I wasn’t sure how well I was going to cope with Snowflake/Tornado, Stewart Lee’s current stand-up show. It’s not that I don’t love his work (I really do), but I just didn’t know how much capacity I had left to be toyed with. When you buy a ticket to a Stewart Lee show, you know this is part of the deal and you enter into it willingly, in exchange for the most incredibly well-crafted and funniest stand-up you will ever see. “Now I’m going to play with you,” he says, and he does and you fall for it and it’s hilarious.
Like many, my capacity to be played has been squeezed in recent times. Our nations glorious leadership, which every day spews cognitive dissonance over its subjects, has a lot to answer for. You’d think a pandemic would be dissonance enough, but no, it’s fun or expedient or something to mess with the truth and our heads. Just yesterday, a rabble pumped full of conspiracy theory handed to them by our not-a-complete-clown-in-chief mobbed two MPs and not-a-complete clown reportedly serenaded his new/old head communicator with I Will Survive. It’s always about you. It’s unbearable. When will it end?
I drank a gin in the theatre bar before the show and took a raspy breath – the kind you take before diving into the sea in January, or watching an episode of The Responder. Ultimately, I’ll feel better for this, less furious, you tell yourself, but equally I might cry and not stop for a long time.
Stewart’s show opened with an old favourite. “It’s safe to come on in,” it beckoned and we did. The bloke next to me laughed really loudly and rocked back and forth in his seat. I laughed really loudly and knew I was amongst my people. The hits kept coming – the complicated and exposed call back, the pretend egotism, the affectionate regional insults. Stewart shared his workings, before he played his verbal tricks and we willingly fell for every one of them.
There’s a foundation of morality and empathy to Stewart’s trickery and that’s why his shows work and his audiences are loyal. We are all in it together, done with not done to. The nation’s not-a-complete-clown has also revealed his clever tricks (how could he resist?) – dead cat, layering of untruths, jokey racism. The trickery treats us like idiots, ratchets up disbelief, tangles us in lies and mistrust, making us doubt what we thought we knew to be absolutely true. The laugh comes behind closed doors, well away from the audience. We’re not invited in for that part. We are the suckers left taking care of each other, growing sicker and more furious, having to jump into cold seas just to stay sane. We are not in safe hands.
During the show and for a brief moment, Stewart stepped out from behind his clown mask, broke the spell and made a touching connection with the audience. “I know how hard it’s been,” he said and I found it unexpectedly comforting and quite moving.
When you get your fill of empathy from a Stewart Lee show, that’s a sign of just how mad and dissonant things have become. It’s been an appalling two years and yet there we were, gathered together in a theatre, older and changed but still laughing together. It felt like an achievement.