist Romantic paintings. I mean, it’s highbrow but it’s not that prete—
The centrepiece for this show was the iconic Caspar David Friedrich painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, which is often used as a symbol of the Individual, turning his back on society and looking for a deeper meaning in the natural world. This sums up Lee’s aloof comic persona quite aptly due to his feelings of alienation and superiority towards pretty much everyone and everything and his will to explore what makes us human. However, the painting was primarily used to highlight the key idea behind the show: how the internet has fractured us and trivialised everything that was once worthwhile. I mean, has your ease of access to cheap comedy DVDs, pictures of other people’s cats, and the S&M gear that you bought with next day delivery really enriched your life? What happened to the struggles that made life interesting? What happened to universally understood references? What happened to the rebellious spirit, inherent in all young people? Stewart Lee raises all of these questions in Content Provider. And whilst I believe that some of these things might have been fanciful illusions, it seems that social media and the internet have shattered them all nonetheless. I didn’t get a selfie with Stewart Lee after this show. I think it’s quite self-explanatory.
Now, as my arduous journey of reviewing something greater than myself nears its end, I have come to a realisation. If there is one thing that a stand-up comedy tour does throughout its run, it is evolve: routines that yield fewer laughs are weeded out, the sections that the comedian grows tired of performing are lopped off and jokes about out of date political stories are mercilessly thrown into a general waste bin, never to be recycled or composted again. Meaning, the Stewart Lee: Content Provider that I saw back in the olden days would probably not be the same Stewart Lee: Content Provider that you would see if you went tomorrow (hypothetically). Thus, many of my comments in this piece could be completely irrelevant. So, why has been the point of all this? Surely, there has to be some sort of meaning. Sheer stubbornness? Genuine hatred for a student who loves the same comedy that I do? Of course not. What kept me going this whole time was an appreciation for creative and artistic pursuits like comedy and writing. I wanted to create a piece of literature, not just a review (you be the judge of if I succeeded). Because if this was just a review, it would not be a particularly good one. I mean, reviews are normally a little more concise and on topic than this—a bit like the one that was published in The Demon. The difference between me and him though is that I’m just one aloof individual, raging against the machine of… a student readership… by writing long, indefinable, and unpublishable articles? No, that image doesn’t work at all. It’s almost as if I just used this review format to tell a funny story about myself. Oh well, at least it’s finished now. I’ll just be here, letting that feeling of catharsis sink in…