Is Stewart Lee going soft? After decades of audience-baiting aloofness and mock-froideur, the 54-year-old actually seems to be enjoying himself. “I don’t laugh at my own jokes normally,” he apologised on Tuesday. “The conceit of me is that I hate you and hate doing this.” But two largely audienceless years have put a dent in that conceit, which is no bad thing.
In Basic Lee, he’s palpably thrilled to be back on stage. This is, he tells us, his attempt to return to the basic elements of pure, simple stand-up: “One person, one microphone, and, if you’re Frankie Boyle, a large team of uncredited writers.”
Of course, Lee is never that simple. He’s up to all his usual self-sabotaging tricks: slow, excruciating repetition (he can still be glacial in pace, if not in temperament); jibes at his fans, reviewers and fellow comics; digressions that loop back to the starting point when you least expect it. But compared with his last tour, the precision-tooled double bill Snowflake/Tornado, there’s a looseness to it. He’s left himself space to play in, room for spur-of-the-moment riffing, showing off his “improvisational, um, confidence”. (Even the “ums” are well-placed.)
If the show has a work-in-progress feeling, that’s partly a reflection of the political landscape. Lee pointedly reads out a brief routine about Liz Truss’s cabinet from a bit of paper; he won’t bother to memorise it, he jokes, as they might all be gone by next week. Writing about ministers is “like trying to befriend a disposable barbeque, or marry a mayfly”.
With the government out of the way, he’s on to the real theme of the show: stand-up itself. Lee’s comedy is usually about comedy, but Basic Lee offers a cod-lecture on the elements of stand-up. A recycled routine about Fleabag, originally part of Snowflake/Tornado but dropped after a few weeks, makes more sense here, expanded into a terrifically funny alternative history of comedy and broadcasting.
Speaking of broadcasting, he has plenty to say about the BBC’s odd decision to postpone this month’s TV premiere of Tornado (it will finally air this Thursday). They pulled it from the schedules and replaced it, out of respect for the late Queen, with Colette, a movie packed full of sex scenes. Anyone watching Tornado and Basic Lee back-to-back would have to admit this follow-up’s not quite as sharp, but Tuesday’s gig still had me laughing constantly in its first hour, and through much of the second. Basically, even basic Lee is still better than most.
Until Dec 17, then touring: stewartlee.co.uk