For a little while now, Stewart Lee has been drifting in and out of relevance, veering between revered godfather of British standup, and largely ignored godfather of British standup. Time was that young comics would pore over his Comedy Vehicle programme as a lodestar of how to become successful without compromise, which is exactly what it was. Now, though, Lee seems a long way out to sea, perhaps permanently so. Rather like his beloved Mark E Smith, he’s found his thing and he’s bloody well gonna keep on doing it.
So Snowflake/Tornado finds Lee in his heritage phase, performing to an intense reduction of vinyl-collecting white blokes, of which I count myself as one. It’s surely only a matter of time before he ends up on the front cover of Mojo.
But this suits him. Despite his complaints about being “blind, deaf, great and fat”, he is energised, good company, liberated from … something, whatever that might be. We take the depth and density of his shows for granted, and Snowflake/Tornado is fun to watch; there isn’t this nagging feeling that he’s constantly trying to trip you up and go HAHA IDIOT. His masturbatory belligerence is still very much there, that trademark repetition that goes on as long as he wants, but it’s not going to drive the gig into the ground – you just have to let him get on with it, as if he’s a child crying himself out, and wait for peace to return. With these shows, Lee seems at peace with his comedy, and he has every right to be: he has, after all, built a fanbase that’s refined enough to let him do what he wants, yet abundant enough to earn him a fat wad of cash.
Anyway, to the meat. Of the two halves, Tornado (which comes first) is the superior. Sporting a look that can only be described as “disgraced Labour councillor”, Lee spins a full hour out of a Netflix listing for Comedy Vehicle, which somehow got mixed up with the listing for 2013 art-house classic Sharknado. He puts this admin cock-up down to a lack of status and respect in the industry, citing Dave Chappelle and his favourite whipping boy Ricky Gervais as comics who would never be treated this way.
Fact and fiction then intertwine as Lee begins a story that seems perfectly feasible, of him getting to watch Chappelle perform in the flesh, in this very same venue. But bit by bit you find that he is leading us far, far down the garden path. In this case, Lee ends up in one of the seedier backstreets of Soho getting career advice from one of Chappelle’s private security team.
As ever there are digressions, and pauses for some director’s commentary, and there are snippets of stories about Lee trying in vain to make friends with young comedians, acknowledging the loneliness of the long-distance comic. The half winds up with one of Lee’s various indulgences, which are scattered through the show. It’s another bit of pure absurdity (and expediency) that ties up the hour in a nice, neat bow. He becomes Alan Bennett, reading aloud from a story from the 1960s that, it turns out, underpins his entire tall tale.
Then Snowflake lets the side down somewhat. Lee suggests it’s going to be some kind of investigation into where a PC 1980s comedian fits into an alternative comedy scene that seems at odds with its founding liberal principles. Now, that could have been both a timely and interesting hour, but it fails to materialise. Instead Lee pits himself against predictable adversaries, notably old leave-voting racists, Boris Johnson, and rightwing convert Tony Parsons who accuses Lee of being anti-feminist for using the word “cunt”.
I can’t help feeling that this is the downside of the more contented Lee, that previously he would have been up for an intergenerational arm wrestle over what liberalism means in 2019. It’s far easier for him to engage in … I want to use the phrase “gammon-on-gammon” warfare, but that would be a bit unfair. His defence of political correctness – that without it we’d be back in the bad old days of the 1970s – also feels reheated, although I acknowledge that this argument cannot be stated enough. Surely Lee could have found a different way to say the same thing.
There are some brilliant moments in Snowflake, though. Such as his dig at, not Fleabag per se, but the way it is credited with things that have been knocking around for centuries. Another is the image of him playing an immersive, violent computer game with his son, and being confronted by his worst self. This little window of plausible truth really cuts through – I can understand if Lee is protective of his private life, but in a two-hour show that feels like he’s taking refuge in absurdity, a few more glimpses of actual reality wouldn’t go amiss.
But broadly speaking, Lee appears to have given his show a zeitgeist-y, highly contemporaneous title, then filled it with material that’s the opposite: familiar and tangential. It’s a form of clickbait, really. Like writing a show about how Hitler was a bad person then calling it “Woke”. The only real time Lee really gets to grip with free speech and offence – subjects that are suggested by the word “Snowflake” – is another rant about Gervais, which, yes, is 100% bang on, but could have been said at any time over the last decade.
I did actually enjoy Snowflake quite a lot – but then I would, I’m a fan of Lee’s, and in many ways he’s still a remarkable comedian. But to put the whole night in vinyl terms, the first half was full of bangers, the second faded out.