A great stand-up with plenty to say, but never a rant
His comedy has been described as smug, vicious and condescending, and right-wing critics have labelled him a bitter lefty with anti-establishment tendencies. He has ruffled the feathers of many a commentator and has played out personal battles on the public stage – he even puts negative reviews on his posters and DVDs.
And yet, Stewart Lee, who appears next week at the Colston Hall in Bristol, has become one of the most respected comedians of his generation. In fact, if a poll taken by Channel 4 in 2007 is to be taken literally, Lee is precisely the 41st best stand-up of all time, coming in ahead of heavyweights like Tommy Cooper and Steve Martin.
The TV countdown was the inspiration behind the title of Lee's show 41st Best Stand Up Ever. The show, along with the award-winning series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, marked a watershed moment in Lee's career, as he made the leap from alternative comedian to crossover hit.
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Lee, through his satirical deconstructions of popular culture, has established a unique style, unmatched in the current climate. Rambling improvisations by his on-stage alter-ego make up the bulk of the shows, and his performances can sometimes feel like a test of endurance for the audience, as he ekes out every last inch of a bit.
Lee's most recent shows have further played with the mechanics of stand-up comedy, constantly testing the audience's awareness and feeding on the discomfort this creates.
His approach has been called overly analytical and intellectually elitist – even his fans now accept that Lee is an acquired taste. And it was this alleged elitism which brewed a storm in 2011 when Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir picked up on Lee's supposedly vicious attacks on Michael McIntyre and other mainstream comics. Lee's riposte highlighted the way his comments had been taken out of context, but the affair nevertheless posed him as an enemy of the right.
Despite being nurtured into a crop of liberal comics in the early Nineties, including those such as Simon Munnery and his long-time partner Richard Herring, Lee's material has never been overtly political. His anarchic persona and rebellious angst hint at a picket line protester, but Lee's comedy, injected with surrealistic oddities, has never devolved into a rant.
He started out in the late Eighties while still at university, as part of a comedy troupe called The Seven Raymonds, before he began working regularly with Richard Herring. The duo wrote for Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci's On the Hour series, a news satire which would become the more successful The Day Today, also starring Steve Coogan.
Lee and Herring continued to work together on various projects, but Stewart pursued solo comedy as well, appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe with his first one-man show in 1994. The pair came together again in the late Nineties for two series of This Morning with Richard Not Judy, a spoof of daytime television, before Lee published his first novel, The Perfect Fool in 2001.
From 2004 onwards, Lee began to have more success with his stand-up shows and touring became the main focus of his professional career. The success of the Comedy Vehicle series earned Lee two British Comedy awards and a Bafta in 2012. As his stock has risen, Lee has appeared sporadically as a director of theatre and TV, a guest editor of Radio 4's Today programme and as a columnist for The Guardian.