Comedian Stuart Lee brings his double-bill set Snowflake/Tornado to Swansea’s Grand Theatre on Sunday 12 March
Stewart Lee started out as a stand-up in 1988 at the age of 20 and won the Hackney Empire New Act of The Year award in 1990, thirty two years ago.
He made four series of his own show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, for BBC2 and has been rewarded with Baftas, Oliviers, and British Comedy Awards.
As his delayed Snowflake Tornado tour rolls into Swansea Grand Theatre, Swansea Bay News asks what it feels like to be The Times newspaper’s “World’s Greatest Living Stand-Up Comedian.”
“It’s funny you should ask,” Lee cackles hysterically down the line from his North London home, contradicting his public persona as a grumpy contrarian, “because the Tornado half of the show is partly about the disconnect between that kind of critical acclaim, and not being exactly a household name.”
Lee’s modesty doesn’t ring true. Your gran may not have seen him trip the light fantastic on Strictly but his tours play to audiences of a quarter of a million. “Yes, but the internet is full of angry people saying ‘Who is he? I’ve never heard of him!’ To be honest, that suits me, as I can chatter away to strangers without being recognised. The current tour has a long bit based on a conversation I had with a woman about baked potatoes that I couldn’t have had if she’d known who I was.”
Despite his supposed avoidance of publicity, Lee has been all over social media this year. A comically obsessive critical list of everything he has seen, eaten, heard or read in the previous year, that he sends privately to his mailing list each Christmas, somehow leaked out causing unintended annoyance. It was condemned by the golf comedian John Robins as “something that Joseph McCarthy or The Stasi would recognize.” “I don’t really know what happened there,” Lee cackles again, “maybe The Stasi gave Jimmy Carr’s Netflix special a one star review as well!”
The Snowflake section of Lee’s current show includes references to Jimmy Carr’s ongoing use of material about the Traveller and Roma communities, that recently saw calls for the 8 Out Of 10 Cats star to be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, something Lee sees as “a step too far, especially when he’s being condemned by members of the current government”.
Is the material still topical after a two-year layoff during the pandemic? “Well, believe it or not, the stuff making fun of Jimmy Carr for doing jokes about ‘gypsies’ has been in my show since 2019, as it’s the sort of thing he always does, so it’s just an indication of how he tends to hit the same shock buttons every time.
“The weird thing is that, because of the two-year downtime, lots of the material that was a bit ahead of the curve came into focus and goes down even better now. For example, everyone’s thought a lot more about the supposedly ‘woke’ ideas I endorse, what with Black Lives Matter and those leaked police e-mails about hating women. And Boris Johnson’s dishonesty and hypocrisy, which I discuss on stage, is undeniable now.
“The first half of the night, Tornado, is a long shaggy dog story about how I saw loads of rotisserie chickens being delivered to the American comedian Dave Chapelle’s dressing room in London in 2018, and more people know who he is now because he got in trouble with transgender people last year.
“Some material had to be ditched after lockdown though. I had twenty minutes in 2019 about what I imagined the new James Bond film would be like – but it’s out now. That said, dropping that bit and switching in some new stuff actually tightened the second half, which is largely about attempts by the right to weaponise a ‘culture war’ against liberals and minorities.”
Presumably more people will have to see Lee live if they want to experience his unique humour, as he has controversially pulled his material off Spotify in solidarity with the Canadian rock star Neil Young, who opposed the comedian Joe Rogan’s factually inaccurate podcasts about covid vaccination. “Yes, that all went a bit wrong,” laughs Lee madly again.
“I do think it’s bad that internet platforms aren’t subject to the same kind of fact-checking that even I am when I do jokes on traditional media like TV and radio, or in newspapers. But I also thought it would be funny if the two people removing their stuff were unknown me and superstar Neil Young.
“And of course, it’s an easy stand to take, because you only get 0.003 cents a play on Spotify, so I only need to sell one DVD to make up a year’s Spotify dosh. But then loads of musicians pulled their stuff too and people said I was trying to get this Rogan bloke no-platformed, and he was a fellow comedian.
“First of all, I didn’t know he was a comedian – I thought he was a wrestler or from Ice Road Truckers or something – and I wasn’t saying he should be banned, just that the Youtube and Spotify and Facebook should be fact checked so they can’t use unverifiable sensationalism to drive their numbers. And I stand by that, especially when you have Boris Johnson spreading internet conspiracy theories about Jimmy Savile in parliament.
“As usual, the press release about little me pulling my comedy off this massive platform was full of jokes which got cut out by people that covered the story and made me look much more of misery than I am.”
Does such misrepresentation bother Lee? “Not really,” he giggles, again, “people are paying to see a miserable and frustrated middle aged man wind himself up into a frenzy about everything, so it probably helps! Although the funny thing with this tour is that my obvious delight at being back on the boards can’t help but infect the audience. I’m just an old-fashioned entertainer at heart! Like Vera Lynn. Or that Emu.”
Stewart Lee tours SNOWFLAKE/TORNADO until July 2022. His new show BASIC LEE will open in London in Autumn 2022 and tour throughout the UK in 2023. See www.stewartlee.co.uk for details
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