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Stewart Lee: Noises Off Heard the one about the comedian who couldn't do jokes about Islam? Stewart Lee takes issue with Ben Elton over his criticism of the BBC Sunday, 6 April 2008
The Eighties comedian Ben Elton told the Christian magazine Third Way last week that the BBC is too scared to make jokes about Islam. Apparently, Elton himself even had a line about taking the mountain to Mohamed disallowed by the BBC on religious grounds. Comedy fans may find it ironic that this line vanished when the whole of his recent ITV series, the woeful Get a Grip, was somehow allowed to be broadcast. To be fair, it is true that there are fewer jokes on television concerning Islam than there are jokes concerning Christianity, but it is a leap of faith to assume this means such jokes have been removed to protect Muslim sensibilities and BBC staff. It may be that Muslim comedy simply isn't being generated at source.
What do we really know of Islam, beyond the most basic stereotypes of burkas and bombs? Life of Brian brilliantly used the understanding its audience had of Christ's life to substitute a bewildered, normal bloke for him. But it's not possible to take people under the skin of Islam in the same way, when it remains a mystery to most writers and audiences.
"Culturally Christian" comedians at least understand the taboos they break when writing about vicars and virgin births. The Muslim world's response to the Danish Mohamed cartoons remains deplorable, but perhaps a rigorous, thorough satire of Islamic themes would be better executed by someone with experience of it. There are Muslim comics in stand-up, such as Shazia Mirza, who can speak about their culture from a personal point of view, and who have earned both praise and hostility from their own communities. Perhaps we should look to them to fill Mr Elton's Muslim joke quota?
And, of course, there are jokes about Islam in circulation. I have a routine about being asked to leave a WeightWatchers meeting by a woman in a hijab which has been described as both "politically correct" and "ignorant and offensive". Chris Morris is working on a comedy film about suicide bombers which one expects will be characteristically illuminating. And Roy Chubby Brown's latest CD includes the following material: "You can't say anything about religion these days can you? They say you can't say Protestant, you can't say Muslim, you can't say Jew. Which is a shame, because I like to go in my newsagent on a Sunday morning and say, 'Here's a quid. Keep the change, you Paki bastard.'"
Chubby's wonderful timing and shocking vulgarity mean one can't help but laugh. But his joke doesn't mean anything. It sets up the expectation that it will address anxieties about faith, then jumps into simple racist abuse. It would be difficult for the BBC to justify broadcasting such a flawed joke. Yet it is received by its audience as if it has heroically exposed the PC establishment's fear of addressing non-Christian religions, a glib truism that the increasingly disconnected Ben Elton has now also embraced.
At the end of his interview, Elton, whose children attend a church school, said he believed in "almost nothing". But he went on to say that schools should teach the essentials of Christianity, if only for cultural reasons. In making this statement, he begins to unravel his own confusion. Schools should teach children not just about Christianity, but about all religions, for cultural reasons. Religious separatism in education encourages the teaching of religions as revealed truths. This will not build the kind of society where we know enough about each other's religious and cultural backgrounds to understand them, accept them, question them and, yes, make jokes about them in anything other than the most ignorant manner.
Stewart Lee was the co-writer of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' and is now on tour with his show '41st Best Stand-Up Ever' www.stewartlee.co.uk
'It's 20 years since I did a decent day's work' Stewart Lee talks about comedy as a career, growing into his stage character and why the Travelodge just isn't home Interview by Chris Wiegand
Photograph: Steve Ullathorne
Friday April 4, 2008
You're about to turn 40. Has it prompted a similar panic to your former comedy partner, Richard Herring (currently touring Oh Fuck, I'm 40!)?
I'm too busy to think about it! I'm actually working on the night of my birthday, playing a 120-seater room in Bath.
You've been touring 41st Best Stand-up Ever since you presented it in Edinburgh last year. How have you found the tour?
I've never done as many dates of the same show. I'm not an actor, so it's difficult to trick yourself into keeping what is a true story fresh when you've told it dozens of times. We're filming it next week in Glasgow, so it will be nice to have a record. But it's not much fun being away. I'm not a young man any more. I'm not thinking, "Great, I'll stay out until 2am." Frankie Boyle tours with a driver and a chef. I drive myself around and go to Travelodges. But there are much worse jobs than being a touring comedian.
You started doing comedy 20 years ago. Did you think you'd still be making a living from it now?
I never thought I'd make a living out of it - no one really did then. That was before Newman and Baddiel had played Wembley, before there was a comedy club in every town, before there were lots of stand-up shows on television. Most of the people on the circuit that I joined were on enterprise allowance or the dole or doing other jobs as well. It was just something that people thought was fun. There wasn't any evidence that there was an alternative comedy career ladder in 1988. I once read an interview with Victoria Wood and she said that no one under 30 should do stand-up because you couldn't possibly know what you were talking about. At the time I was annoyed, but now I quite like that idea.
Some comedians have used stand-up as a stepping stone to writing novels and working in the theatre. You've done those things too, but have never abandoned stand-up.
It's the thing that I'm best at and that I like the most. There's not really anyone else involved in the process, and you can think of something during the day and try it out at night. Stand-up is a lot more sophisticated than it's given credit for - a lot more sophisticated than theatre. It does all the things people think great theatre should do - it ignores the fourth wall and it addresses the audience directly in a really uncontrived way. Even the most straightforward Jongleurs act is probably working on more levels than most West End plays.
A few years ago, you had a period away from stand-up.
There was a point when I couldn't get any work and I got really bad reviews. I couldn't move forwards. People forget that. Journalists know who I am, but the average person doesn't. I've been very lucky in terms of not becoming hugely famous as a stand-up, because it meant that I was able to keep working away at it in environments that improved me. As soon as someone's well-known, their gigs get much easier and the audiences they play to are a lot less discriminating. They also don't do the kind of gigs where they work alongside and meet all the new talent. They become very disconnected.
Did you notice a change in your reviews when you returned?
When I was young, I didn't look decrepit enough to be allowed to be as grumpy and questioning as my character was. You come back in your late 30s a bit fucked, and it suddenly all fits. Seven or eight years ago, before I quit for a bit, my voice would be reviewed as "monotonous". When I came back, it was suddenly written about as "hypnotic".
In your shows, you speak frankly about your experiences with TV controllers, your opinions of other comics and the media coverage of your work. So a lot of your material is really about what it's like to be a stand-up.
I remember seeing Billy Connolly on stage once and he was talking about what it was like to go to a royal garden party - it was really funny, because that's his life. I remember seeing other famous rich comedians at the same time trying to do "everyman" routines that didn't really ring true. I work in comedy, so my experiences are about being a comedian. It's 20 years since I did a decent day's work, so I can't really talk about the office.
· Stewart Lee presents The 10 Best Stand-ups in the World Ever at the Bloomsbury theatre in London, every Friday from April 25 2008
James Randall interviews Stewart Lee
How's the tour been going?
Its been going really well, I gave up stand up for a few years, then I started again. I've been getting about two or three times as many people as a few years ago.
Why did you record the 90s Comedian DVD with the Go Faster Stripe?
I did a DVD the year before with a company called 2Entertain. It was really good because the money was nice, but the main thing was that I had a record of that year’s show, and then you could draw a line under it for next years one. I wanted to do another DVD, and my management couldn't find anyone to do it for me. In the end I told them to offer it for free if they just filmed it. In 2005 I literally couldn't give my work away.
And then this guy who was a tech support man at this arts centre in Cardiff read an interview saying that. He had seen the show and liked it, and he then set up this company to film it. Basically I didn't get any money for it, but I get a share of any sales. Subsequently he's filmed about ten DVDs with people like Richard Herring and is doing really important work. I made about £2,500 out of it, but mainly it has drawn a line under the show. So when people come up to and ask you to do a certain bit you can say, “Well there's a video of it…” it's a way of forcing yourself to move on
Congratulations on becoming a dad. As a father do you think you'll be carrying on with such large tours for many more years?
No I don't, I've been very lucky because we had the baby last year and we really needed to get some money in, to get him his own room. A 70-date tour, plus Edinburgh, was the longest I've ever done. It’s just getting ridiculous, it was very hard on my wife.
However two weeks ago BBC Two decided they were going to do a series with me. It was first talked about in 2005, then it went back on the slate in 2007 and about two weeks ago they commissioned it. The great thing about that is that I can work on that for about a year, then when I do tour again the whole se-up will have changed. Perhaps a 30-date tour of bigger places. In the short term I won’t have to be away for much, which is great because every time you go back after three or four days away the baby’s different. The last year everything has worked out so well, I'd been in a real rut for a long time.
Are you going to this year’s Edinburgh Festival?
I am, I'm going to do a little play, about an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, conducted by Sir Walter Raleigh. I'm also going to do stand up five nights a week at The Stand. It’s not a proper show, but it will be used to generate new material for the TV show. It’ll be a bit of a shambles.
What do you think of the big four comedy venues separating and forming the Edinburgh comedy festival?
I think it’s incredibly insensitive and rude. The Edinburgh comedy festival has essentially announced that it’s separating from the main event, but not a single person involved in it has issued a statement to artistic policy. It’s all about branding and money. And also I think it could have a real damaging effect, if they keep talking about it in the same light as Glastonbury.
Why do you think Glastonbury haven't sold out this year?
It’s because if you went to Glastonbury 20 years ago, half the bands gave their money back and that went to charity, so there was a real feeling of mucking in. As a comic you got paid about £100, but you didn't mind because you were part of a bigger thing. As artists you have to sleep in a ditch with all the mud, but Neil Diamond’s not giving his fee back and Kate Moss is flying in in a helicopter.
Then you think, “hold on a minute, someone's doing really well out of this, why should have to endure shit conditions?” Likewise it's the same with the Edinburgh Fringe, at the moment if you're watching a really good comic, in a cold venue with water dripping on your head you don't mind because everything is done on a wing and a prayer. If I'm in at a comedy festival that has a £500,000 sponsorship I'm going to be pissed off if I'm on sitting with water dripping on my head. I want to feel like I'm part of something, mucking in for a big free for all.
The money won’t feed through to the acts, but as usual it will all go on branding and bars. So I think they are in danger of really fucking it up in Edinburgh. Part of the fringe is that you don't mind if it’s rough and ready as long as no one takes any money out of it. If the Edinburgh fringe comedy festival has big sponsorship people are going to feel ripped off.
Do you think TV execs have been slightly wary of you since the backlash over Jerry Springer The Opera?
I really don't know. I think the thing about telly people is that I get all these big reviews and they think, “Here's a good one, we will get this one on telly”. Then they come and see me and think, “I can’t have this on telly”. It’s not so much about content but style. I'm 40, I talk really slowly about involved things, you can’t put me on BBC Three for 16 to 24 year olds. So it’s not fear so much. It’s difficult for telly people – none of them have got any idea but there in charge .
Any aspirations to become a telly exec?
Not really no, I know Richard Herring applied for a job at head of comedy at BBC Two, but I think they thought it was a joke. But I think it would be really great, he can write and he does gigs, and he knows who everyone is. How about that then?
Once I get the other side of this TV series I will see if it gets enough viewers to be re-commissioned, if they don't, I won’t worry, I will have a bit of money to get a room for the baby to sleep then I can go back to doing all the really interesting fun things, hopefully go back to the world of making art with renewed gusto.
Did you find more people recognised you after your guest appearance on Have I Got News For You?
Yeah, and it wasn't much fun. You get about £600 quid for going on, and really I don't really like doing things like that, because I'm not very good at them. But I was getting married and we needed the money for it. A week afterwards, we were on our honeymoon in Aberdeen. Six million people watch it, so every other person in the street was shouting, 'hey funnyman'. It’s fucking terrible. If you are properly famous you're probably not wondering around Aberdeen at night. You think at 25 it would be really cool to be recognised, but being 40 and being recognised everywhere is quite upsetting and intimidating.
Richard Thomas is apparently writing another opera, this time based on Anna Nicole Smith, are you going to be involved?
No I'm not, but I would love to do something with him again. It became very difficult, all the opera, stuff, because of this campaign against us from the Christian right, we couldn't get paid anything. I really love his work and I really love him, his one of my best friends, and I will do something with him eventually.
He's good fun to work with, some people are precious about things, and some you have to be careful with their egos, but Richard works really hard, if he doesn't agree with you, you just have a forthright argument about it. I've worked with some people who have been a real education.
How farcical was the 100 best stand-ups programme? You were beaten by Jim Davidson
I was sitting with all the Jongleurs comics in Bristol the other night, and we were having a laugh. A lot of them were off the mainstream circuit, a lot of them do cruises. All the Jongleurs comics do the same sort of stuff, but they're making £50,000 to £100,000 a year, and yet you've never heard of them! There were people playing last night that I’d never heard of who have got three houses! The comics that win awards and get five-star reviews are on teacher’s money.
All those sort of shows are farcical, I was asked to do a show about the comedians’ favourite comedians. I said yes, I’d like to talk about Simon Munnery and Chic Murray. But they said we haven't got them on the list, can you choose one of these three…
With regards to the 100 best comedians of all time, there is no way that me and Daniel Kitson would have got on that list because of a public vote, because were simply not well known enough, but I think they tried to give it a degree of credibility by shoehorning in a few people that are critically seen as good into it.
Any plans for another novel?
I did the first 30,000 words of the last one, then my management started to tout it around to people. So we got all this money and we got a deadline, but you can’t rush a novel, it sort of went wrong. The one I'm doing now I've done about 10,000 words, but I'm not going to take it anywhere until it’s done. But also I'm tempted to see if I can get it published without anyone knowing that I'm a comedian. I think proper writers are slightly irritated by the celebrity culture of publishing, there's a section in Waterstones called celebrity hardbacks!
There are no Americans on the bill of your ten best stand-ups that you are currently hosting at the Bloomsbury, why is that?
If we could have got Chris Rock I'd have had him, but he's doing the O2. Apart from him, there would not be a living American I would put on at the expense of any of the people on the list.
What we're trying to do is present people who are not known, or have been forgotten about, like Simon Munnery. Or Harry Hill, who people don't realise what good stand ups he is. I suppose there was sort of an agenda behind it: these people are all really brilliant and you may not know.
* Stewart Lee's Ten Best Stand-Ups Of All Time is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre every Friday until May 23.
Why I love my jukebox They’ve been through hell together and the parties were great Stewart Lee
I bought my jukebox, a 1974 Wurlitzer Americana 3800, in the spring of 1999. She holds 200 7in singles, gives off the purple glow of a fading radioactive sunset, hums like a 1950s refrigerator and reminds you what records were supposed to sound like — not thin and compressed into machine computer code, but vast, warm and with lots of legroom. But in the age of the iPod, when a sleek unit smaller than a cigarette pack can store literally thousands of songs, what can possibly be the attraction of owning a kennel-sized metal box full of scratched vinyl, uniquely unportable and with a volume control that you need a screwdriver to operate? And, at this special time of year, for anyone considering making an impulsive Christmas purchase — as we have been encouraged to do by manufacturers — what are the pros and cons of investing in such a cumbersome antique?
Today, in pubs and bars, the jukebox stuffed with a few dozen scratched 7in singles advertised by a crudely handwritten playlist has been replaced by a compact, brightly lit unit crammed with CDs offering thousands of instantaneous entertainment choices. Or else it’s a curious novelty item, flagged as one of the attractions of a desperately fashionable hang-out: “German beers. Italian sausages. Original 1950s jukebox.” Or, worse still, the vintage jukebox has been stolen from the public it was built to serve, and squirreled away in the corner of a room by a selfish middle-aged music fan, whose semi-autistic, fetishistic approach to the object bears no immediate relation to the innocence with which the machine would once have been enjoyed by happy-go-lucky teenagers. Me, in other words.
When I bought my jukebox, I had just co-written a well-received television series that I had no reason to assume would be cancelled immediately. I wrongly imagined I could easily afford the £1,000 price tag Juke Box Services of Twickenham, who heroically recondition old jukeboxes, had attached to the Wurlitzer. I reasoned that I might soon even have a flat of my own to keep it in. Three months later, work had dried up, and my unjustifiably self-indulgent purchase was finally delivered to a second-floor, northeast London maisonette, where three men struggled to stuff her through a doorway ultimately too narrow to accommodate her. The Wurlitzer went back to Twickenham for a few weeks.
I measured my window frames and booked a hydraulic lift, an expense I could suddenly no longer really afford. A decade later, I really should have double-glazed this flat, but one day Wurlitzer will need to exit through the same window by which she once entered, so we shiver, but while we shiver, we are listening to the aching bass part of the Byrds’ Hey, Mr Tambourine Man as it was meant to be heard. The first lesson of jukebox ownership is this. Never buy anything bigger than your house.
The physical bulk of the purchase dealt with, there is then the issue of what to stock the jukebox with. I bought the Americana 3800 because she held the most 7-inches, but I soon realised that I was about to begin wrestling with the terrible dilemma of what, exactly, would be my 200 favourite singles of all time. Nick Hornby has made a literary career out of anatomising this curiously male desire to arrive at ultimate lists of definite best-ofs, be they musical or sporting. And stocking a juke-box gives a man a way of setting in stone, or at least in little slots on a rotating platform, the physical evidence of his long-apprenticed professorship in good taste.
I gathered up all the singles I had bought throughout my life, and scoured the internet, second-hand shops and record fairs to plug the gaps in the wants list I had scrupulously drawn up. I imagined visitors prostrate in admiration at my immaculate selection, which would have cherry-picked the finest moments from every era of popular music, while still including enough rarities and obscurities perhaps to expand my guests’ inevitably narrow horizons a little as well, to make them realise how much better informed — and how much better a person — I was than them.
The procedure was fun. The website www.gemm.com was a gold-mine of cheap 7-inches, and I still remember the moments when some sought- after items presented themselves in the flesh. Barbara Ray’s heart-rending country and western weepy I Don’t Wanna Play House leapt out of the rack of a charity shop somewhere in the Western Australian desert; the Tenors’ early reggae classic Ride Yu Donkey revealed itself, unexpectedly, on a stall in Spitalfields Market; a four-track EP by Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson arrived in the post in an unexpectedly beautiful picture sleeve.
In the end, the Wurlitzer kind of stocked herself. Anything recorded much after the early 1980s sounded too thin and clattering in her vast speaker cabinets. She preferred the warm fuzz of vintage psychedelia and the Cuban-heeled stamp of the 1960s beat boom, the joyful stomp of vintage soul floor-fillers and the scratchy minimalism of 1970s punk; the booming basslines of 1950s Chicago blues and the plangent laments of country singers.
The Wurlitzer is a high-maintenance mistress. I scour the internet for replacement styluses and, on more than one occasion, the engineer from Juke Box Services has had to be cajoled into making a long journey north. But I am grateful to the Wurlitzer because she cured me of musical pretension, or at least staved it off for a few seasons. I was 30 years old, a die-hard music fan and even a semi-professional critic, drawn ever further away from the three- minute pop songs that first captured my imagination into worlds of free jazz and post-rock and white noise. The Wurlitzer reminded me of the irrepressible power of the perfect 7in. And with a flat stuffed with revellers, she made a succession of New Years’ Eves in the early Noughties swing in a way that poring over a box set of Albert Ayler albums probably wouldn’t have done. I remain eternally delighted by my expensive mistake. But remember. A jukebox is not just for Christmas.
Stewart Lee interview: Putting his neck on the line 1st March 2009
By Jonathan Trew
THE LAST time a show penned by the veteran stand-up comic Stewart Lee was broadcast by the BBC, it was no laughing matter. The channel's executives received death threats and one of them was placed under police protection. That was in 2005 when Jerry Springer The Opera, co-written by Lee, was aired on BBC2. Objecting to what they saw as the blasphemous tone of the piece, pressure group Christian Voice launched a vociferous campaign against the opera and Lee himself. The campaign was largely responsible for hamstringing a subsequent regional theatre tour of the piece, resulting in Christian Voice's gain being free speech's loss.
Fast forward four years and BBC2 will broadcast the first episode of a six-part series called Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. Each episode consists of Lee venting his views on that week's topic. Unusually for television comedy, each show is presented in a mainly straight stand-up format with Lee performing in front of an audience in a small comedy club. The stand-up is interspersed with a handful of sketches illustrating the points Lee makes.
The topics range from fairly innocuous subjects such as toilet books to potentially more sensitive ones such as political correctness and religion. Lee insists that as far as he is concerned there is nothing controversial or offensive in his new show. None the less, he has learned from previous experiences and is taking the precaution of getting the hell out of Dodge City on the day that the first show goes out.
"I'm going away for six weeks on the day that the thing starts being broadcast," he says. "I won't have e-mail or phone contact and I won't look at the internet. If anything does get picked up on then there will be no way for anyone to reach me anyway. Once the material has gone out, I am never going to do it again and I am not going to discuss it with anyone. I am happy that it speaks for itself but if people choose to deliberately misinterpret it then it's nothing to do with me. It's not worth it."
Painstakingly thought through, carefully considered and slowly delivered, Lee's brand of humour is light years beyond the smutty bragging of Sachsgate or the crude offence of Jeremy Clarkson's "one-eyed Scottish idiot" outburst, but it could be argued that this is not the safest time for stand-up comedians to try to find the funny in contentious subjects. In Lee's unwanted but considerable experience, certain hot topics ignite emotional reactions that can't be reasoned with. During the Springer uproar, Lee travelled around the country trying to debate with the people who disagreed with him.
"It was a misguided notion. There would be these open discussion circles with the local psychopaths and there really was no point talking to them. They had their things they wanted to say to you, most of which had nothing to do with what you had written, and they would stand up and start shouting.
"At the Aberdeen talk, there was a man just chanting 'Love the sinner. Hate the sin'. There was no point being there. Most people came with an agenda about what they saw as preferential treatment for Muslims or gays. They wanted someone to be annoyed with."
Lee's humour stands out because he refuses to go for the knee-jerk reaction. For Lee, political correctness has definitely not gone mad but the definition of what is offensive is debatable rather than being a clearly marked line which cannot be crossed. He laughs about the storm that raged over whether Jonathan Ross or Carol Thatcher most deserved to be sacked depending on what he calls "the finely nuanced difference between sexual and racist offence".
"For people under 50, racist offence is probably worse than sexual offence, whereas for most people over 50, racist offence doesn't really matter but something scatological or sexual seems obscene. This idea that there is an objective value attached to notions of offence rather than realising that society values change is wrong. A golliwog wasn't offensive 40 years ago but we have to be a lot more careful about how we use that iconography now."
Lee started out in stand-up more than 20 years ago, first appearing at the Fringe as a student along with Richard Herring. During the Nineties, along with Herring, he had a couple of anarchic television shows: Fist Of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. He also contributed to On The Hour, the radio show which launched the careers of Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. The last two are involved in Lee's Comedy Vehicle as executive producer and script editor respectively.
Compared to today, television comedy back then was allowed a much longer leash. "It's 10 or 15 years since I last did telly," says Lee, "and the scrutiny the current script was subjected to by the legal compliance office for the BBC was much more thorough than it was back then."
Some material for Lee's Comedy Vehicle didn't make it past the compliance office, but he used this as an opportunity rather than a setback. "You find an interesting way around the problem. This increased scrutiny of material might do what writers and comedians in totalitarian countries say: that it brings out a greater degree of creativity. You worm your way under a fence rather than throwing shit at it."
While very broadly in the same industry as the Sachsgate duo, Lee has little sympathy for Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand, describing their ill-advised comedy routine as "almost indefensible". But he stops short of joining the long line of people calling for their public execution on the grounds that people must be free to voice their opinions no matter how ludicrous or obscene they are.
Lee's more pressing concern is that the furore surrounding the episode is being used to silence legitimate debate and more creative humour. Lee mentions the recent incident where the BNP reported Jo Brand to the police because she had made a joke about their members. "It's insane. These are crazy groups who pursue active campaigns against minorities and then like to act as though they are one when they are targeted by a comedian. If someone from the BNP is offended because I make fun of racists or if someone from Christian Voice is offended because I make fun of the idea that homosexuality is a sin then who cares?"
Free speech is inviolable for Lee even if it does mean he ends up with some unlikely bedfellows. One of Lee's favourite whipping boys is Jeremy Clarkson, who he regards as "a yardstick of stupidity". However, Lee unexpectedly found himself on the same side as the Top Gear presenter when Clarkson was being pilloried for a joke about truck drivers killing prostitutes.
"That was a good test of free speech," acknowledges Lee. "Obliged to stick up for Jeremy Clarkson."
Having not had his own television show for more than a decade, Lee was as surprised as everyone else when BBC2 invited him in and asked him what sort of show he would like to make. Personnel changes at the TV channels, changing comedy fashion and serial setbacks had more or less convinced him that that door had closed, but a run of glowing reviews from the 2005/2006 Edinburgh Fringe encouraged the broadcaster to harness Lee – even if their attitude was "we are very excited about your work; whatever it is you do".
With no fast cuts, music, cutaway shots for audience reactions or repeat characters, the format of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is different from anything else on the box, which is just the way Lee wanted it.
"The series is a gamble. It is not compromised in any way, which may be a strength or may mean that it sinks without a trace. There's a lot in the series about what you can say on television and a lot about this spurious idea that we live in a politically correct dictatorship. Hopefully, it will answer its own questions."
Stewart Lee on his Comedy Vehicle Man behind Fist of Fun (with Richard Herring) and Jerry Springer - The Opera is back on screen in his own 'Comedy Vehicle' Stephen Armstrong
15th March 2009
Stewart Lee, widely regarded as one of the UK’s most influential live performers by comedians from big names such as Ricky Gervais to newcomers such as Josie Long, ended his stand-up career in 2000 shortly after a gig in Fulham where a bloke kept shouting: “Tell more jokes! We’ve paid to hear jokes!” “I thought, it’s not even fair that I’m here,” he recalls. “They’ve got every right — I’m not what they want.” Flick forward seven years and during the Edinburgh Festival that same comedian is holding an audience of more than 400 spellbound with a routine that, on paper, should fail every single time.
The show is called 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, and he’s riffing on a Channel 4 poll that voted him into that hallowed spot, above the late, much-missed Irish comedian Dave Allen, Steve Martin and Tommy Cooper. One of Lee’s points is that these polls cannot be trusted — not least because everybody’s all-time comedy favourites usually involve the scene from Only Fools and Horses where Del Boy leans against the bar in the boozer and falls through an open serving hatch.
Lee describes the scene repeatedly, setting its banality against his mother’s indifference to her son’s comic talents and his failure to secure a television series, which was initially offered without even the need for a pilot. “This is what you find funny,” he repeats, sinking slowly to his knees — “Del Boy fell through the counter. You like that. Del Boy fell through the counter” — until finally he’s curled up on the floor, repeating it again and again and again. It’s mesmerising, intense, hilarious, upsetting. And there’s something about him — the performance, the timing — that’s making every one of those 400 people laugh just as hard as they can. So what happened between 2000, when he was practically booed off the stage and gave up performing, and 2007’s show, where they craned to hear his tiniest whisper?
He smiles. “When I came back to stand-up for the first time in 2004, I was literally performing some of the same routines I’d been doing at the end of the 1990s,” he explains, as we work slowly through sandwiches in a hotel bar near Broadcasting House. “As recently as 1997, I’d been doing a month-long show to 20 people a night. In 2004, I was sold out for the entire run, and it was really odd to be reviewed positively for the things I’d been damned for. I went from being boring to hypnotic, from patronising to intelligent. And it can’t have changed that much. Maybe it looks different coming out of a fatter, older man. I looked more entitled to feel like that, whereas someone in their twenties — you assume it’s an affectation.
“But the biggest difference was that when I was doing stand-up in 2004, Ricky Gervais said in an interview that I was the best stand-up ever — and I put that on the poster.”
It’s strange to find Lee so self-deprecating in conversation. His comedy — from 1990s television success with Richard Herring in Fist of Fun, through controversy over Jerry Springer — The Opera, which he co-wrote and directed, to today’s iconic stand-up status — has always seemed confident and certain, picking off targets with a limitless vocabulary and expert timing. He happily faced down the rage of the religious right over Springer with arguments drawn from William Blake and would publicly bemoan the attitude of the BBC2 controller who took him and Herring off the air.
Perhaps it’s as he says: he suits his age. At 40, he’s married with a child and clearly finds contentment in his family life. Then again, it could be down to the momentum of his recent success. Having lost the television series, he suddenly found it offered again — and the BBC was effectively prepared to let him do exactly as he pleased on air. The result is Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, six 20-minute stand-up sets where he destroys the banality of today’s flimsy culture, from celebrity hardback books to, well, lists of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. And he pulls off the Del Boy routine, right down to lying on the floor completely off camera, in a move that shouldn’t, but somehow does, work on television.
“There hasn’t been anything like this in stand-up on television for about 40 years,” he says. “Not since they put Dave Allen in a chair and focused slowly in on him with a single camera. His stand-up was the kind they say never works on television — it was slow, with lots of pauses in it, and there were stories that took seven minutes to get to one punch line, with no obvious laughs along the way.
“What’s good about this show is that they let things run long — they let routines like the Del Boy one unfold. I’m very lucky because, as a script, there’s no way it would get commissioned. It’s only the weight of good press that’s got me here. I mean, I’ve had reviews saying I’m the best living stand-up. I’m not saying that’s the case, obviously, but that’s what helped get this made. It’s not the kind of stand-up that would also make a funny magazine article.”
This sort of material, he explains, required an unusual comedy education. Lee grew up in the West Midlands and starting going to music gigs in the early 1980s (he reviews for Culture’s music pages), when so-called alternative comedy was at its creative peak. His first experience of comedy was the Comic Strip’s Peter Richardson opening for Dexys Midnight Runners. After that it was Phill Jupitus doing poetry, supporting Billy Bragg, and Ted Chippington, who performed in an odd, papier-mâché head, introducing the Fall.
“I was lucky — or unlucky, from a commercial point of view — that, as an impressionable teenager, they were the first people I saw,” he explains. “Most of them were people for whom comedy is an art form in quite a distinct way. If the first gig I’d ever gone to was a night at the Comedy Store, it would have been different — but I thought that was the way comedy was supposed to be.”
With the rise of Newman and Baddiel, laddish comedy and the chain-store nature of clubs such as Jongleurs, he felt beached and alone. Now, though, there are comics such as Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, Robin Ince and Danielle Ward who believe as much in the art of stand-up as he does, organising gigs in museums and hailing Lee as an uncomfortable sensei.
“Alternative comedy like The Young Ones was for all the weirdos to like,” he says. “And then it became something that advertisers would use or it would get its own stage at a sponsored festival. I think this new wave of comics is trying to reclaim parts of comedy for the weirdos, to marginalise parts of it again with stuff you won’t get in a mainstream comedy club. It’s great for me because I feel most TV comedy has nothing to do with me. I’m baffled by most of it. In the mid-1990s, I did at least feel part of a school of thought. That’s why I’m so excited they’ve all come along now.” He grins. “I’ve been doing stand-up 21 years now, and I’ve come into fashion three times — this is the third time. If it happens twice more before I’m 60, I’ll have enough money to retire.”
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, BBC2, 10pm, from tomorrow
Who says you can't do jokes about religion on the BBC? Stewart Lee's new show takes a pop at some sacred cows – and Russell Brand. Rob Sharp reports 16 March 2009
Stewart Lee is not a happy man – at least, he doesn't seem that way. The blood vessels run close to the surface of his face, giving him the appearance of having a permanent, self-loathing blush. He talks in hushed tones, occasionally giving out a harsh, maniacal cackle. Say the wrong thing and he jumps down your throat; he doesn't suffer fools.
"I have always sounded like this," he says. "When I was young it looked like an affectation. The audience would see an 11-stone, 23-year-old man and they would think, 'What's your problem?' I had some time off stand-up for a few years and came back and was older and greyer. I think people believed the persona a bit more after that."
The comedian, now 40, is slumped in a bar in the top floor of a hotel in the West End of London. He's here to promote his new television series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, which airs from tonight on BBC2 (10pm). Each of its six episodes tackles a different theme – such as books, television, or religion – with Lee talking through the topics in a studio mocked up to look like a comedy club. Each episode features several scenes shot outside the studio – on what seems to be more expensive film stock – with the likes of long-time Lee collaborator Kevin Eldon. Overall, it's extremely funny. Lee's world-weary deconstruction of his various bêtes noires is well thought through rather than indiscriminately snide.
In the first of the series, subtitled "Books", Lee takes a pop at celebrity biographies. First up is Russell Brand's My Booky Wook. "You can read Russell Brand's autobiography and dismiss it as rubbish if you like," he says. "Or you can dismiss it as rubbish without reading it, to save time, if you'd prefer."
Lee lampoons the descent of the novel from its lofty origins to the oeuvre of Chris Moyles – whose highest literary aspiration, Lee says, seems to be a desire for people to read his work on the toilet. "We could only have two shows at the start of the series – books or TV – because they are well-known quantities for a mainstream audience," Lee says. "It's a hook to get people involved. The next four shows are about more abstract ideas. It's amazing to be on telly doing this kind of thing."
It's amazing, for one, because one of the shows is about religion – a subject dear to Lee's heart. Jerry Springer: the Opera, which he co-wrote, attracted some 55,000 complaints when it was screened on BBC2 in January 2005 (it was slammed, in part, for its irreverent attitudes towards Judaism and Christianity).
This series is being closely monitored by the now-vigilant overseers at the BBC. "The show is really about how jokes about religion work," Lee says. "I can't see anything wrong with its content, but you never know. When we laugh at religion, are we laughing at jokes about doctrine and dogma, or are we laughing about the fact that 90 per cent of people in cassocks look funny? Most jokes about religion are about superficial things like that. If you do things about doctrine and dogma then it's more difficult. Well, it's increasingly difficult, because we don't know anything about the majority of religions in the UK. We live in a multicultural society. It's about that, really."
Lee says his show on the credit crunch had to be closely monitored given the severity of the current economic situation. "What I try to do in a show about property and money is to start it like looking as if it was taking a pop at estate agents and bankers, which would be the obvious thing to do," he says. "And then change it along the way so that it implicated us as consumers with a degree of culpability in the situation. And I did that because I think it is partly true. I partly did it because you would expect that show to have jokes about estate agents. And then I take it a step further."
So what does the future hold for Lee? "I can't do any more things for nothing. What I want to do is... I'll do another series of this if they offer me one. I don't want to do any television that I don't have complete control of. I don't want to be in anything, really; I don't want to act, I don't want to present documentaries, I don't want to be on quiz shows or in adverts or be interviewed about anything ever on camera by anyone. I don't want to be in films. I don't want to do anything with commercial West End musical theatre. I don't want to develop characters as animated things for the internet. All I want to do is this series. If it gets re-commissioned, I'll do a tour off the back of it..." Probably best not to press Lee any further on this one.
What prompted Lee's tirade against old schoolmate Richard Hammond? And who really gives a fuck? By James Tapper
30th August 2009
Stewart Lee has launched an extraordinary attack on Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, saying he wishes he had been ‘decapitated’ in the high-speed crash that nearly cost him his life. The 41-year-old comedian, star of BBC2’s critically acclaimed Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, accuses Hammond and his Top Gear colleagues of being ‘bullies’ and jokes about the car crash that left Hammond suffering brain damage.
Lee was at the same school as Hammond – he was two years ahead of the presenter – though the source of the animosity remains unclear. Yesterday, neither of the BBC men were prepared to discuss their days at Solihull School, a £9,400-a-year public school in Birmingham, amid speculation that their shared school experience may have prompted Lee’s diatribe.
Hammond, 39, nicknamed ‘The Hamster’ by fans, suffered brain injuries three years ago while driving a jet-propelled Vampire dragster that flipped and crashed at about 280mph. He made a remarkable recovery after the crash, and has gone on to present other TV programmes, including BBC1’s Total Wipeout gameshow, and Brainiac on Sky1.
Lee spends 20 minutes telling audiences about his dislike of Hammond in his show If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and he incorporates their schooldays into his routine. During one show last week, Lee said: ‘I wish he had died in that crash and that he had been decapitated and that his head had rolled off in front of his wife and that a jagged piece of metal debris from the car had got stuck in his eye and blinded him. And then his head had rolled on a few more yards into a pool of boiling oil and that his head had retained just enough neural capacity for him to be able to think “ooh, this is bit hot" before the whole thing exploded into tiny pieces.’
Later in the routine, he said: ‘I wish Richard Hammond HAD died and I wish he had been decapitated. Of course, it’s a joke. But coincidentally it’s also what I believe.’
Lee has made no secret of his dislike for Top Gear in episodes of his BBC2 show, which is watched by one million viewers. He has characterised Hammond and his colleagues, Jeremy Clarkson and James May, as ‘bullies’. An audience member in Edinburgh said: ‘It was very funny and it is his stock-in-trade, complaining about his bete noires. But I don’t imagine that Hammond would be happy to hear it. He told a joke which he said was made-up, about how he had saved Hammond from some school bullies, but you couldn’t help wondering if there was something more to it.’
Neither Lee nor Hammond was prepared to speak about their time at Solihull School. His headmaster, Philip Griffiths, said: ‘He was a very able English scholar and had a remarkable way with words. He was involved in drama, arts and literature and he was chairman of the sixth-form group which we had at that time.’ Hammond’s progress at the school was less remarkable, although he left the school early after his family moved to Ripon, North Yorkshire, where he attended Ripon Grammar.
Last night, Hammond did not want to comment on Lee’s comedy routine, although he is believed to view Lee’s jokes as being ‘in bad taste’. Lee said before his Edinburgh show on Friday night: ‘I don’t want to talk about it. They do jokes on Top Gear don’t they? Treat it as a joke.’
His spokeswoman said: ‘I don’t think they knew each other at school.’
Stewart Lee: 'hate all popular culture' Britain’s finest stand-up comedian explains why it is his job to have a pop at the powerful — and that includes glibly offensive entertainers Dominic Maxwell
28th Sep 2009
What’s eating Stewart Lee? Over the past five years, he has made himself the most essential stand-up comedian in the country, first with a stunning trio of tours that began life at the Edinburgh Fringe, then with the return this year to BBC Two of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. It was his first big bout of television since the channel pulled the plug on his double act with Richard Herring ten years ago.
Lee, 41, has a disdain for flummery that he has turned into an art form. His Comedy Vehicle victims include nation’s favourites such as J. K. Rowling, Jeremy Clarkson, Russell Brand and Chris Moyles. And that was just the first episode. He ended a hilarious ten-minute routine on the rapper Asher D by turning straight to camera and saying, “Yes, I am disrespecting you.”
Brave? Lee insists that he’s only trying to do his job. “They just seem funny things to say,” he says, in his calm, light Midlands accent. “I’m an overweight, greying, middle-aged man in a suit that obviously needs letting out. I don’t have any power, so there wouldn’t be any skill in crushing me.”
Comedy should make fun of the powerful, he says. And that category, for Lee, includes entertainers as much as politicians. “The main thing that I hate on a daily basis is all popular culture. And the problem with the way the world works now is that you’re obliged to participate. Like if you go on Jonathan Ross, you have to sit in a room with the other people who are on it, and be polite to them. It is statistically likely that these people will be part of what is wrong with everything. And I don’t want to be in that position, because I like to be free to make jokes about their work and their attitudes.”
Lee won’t do adverts, hates doing panel shows, finds that his involved material simply won’t work at corporate gigs. And if all that makes him sound like some sort of comedy hardliner, unwilling to turn on the light lest it compromise his ability to have a pop at npower, his act is really about being playful rather than pious. Measured, rhythmic and wilfully repetitive onstage, offstage he’s looser, given to the odd gleeful cackle, yet diligent about making his point.
The television money meant he could upgrade from the one-bedroom flat that he shared with his wife, the comedian Bridget Christie, and their two-year-old son Luke, to a place with three bedrooms. He finds out in January if he’ll get a second series, enabling him to take a chunk out of the new mortgage. He started to make any proper money only three years ago, he says. Even Jerry Springer the Opera, the controversial West End hit he co-wrote and directed, earned him just £60,000 over five years.
Does he aim too high? In his last live show, he had a cheery pop at Al Murray’s populist audiences. In an interview with me two years ago, Murray said in reply: “Stewart’s very old-school BBC. He thinks there ought to be a clever person telling you how to think for your own safety.” What does Lee reckon to that?
There’s a heavy pause. “I wouldn’t have thought that five years ago. But now I think that we need some sort of counterweight to the sorts of things glibly taken as acceptable on things like 8 out of 10 Cats or Mock the Week. There’s a sort of casual homophobia that doesn’t even begin to question itself. And I think a publicly funded broadcaster has a duty to reflect various points of view. As much as the Jeremy Clarksons of this world would like to think there’s a politically correct conspiracy preventing them from having their say, they are the people getting seven million viewers. Their sort of glib, cosy, fireside reactionary attitudes are how loads of people feel.”
Lee suggests that the grateful response to his show is partly because it’s a corrective to such blather. “There’s a lot of people who are fed up with television, who are sick of feeling ashamed and offended every time they switch on. It’s not about cleverness. It’s about applying pressure upwards rather than downwards. Even a lot of shows that are really funny, like Little Britain, apply pressure downwards on disenfranchised people.”
Last month Lee made headlines because of a routine he was trying out for his new tour. Like all his material, it makes little sense in soundbite form. Say it’s about Lee wishing an explosive, painful death on the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, and it sounds awful. But when The Mail on Sunday asked him to justify it, he kept his counsel, knowing that the only way to defend the joke would be to explain the joke. And thus spoil it.
Now he argues it’s obvious what the routine is about: “If your escape clause for jokes in which there are victims is that ‘it’s only a joke, back off’, what’s to stop that logic being turned back on you?”
Lee grew up in Solihull, adopted by a couple who split when he was 4. He lived with his mother, but saw his dad. “I’m not one of those comedians who will tell you they did it because they were deflecting bullying or anything. I had a really, really happy childhood.”
At Oxford, he met Richard Herring. Within a few years they were on BBC Two with their show Fist of Fun. But the money they made with that got swallowed up in loss-making tours and Edinburgh debts.He feels he lost his way as a stand-up until his 2004 comeback.He and Herring remain friends, and have played a couple of benefit shows together. But a full-time reunion is out. “Now it would be like doing an act. And I can’t really act.”
Marriage, he suggests, has broadened his outlook. “I think our relationship has humanised what I do. I read things online that say I’m dislikeable and smug and arrogant, but to an extent that’s a cultivated persona. What I was doing in the Nineties, being cynical about everything, was a dead end. It may look like cynicism still, but it’s frustrated romanticism. Because you have to take a romantic view of the world as a parent. You have to have hope.”
Stewart Lee, comedy for adults only "The last four shows I have done have had beginning, middle and end, but in this one I will be leaving myself a lot more room to manoeuvre" 6 October 2009
IF You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One is the provocative title for Stewart Lee's tour which brings the comedian to Worthing's Pavilion Theatre on Wednesday, October 7, at 8pm.
It's an adults-only show from the co-writer of Jerry Springer the Opera and comes inspired by an altercation in a high street coffee chain.
"In this show, an account of something that happened to me in a coffee shop will be used as a convenient framing device for disparate material possibly concerning English Heritage, Top Gear, The Olympics, emigration, prawns, Bella Pasta, The National Trust, farmers, D.H. Lawrence, piglets, cathedrals, bees, Iggy Pop, cider adverts, riots etc ., etc."
Yes, he will be getting a few things off his chest, refreshed from a quick pre-tour break in north Devon, grabbed in between his Edinburgh dates and hitting the road. He will be gigging pretty much six nights a week now right through to March.
"It's the longest one that I have ever done," he says. And to keep it fresh there will be the green lung of improvisation – though the things that work will find permanent homes in the show. As Stewart says, it's Eddie Izzard who is the absolute master in that respect. "He gives the impression of delivering it off the top of his head. In reality, it's deliberate. The skill is in putting across that air of constant invention… The last four shows I have done have had beginning, middle and end, but in this one I will be leaving myself a lot more room to manoeuvre."
Just as well, given the vast array of venues he will be playing, everything from the big 800-seaters to theatres and halls considerably smaller. It's live – and the size of the crowd is bound to shape the performance. "With fewer people you can actually tone it down and it is like you are talking to friends, but it does work the other way."
His previous tour, entitled the 41st Best Stand-up Ever, was a jokey look at what he terms his relative professional failure compared to his critical acclaim. When he was bemoaning his fate, it didn't sit quite so well when he was performing in a full-house 800-seater, he laughs. As for the content this time, he will be looking at the things we can and can't say, for instance the anti-women, anti-homosexual things that the Top Gear presenters for some reason are allowed to get away with.
"I don't feel constrained personally", says Stewart. But he makes the point that there has to be a point to what you are saying: "It's easier to justify it then."
Stewart Lee in Wrexham to stand-up and be counted 29 October 2009
A RAMSHACKLE student act at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987 started Stewart Lee’s rise to one of the finest alternative comics Britain has ever produced. A true ‘comedian’s comedian’ over the last 20 years, Lee’s name has become synonymous with quality of the likes of Harry Hill, Steve Coogan, the Mighty Boosh, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci. His list of connections is a ‘who’s who’ of British comedy, and if that wasn’t enough he is also Ricky Gervais’s favourite comedian.
“When I was growing up there were two distinct schools of stand-up; you had traditional older working men’s club comics, then there were people like Billy Connolly, folk comics who had that surrealist streak, playing guitar, and Dave Allen, who just did what he pleased. It seemed that there was nothing in between, so when I started I was opening for rock bands in odd venues, it was a little crazy.”
He speaks of Ted Chippington, a little-known comic who claims he did his act “purely to annoy people”, perfecting a brand of curious anti-humour in a way that almost crossed over into art, it is clear to see where Lee gets his anarchic streak from but the difference is Lee has always had that natural comedian skill, a deadpan delivery of killer lines and a painfully funny venomous streak that can take down any target.
The 1990s was a high water mark, his and partner Richard Herring’s influential Fist of Fun TV show developed a rabidly loyal fanbase that has stuck with him until today, his most significant work in the last ten years has been the controversial but universally acclaimed Jerry Springer: The Opera.
A play which ran at theatres around the country, garnering rave reviews and gathering bigger and bigger audiences over several years, Jerry Springer peaked with award-winning shows at the National Theatre in London. It was then televised on BBC2, receiving a record number of complaints before it even aired.
Before all this however, his name entered the public conscious in the 1990s along with writing partner Richard Herring’s as their cult favourite TV show Fist of Fun kick started a new era of sketch-show comedy. Many years of touring as an individual performer cemented his place as a class act on stage, but in 2000 he hung up the mic.
“It wasn’t a challenge any more, I just found it dull, once you start playing big shows to crowds who know who you are it becomes less interesting, I wanted to make it difficult and I wanted to feel out of my comfort zone. At Wrexham I’ll be performing a song, which should be fun,” he laughs.
It turned out to be a blessing as his most significant work to date was soon to follow in the form of the controversial but universally acclaimed play Jerry Springer: The Opera. The award-winning show involving a nappy-clad Jesus and tap dancing Klu Klux Klan members ran at theatres around the country, earning rave reviews playing to larger crowds, eventually peaking with a run at the National Theatre in London.
“I enjoyed directing, but when you create something like that which keeps getting bigger it becomes a management job. There’s a lot of money involved and it’s not your show any more.
Has he ever considered writing a sequel, Jeremy Kyle: the Musical? “No. Springer went on a journey, he started off as something good and became a joke, Jeremy Kyle started off as a joke and became even more of a joke- there’s no journey there, the audience won’t have learned anything,” he is laughing again.
He returned to stand-up in 2004, challenging himself to make the new shows as difficult as possible. “I took stock and realised that everything you can do in theatre you can do in stand-up, it’s just you and the audience, it’s a special bond. I think I had to leave stand-up for a while to realise how much I liked it. You never really escape stand-up though, it’s like trying to leave the mafia,” he laughs.
This year saw the broadcast of his first TV show in 10 years; Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle a mixture of stand-up and sketches which aired on BBC2 and despite strong material he says: “The people who normally watch stuff to complain didn’t bother this time, it was great.” "Televised stand-up seems to distance the performer from the crowd, you see the stand-up tell a joke then they cut to someone in the crowd laughing, usually Gok Wan, it doesnt work. We broke those rules and tried to make it as real as possible, we werent telling the audience to enjoy themselves or when to laugh, and we got a good reception from people."
His current live show, which hits Wrexham before heading to the Edinburgh Festival, came from experiencing a strange form of midlife crisis in a coffee shop. “I was sitting there, with my loyalty card, and I went to get a free cup with my stamps, and they rejected it because the stamps were not the right colour, and I was absolutely enraged, and I took a second and thought, ‘Is this what I’ve become? Is this what angers me now!?’” He is laughing again, and his self-deprecating observational style is hard not to like, he sees how petty and silly people can be and turns this into comedy.
Departmental changes at the BBC have delayed news of a second series of his TV show but it is still in the pipeline, but a rare talent like Lee will not be kept quiet for long. The natural timing, the deadpan delivery and venomous streak are all present even during an early morning chat. He means business and Wrexham is in store for a comedic tour de force.
The Diary: Stewart Lee
December 5, 2009
Sunday. I am seven weeks into the biggest stand-up tour I’ve ever done. Normally when I go back to a town with a new show I perform to about 25 per cent more people than before, building from audiences of about 100-150 to sometimes selling out 700-seater venues. But I did a TV series for BBC2 this year, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and for this tour numbers have doubled. It couldn’t have come at a better time. My wife Bridget and I were getting ready to sell our flat and leave the capital in search of space to get our two-year-old his own room. But the extra money means we now have a mortgage on a family home in London, the city that licked us both into shape, and which we’re reluctant to leave.
Tonight I’m at the Theatre Royal in Richmond. Since I got bigger crowds, I’m often upgraded into booming town halls, the rows of seats receding into the dark distance, my voice bouncing off the walls, the laughter disappearing into the dome. But this is a fantastic old theatre, where no one feels more than 50ft away. I don’t think I could ever be one of those comics who perform on massive screens in stadiums, as what I do is tiny and nuanced, but with the BBC unlikely to recommission the series this won’t ever become an issue. So that’s good then.
Monday. It’s my first day off for a week or so. My wife Bridget and I booked a babysitter and had planned to go and see some music locally. Stoke Newington, where we live, has a rich history of improvised jazz, which my wife and I love seeing live. Lol Coxhill and John Edwards were at Café Oto in Dalston, and the American jazz bass player Henry Grimes was at the Vortex nearby but we realised we hadn’t really spoken for weeks and so sat at the back of the Auld Shillelagh, a genuinely Irish Irish pub off Church Street, and caught up. Bridget has had to put her own stand-up and writing on hold at the moment and do most of the childcare before the temporary buzz of interest in me dissipates. This was never the idea and, sometimes, when the theatres won’t put the money from my CD sales on the settlement, I bring home a handful of used tenners, which I press on her for shopping and the boy. When did our marriage move back to the 1950s?
Tuesday. I’m in Tunbridge Wells and there are two reviewers in. I hope to get good write-ups to sell the longest London run I’ve ever done, six weeks starting on Monday. I’m curious about what the critics will say, especially if they’re the sort who actually go and see lots of stand-up. But, since I became a dad, my main worry is that bad press might hit sales and my ability to provide for my family.
Maybe I was nervous. I fluffed the opening to the show, and introduced my superb opening act Tony Law, a surreal Canadian stand-up, in a messy way, throwing him to the lions rather. The show was the most sluggish of the tour and, for the first time so far, a half-hour bit about the ethics of the cruel humour of the TV show Top Gear was compromised by the fact that most of Tunbridge Wells seemed to be big fans of Jeremy Clarkson and co. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the struggle, a kind of numb war of attrition against their bruised sensibilities and apparent boredom.
Wednesday. Birmingham Town Hall. Once again, I feared the echo chamber effect, as it’s hard to play the pauses and silences in reverberating rooms, but the sound engineers did amazing things with adjustable Perspex baffling.
Birmingham was my hometown but I left 23 years ago. Like most escapees I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Brum, but this time I felt unjustly proud by association. The latest architectural overhaul of the city centre showcases both old and new buildings in their best light, everyone we dealt with seemed enthusiastic, and Nostalgia & Comics remains the best laid-out comic shop in the country. Outside the town hall in the square there is a delightful little Christmas market. Still impossible to find anywhere to eat after 10.30, though. Damn those Quakers!
Thursday. I am in Oxford, where a quarter of a century ago I was a student. Tony and I stayed in a little hotel off the Cowley Road, a slightly scary area back then but now full of bistros and boutiques and swelling with pride. It has changed. In fact, seeing different cities every day, I’ve realised that the whole world has changed. The liminal zones where people limped along on grant money and dole cheques are long gone, as even the poorest live it up on borrowed wealth.
Even as I got more popular I could still never get in the big theatre in Oxford. On the last tour I performed the show four times in a local promoter’s 200-seater pub room. This time around he’s put me in a 1,000-seater bingo hall that’s newly opened as a rock venue. It took 90 minutes to seat everyone and I was worried about the mood turning. But the show went well and even the Telegraph reviewer liked it, though afterwards I had an argument with the tickets guy, which will no doubt lead to me being traduced anonymously on the internet. My old English tutor came and liked the show. I was relieved. I think I was still, subconsciously, expecting to be graded.
Friday. I walked with Tony to the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and saw two paintings by Edward Calvert, a disciple of William Blake, whose grave lies hidden in dense undergrowth in a cemetery opposite my flat in north London, and admired the craftsmanship of the Alfred Jewel.
Then we drove to Peterborough, where I bought my son a SpongeBob SquarePants ukulele and ate some soup alone in the Travelodge. Is this not the most rock’n’roll tour ever? Do you envy me, Financial Times readers, with your big City jobs? Hell, when I’ve finished this, I might even get that ukulele out of its box and give it a strum. Everything could go wrong tomorrow. I could go deaf, the tide could turn against me, I could forget how to be funny ... but this afternoon I’m strumming a child’s mandolin in a Peterborough Travelodge and I am free.
Stewart Lee is appearing at Leicester Square Theatre, London, from Monday until January 17 2010. Tel: 0844 8472475; www.leicestersquaretheatre.com for dates
A master of withering reasonableness
24th July 2010
STEWART Lee on the 2005 London Al-Qaeda bombings: “Who are they, these inhuman bombers that strike at the very heart of our society with no respect for human life, without even the courtesy of a perfunctory warning? It makes you nostalgic, doesn’t it, for the good old days of the IRA. ’Cause they gave warnings, didn’t they? They were gentleman bombers, the finest terrorists this country’s ever had. We’ll not see their like again. Let’s have a little clap for the IRA . . . ’Cause the IRA, they were decent British terrorists. They didn’t want to be British. But they were. And, as such, they couldn’t help but embody some fundamentally decent British values”.
Imagine the words uttered in a calm drone by a chubby, greying Englishman in a too-tight suit and you have the essence of Stewart Lee: the withering reasonableness, the weary sarcasm, the ready assumption of intelligence and discernment in his audience.
You won’t have seen much of him on television, though he had a semi-successful series, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle , on BBC2 last year. When he was skint a few years back he did Have I Got News for You and a few similar spots, but nowadays he turns down offers to appear on Mock the Week and other whimsical panel shows. He isn’t the kind of comedian who does short routines, quips or sound-bites, and younger viewers may not have the attention span to cope with him.
Instead he successfully tours rambling, measured shows, delicately erected from strong foundations of vitriol and contempt, layered with self-deprecation, unpicking and examining his technique and motivation as he laboriously clambers up the comic scaffolding. He can be indulgent and condescending, and tends to preach to the converted, but there is nobody else in British comedy so merrily combining outlandish filth and blasphemy with the most pious kind of political correctness to expose the mediocre and the hypocritical. He has the unstinting respect of his peers, and a loyal fan-base, while remaining fairly obscure on a more general level. “The personal is absent from my work,” he says. “The me you see onstage is largely a construct, based on me at my worst, my most petty and my most patronising.”
How I Escaped My Certain Fate is basically the transcripts of three of his stage shows – from 2005, 2006 and 2008 – with vast amounts of careful explanation and deconstruction of this material in footnotes: one lasts three-and-a-half pages, and two sections actually begin as lengthy footnotes. And it is in these footnotes that we catch almost inadvertent glimpses of a Stewart Lee who seems as privately nice as he is publicly brave: he adores the mum who adopted him as a baby, is slightly defensive about his Oxford education, and is delighting in first-time fatherhood. Through it all, though, he holds his line about the cathartic qualities of comedy, though in truth this is the only stance available for that rarest of creatures, a genuinely principled comedian who has reached middle-age without compromising his integrity and still remains funny and relevant.
Some observations are poignant. In the transcript of a show loosely built around the appropriation by mainstream television personality Joe Pasquale of a joke originated by veteran Irish comedian Michael Redmond he comments in an aside that another old-style British comic, Jim Davidson “is not a performer troubled by the duality of meaning”. The sad footnote adds: “No one cares about this sort of thing any more. To the average punter there’s no difference between Jimmy Carr and Jim Davidson, between irony and intent, except that Jimmy Carr is much better and more original. But ethical and political questions are largely irrelevant to today’s comedy consumers. Comedians are little more than content providers”.
He is scathing about comics who fail to measure up to his own high standards (though there is probably room in the business for only one Stewart Lee), especially self-absorbed American stand-ups unable to translate the personal into the general. Bad writing by Dan Brown and JK Rowling is attacked, too, plus celebrity non-books by the likes of Russell Brand and Jeremy Clarkson. The 18th-century polymath Thomas Young was the last person reputed to have read every book published in his lifetime. Someone who did that today, says Lee, would end up more stupid than the person who read nothing.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate will interest those who believe in the transformative potential of laughter, and provide food for thought for ambitious youngsters tempted to see the art of comedy as little more than a fast-track to quiz-show stardom. And while I eventually got slightly fed up with Lee wagging his finger at me, I have to concede that on most issues he is calmly, smugly, condescendingly, infuriatingly, hilariously correct.
Stewart Lee: on touring What happens when a stand-up comedian runs into hostility on tour? Stewart Lee reports from Premier Inn.
8 Oct 2010
It’s incredible how many comedians there are on the road at the same time, all seemingly able to get an audience. The other day, I can’t remember where we were, in a hotel somewhere, and outside in the morning there was a black Mercedes for Tommy Tiernan and his people, a black sort of traveller van for Armstrong and Miller and their crew and then there was us. It’s getting too much. It’s got to stop.
I’ve got a car too, and someone with me to drive, do tech stuff and the merchandise. It gets hard to tour on your own. Plus - since being on the telly, you need to get out a bit quicker because loads of people stop and hassle you.
I couldn’t tour like I used to. Twenty years ago, you wouldn't get paid much for out of town gigs but there were all these B&Bs that were like DSS places where you could stay for eight quid. When I started touring again in 2004, I did all the Travelodges. They were the cheapest thing. Now Premier Inn is the bottom line and sometimes we go a bit better than that. Premier Inn has the cardboard cut-outs of Lenny Henry -... as if a comedian would stay there! And yet … everyone is staying there. When Janet Street-Porter said “Comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll” 20 years ago, I don’t think she meant this.
This regional tour is unusual in that it’s only two or three weeks. It’s about trying to get stuff for my telly show next year. I am making notes when I get back after each gig. It’s not a show I’d want to tour forever - it hasn’t got a beginning, a middle and an end - it’s just a collection of gags.
There are still people who book to see me who aren’t expecting something as passive-aggressively monotonous as me. When I did a lot of stuff about Top Gear on the last tour, I was trying to use it as a way of looking at the cruel streak of humour that’s in comedy now. I didn’t realise how popular Top Gear was or how many people I wouldn’t have expected to be in my audience liked the show. Particularly in South East London, there were a few sticky gigs, where the majority of the room were vocal Top Gear fans and got annoyed. It was normally funny enough to win them round but there were a couple of gigs where I had to change the material because of the hostility in the room.
One of the good things about there being so many comics on the road is that presumably people will start to differentiate between the acts. In the same way that if you like rock music you wouldn’t just randomly go and see any live band, the same applies to comedy.
Places I like? It’s interesting playing to people in odd and out-of-the-way places. There’s a really nice gig on the North Yorkshire moors which a guy runs called The Shed, which he does in a village hall near Malton. The journey across the moors is great. I also really like the Stand in Edinburgh.
I’m doing 500-1000 seater venues now and I don’t know how stadium comics can do what they do. I hate these town hall venues with 18th-century concert-hall acoustics where you can’t hear anyone or see anyone. But I love those 19th-century Frank Matcham theatres where the boxes and the circle are never more than 10-15 feet away from you. What did people know about designing the perfect room for variety, comedy and musichall 200 years ago that they’ve somehow forgotten in every provincial arts centre that you go to? I think there is an optimum size for a really good stand-up gig. Luckily there appears to be a glass ceiling on my career which means I’m not likely to have to deal with the issue of stadiums.”
Stewart Lee tours to the end of October, supported by Simon Munnery, then has a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre, London from Oct 26 to Dec 18. Booking: www.leicestersquaretheatre.com More info: www.stewartlee.co.uk
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