“I don’t really have any friends who are comedians,” Stewart Lee sighs, mock-pitifully, in his superb new show Snowflake/Tornado. It’s easy to see why. One of the few taboos in stand-up comedy is stand-up itself. Most comics shy away from discussing their peers onstage, but not Lee.
Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais and Josh Widdicombe are just three of the household names skewered over the course of this evening, while the world’s reverential treatment of Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge inspires a gloriously surreal rant. (Remember how different TV was before she invented looking at the camera? Lee does.) What makes the cattiness work is Lee’s artfully constructed character; the petty, status-obsessed version of himself he plays onstage is almost always the butt of the joke.
A little pretentiously, Snowflake/Tornado is presented as two back-to-back shows, rather than one with an interval. It’s typical of Lee’s attention to detail that the two press quotes on his poster (one per show) are part of the joke, inspiring some of the funniest lines in each hour.
Tornado, an extended riff on his reception and his place in the comedy world, is advertised with a quote from an erudite review in the LRB, while Snowflake - a defence of “political correctness” and attack on hypocrisy - boasts a line from Tony Parsons calling Lee “the rancid tip of a cesspit”. It’s a phrase he delights in wittily unpicking. “I’m not an expert in cess, or the collection thereof...” he begins, before speculating about how a pit can have a tip.
This isn’t the first time Lee has had fun with negative feedback. For several years, he plugged his shows with a quote that called him unfunny and complained that he had nothing to say, attributed to the Daily Telegraph. It’s not a line the Telegraph ever published, but why let the truth get in the way of a good gag? From now on, though, Lee may need to drop it from circulation. The silly and self-deprecating Tornado is often uproariously funny, while Snowflake proves that, at 51, he still has something vital to say.
Tornado is inspired by the realisation that his TV series, Comedy Vehicle, had been accidentally uploaded to Netflix with the programme description for B-movie Sharknado 3 (“Reports of sharks falling from the skies are on the rise again…”). It’s only a tad less helpful than that LRB review, from Lee fan Alan Bennett, which compares him to a string of obscure philosophers. These two strands - Bennett and Sharknado - collide in the hour’s closing set-piece, a cosy literary spoof that is some of Lee’s most well-observed writing, though more wryly amusing than belly-laugh funny.
Any fears that he’s going soft disappear in Snowflake, where Lee rails against comedians who make a killing by claiming to be “silenced” in lucrative TV specials. (Ricky Gervais “doesn’t say the unsayable - he says the sayable, by definition.”) Typically for Lee, it’s a sharp point that veers off into sui generis surrealism. What would a comedian saying the unsayable actually look like? Cue five long minutes of pop-eyed gurning, wordless gasps and biting the air. Lee’s extended riffs often become endurance-tests for the crowd, but this one looks almost as painful for him as it is for us. It’s a virtuoso piece of physical comedy, and new ground for this wordiest of comics. Spiky, cool and one-of-a-kind, Stewart Lee is undeniably a snowflake.
Until January 25 (returns only), then touring: stewartlee.co.uk