For both comedians and politicians, uncertainty can be a matchbox or a candle snuffer. Content Provider comes out torch juggling with an admission of its own failure; there is ambiguity surrounding whether Brexit really has forced Lee to improvise and account for its effect on the national zeitgeist, or if in fact Lee’s plan all along was to stage an improvisation around the conflict comedians face when attempting to satirise such political upheavals.
Doubt and self-referentiality have long been part of Lee’s strategy. Towards the end of Content Provider’s first half, he digresses from the arc of his set. Pontificating on why the joke he just made should have got a laugh but didn’t, he charts its reception on three different nights from late 2016 into 2017. The joke in question goes roughly thus:
The irony of remaking Are You Being Served? is that the British retail industry no longer exists. The new Are You Being Served? should be set in an Amazon delivery warehouse: Mrs Slocombe stands in a massive shed off the M6 and makes incomprehensible cat-based double entendres about her own vagina to poorly paid and soon-to-be-deported East European workers.
First, Lee explains, the joke worked because it was topical: it reflected a state of affairs, in that mass deportation felt imminent. Then, suddenly, it didn’t work – the government decided that EU citizens would be allowed to stay after Brexit, and the joke was out of date. Then, David Davis – no longer the Brexit secretary, keep up – explained how even that ostensible clarity was unstable because nothing had been agreed upon with Brussels. See? This is hardly a laugh a minute. As Lee points out, by the time an audience member has tried to sum up all that to her neighbour, the beat of his joke is long gone.