‘No one is equipped to review me.’
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a comedian in possession of a good humour, must be in want of a TV deal.
For the comics that routinely leave the stage to rapturous applause, TV executives wait in the wings, plotting how best to repackage the sweat and salt into shine and polish. Often the gig they’re given is a world away from stand up. Just look at Romesh Ranganathan’s output: travelogue, sports panel show, and now judge on Dave’s Judge Romesh. TV wants stand ups, but they don’t want them doing stand up. The viewing figures for Michael McIntyre’s Big Show are far higher than Live at the Apollo, proving that comics as entertainers, as opposed to comics as comics, ensures ratings.
The comedian that bucks this trend is Stewart Lee. The comedy vehicle he was given wasn’t an squabbling travel show, where a parent with questionable views is pitted alongside their exasperated offspring for LOLS; nor a late night chat show, where the host talks to a depreciating grade of celebrity until the plug is pulled. No, the comedy vehicle stand up comedian Stewart Lee was given was a stand up one. Not since Dave Allen in the 70’s and 80’s had television commissioned a series where a comic could be a comic. In Allen’s seminal series he combined sketches and routines, typically on one topic, over the course of half an hour. Lee more or less adopted this structure for the first series of the knowingly named Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Over the series the format changed slightly, dispensing with the sketches that punctuated the stand up, placing instead interrogation scenes where Lee was challenged on his material. (These Grand Inquisitors were played by Armando Iannucci in Series 2 and Chris Morris in Series 3 and 4.) The programme was a commercial success and relatively cheap to make, therefore it’s no surprise the BBC didn’t recommission it for a fifth series.
Although in many ways they have.
Stewart Lee’s Content Provider is the fifth series in all but name. Initially, the tour show was made with a live audience – not TV one- in mind. However, with it being green-lit by the BBC, Lee brings back the tropes he invented first time round: the Grand Inquisitor returns, this time in the form of Watchmen creator Alan Moore, and the fourth wall doesn’t so much get broken, but bulldozed. Like a possessed Exorcist spirit, Lee’s head is in constant rotation, working the audience in front of him and those at home.
The show begins with the comic in a darkened room, waiting on his adversary. Footsteps are heard. A chair is taken. Alan Moore sits himself opposite; his face bad cop-bad cop. Lee, typically smug and conceited, is on the back foot, disarmed by the frown facing him. The Headteacher’s reproach begins. Who are you and what do you think you’re doing? Like a callow youth, Lee bends to his master, conceding that he shouldn’t be back on our screens, that his work isn’t fit for public consumption. These Kafkaesque inquisitions are so important to Lee’s show as they remind us of his underdog status. Sure, he’s playing to a packed audience; yes, he’s got a TV commission, but in the grand scheme of things he’s an unknown. Show a member of the public a picture of him and they’re as likely to say ‘Leonard Di Caprio’s let himself go’ as they are to say, ‘That’s critically acclaimed comedian Stewart Lee.’ For the arrogant character of Stewart Lee to work, we have to believe his author doesn’t hold power. He’s Lear on the heath, railing against his position in society. A king in a kingdom that doesn’t acknowledge he’s king.
We cut away from Lee’s cross-examining to see him appear on stage with the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, a nineteenth century piece of art serving as a metaphor for man’s place in a confused world. Lee tells us that he wanted to use it to explore an individual’s role in a digitised time; however Brexit happened, then he felt like people would want him to comment on that. But how do you create a tour show, whose receipts will feed your family, about a situation that’s in constant flux? Lee explains his lack of Brexit material with, ‘I don’t see the point of committing to a course of action which has no logical or financial justification.’ There’s not many comics that get a punchline out of such syntactical elegance. It’s also why Lee is not for everyone. You have to concentrate when listening to his comedy. David Simon, writer of The Wire, said he didn’t want his programme to be consumed but watched. ‘Fuck the casual viewer’ was his mission statement, and in many ways Lee’s too. Better to be loved by a few than kind-of-liked by many.
Although Lee claims he hasn’t got any Brexit jokes, he spends his opening twenty satirising the political players who’ve orchestrated the funeral march. Here, he uses popular comedy techniques of ‘rule of three’ and ‘pull back and reveal’ to create a punchy, raucous beginning. This bit allows Lee to tell his audience that he can do jokes, but just chooses not to. Towards the end of this segment, he deliberately derails his train of thought, and criticises the crowd for not buying into a joke. Now, this is just a contrivance. The set has been going well and the material well received. The reason he lambasts the audience is for tension. Comedy necessitates tension. Without tension there can’t be release. Release is the stuff of laughter. Lee has to feign struggle, otherwise his low status persona won’t get away with the things it says. In promoting himself as critically acclaimed, he has to prove how publicly he’s not; this ensures his boasts appear hollow, of little worth.
In disturbing the rhythm of his comedy, Lee positions himself as an alternative comedian. He’s not working to the same beats as other comics, rather he’s playing with form and tension in a style more akin to Jazz than plodding rock n’ roll. Although this sounds pretentious, it’s a breath of fresh air to comedy fans. It’s not always the case of predicting the punch-line when it comes to comedians, but you can at least guess where the joke is going to be. Having someone move beyond conventional joke structure to do something more theatrical with character and status is infinitely more interesting and nourishing.
The stage set up for Content Provider has Lee as island man, marooned against a sea of comedy DVD’s. Wittingly, he’s physicalising how he stands apart from the stand up crowd. These props allow him to move onto the central thrust of the show: how the physical has become redundant in our digital world. The DVD’s that used to be bought for fifteen pounds at Christmas are now being sold for a penny. It makes more financial sense for a comedian to buy their own DVD second-hand and sell them as brand new, then it does to flog their originals and have the tax man and production companies cream off the profits. The idea of a comic buying their own DVD’s is absurd and again reminds the audience that Lee isn’t Carr or McIntyre. In fact, the joke that follows about Jimmy Carr buying his own DVD is one of the best of the evening, challenging Britain’s favourite entertainers and their rampant capitalism.
His families incredulity towards his success ends the first half – another nail in the coffin of Lee’s ego; then we’re back in the interrogation room with Moore asking: ‘What do you do during the interval? Cry? Comfort eat?’ It’s all a cumulative distraction piece: the audience not getting the joke; his family not valuing his comedy; Moore criticising the material. All of this falsifying failure is from the Tommy Cooper playbook: appear like you’re getting it wrong when in fact you’re getting it very right.
The second half of the show again reminds the audience about the painting. (Lee knows this memory will be important for later). He tells us that he wanted to explore an individual’s role in a digitised world, but then Donald Trump happened, and people wanted him to write about that. You can probably already see how the second half begins in the same way as the first: the punchlines are the same, but the subject has changed. Structurally, Lee is in a class of his own. This parallelism isn’t a technique that will ever concern Joe Pasquale, but it isn’t solely there for art’s sake. The replication gives the piece a feeling of unity and serves as a metaphor for a world that doesn’t heed the mistakes of the past, but continues to repeat them.
Lee holds the under-40’s responsible for the state we’re in. Yes, the old voted for Brexit and the Conservatives, but the young were compliant in allowing it to happen. The exaggerated mimicry of a young person is sublime here and shows we’re not just witnessing a verbal masterclass, but a physical one too. Some great gags about Game of Thrones are thrown in, which set up some momentum for the protracted ending. This is a shaggy dog story of how his grandparents couldn’t just click online for deviant sex; instead they had to travel far and wide to gather the materials needed to make it happen. Fans of the comic might recall the Give it to me straight routine when listening to this. Even though you know the tale is tall, you invest in it anyway. It’s the level of detail that Lee puts into the description that mean you are assimilated – not alienated – by the artifice at work.
As for the very end, Lee brings that painting back. And the way he subverts its meaning is so profound and clever that you’ll want to get off your seat and applaud.
Content Provider is the ironic title of a majestical piece of work. It uses a work of art to show how art is overlooked today. Its message seems to be that instead of admiring an artist’s work, we spoil it by using it to promote ourselves. Maybe in writing this blog I’m guilty of that: Am I trying to earn cool points by celebrating something cultish? Am I trying to receive some reflected glory by praising it? I hope not. What I’m trying do is urge you the gallery to put down your phones, take a good long look at Content Provider, and admire the work of an artist. For in a career spanning thirty years, this might just be Lee’s masterpiece.