Stewart Lee: "I don't think a 16-year-old me would want to be a comedian"
Stewart Lee. There are few names which carry more significance in contemporary British comedy.
Not only has Lee worked in the industry for over two decades alongside luminaries such as Richard Herring, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, has helped to shape the careers of comedians such as The Mighty Boosh and even writes for Harry Hill.
With the furore which surrounded the Jerry Springer: The Opera firmly behind him Lee is now riding high with a new-found recognition of his work. His show Comedy Vehicle has been commissioned by the BBC for another two series; he has a DVD out; he’s even being recognised in the street again and plagued by Twitter posts of his whereabouts across London.
Listen: Stewart Lee interview in full
We meet in Clissold Park, near where he lives in Stoke Newington. Lee has lived in the area for around fifteen years and, as we walk through the park, he tells me how the newly re-opened café in the former manor house has sparked a local ‘couscous war’ over gentrification of the area. The Evening Standard blamed it on ‘an influx of political and media types over recent years including comedian Stewart Lee’.
Considering he has been performing for over two decades you would think it’s something which he would have gotten used to but, as he explains, it’s not the fact he’s recognised, it’s that the public’s perception of celebrity has changed since the early days of Lee and Herring.
“I don’t really remember being recognised all that much back in the mid-nineties, although we did get two million viewers [for Lee & Herring], but I also don’t remember it being too inconvenient particularly. Probably because there wasn’t anything I had to get on with particularly.” Lee says.
“I remember my dad, my dad lived abroad and he came to stay with me in around 1998 when Richard Not Judy was on and I remember two things.
“One, it was a Friday night and he wanted to go to the pub where I lived in Finsbury Park and I said ‘I don’t want to do that, as a Friday night after-work pub is the sort of place I might get recognised a lot and it could be a bit annoying’, and he said ‘Oh you think you’re famous do you?’
“And then one day, a bloke had shouted at me on escalator ‘Oi Stew’ and a guy in a van had shouted ‘Oi Stew’ and this happened about four times. My Dad went, ‘God you know loads of people’, he never realised. He thought I knew these random people in vans or cars that I didn’t recognise, but I never remember it being a problem.”
"I had no personal scenery at all between say 1998 and 2009. What changed in the meantime is Twitter, social networking and it’s much worse now as you feel like you’re bascially tracked and feel paranoid all the time and you have to be on your best behaviour.
“Now what I would love to do, if I can get out of the venue in time, is get to a pub and get one or two pints of a local bitter that I wouldn’t be able to get in London. That’s perfect.”
Lee says that one of the worst things about being a comedian is being known, which is the opposite of what many up-and-coming comedians' believe – and what many comedy agent’s pursue.
“First of all, when I was 17, I wanted to be a comedian because I'd seen Ted Chippington, Phill Jupitus when he was a punk poet, and I’d seen Alexei Sayle on television.
“Then in the Fringe I saw Sadowitz, Arthur Brown and Norman Lovett and all the weirdos and Oscar McLennon – who was more like a performance artists but did the circuit. And they made me – as a teenager who liked The Fall and Samuel Beckett, I was a bit pretentious – they made me want to be a comedian.
“I don’t think the 16-year-old me now would want to be a comedian. I think it would be the worst thing because, where stand-up is now on telly, the 16-year-old me would look and think ‘what a boring, aspirational, conservative, safe thing that is’."
Lee is critical of the role that the big agents play in comedy, from their bargain-basement DVDs to the way they dictate how comedy is portrayed by audiences.
“If you're with one of these big management companies the acts are basically like tanks who Stalin drives through Red Square as a display of power. They like to be able to say that X sold X amount of their DVD's. They don't want to say, 'at 50p each for a huge discount to Sainsbury's'.”
“What a lot of people have to realise is that you can't win at comedy. It's not like a sport. Members of the public seem to think that, they say 'if he's so good then why isn't he playing the O2?' Anyone, if they think about it for a second, knows that there's no correlation between how popular something is and whether it's any good.”
“Also, because of Live At The Apollo, audiences and comics are expected to have a tight six minutes that delivers on the telly. It would be much harder to develop an interesting act now because audience expectations have changed, and I think that’s why this alternative circuit is mushrooming up.”
One of the reasons Lee is so respected is because he isn’t afraid to air his thoughts in public; whether it is the sponsorship of the Edinburgh Comedy Award by Fosters or the banal offering given by many TV comedy panel shows.
Before the BBC re-commissioned the third and fourth series of Comedy Vehicle, Lee was asked to present the Culture Show and be more of a face for BBC Two, which he refused, ‘because why would I want to be paid less for doing something I don’t want to do?’
Lee admits that he wouldn’t be very good at presenting the Culture Show, or appearing on a comedy panel show, but it is also about creative control. Lee doesn’t like losing control, and isn’t comfortable when he isn’t firmly in charge of what people see.
Lee collects his BAFTA for Comedy Vehicle
This problem came to light recently when the BBC censored the release of the DVD for the 1996 show Fist Of Fun – due in part to a joke about Princess Diana which was made before her death. Suddenly Lee was stuck in a situation where a plethora of producers and executives managed to create a problem out of nothing.
“The BBC’s in an insane panic and there is no structure so they wanted us to cut some stuff – and the other problem was that there was suddenly lots of people involved talking to each other.” Lee says.
“But I’m a control freak, and over 25 years I’ve honed it down to this very narrow channel between me and the finished product. And whenever that chain gets expanded I suddenly get paranoid and panic.”
Over the course of the interview, which lasts just under two hours, Lee’s love-hate relationship with the BBC becomes clear. Comedy Vehicle, which has been commissioned for two further series, is indicative of that relationship. The approval ratings for the first series was 6.1 (out of ten), but then was moved to a later timeslot which meant it got less viewers but a higher an approval rating of 9.9.
“What will happen now is that because it’s had a BAFTA and two British Comedy Awards it will be bought back down to an earlier timeslot, which means more people will see it, and the approval rating will go down.
“The other thing with moving it forward is that there might now be pressure from the top to tidy it up a bit.”
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Interference is something which is to be expected with any TV commission, and though Lee says that the second series of the show was interfered with less than the first, there is always that fear that someone at the top will step in.
“Someone on the day of filming [the first series] decided that the audience in the working-men’s style club venue couldn’t be seen to be drinking, and the fact that they couldn’t take drinks in killed the atmosphere and made it a 50 per cent worse series than it would otherwise have been.”
“Also there was one thing in the first series I remember where I wanted there to be a thing where religious groups were running dog schools, [questioning if] they should they be allowed to run dog training schools in case they tried to indoctrinate dogs. There was an Islamic dog training school where they would get dogs in planes and fly them into buildings.
“And someone said, 'oh, you can't do that because in Islam a dog is a taboo animal'. So I looked it up.
"Now, in the Koran there's as much good stuff as bad stuff about dogs. It doesn't have a policy on dogs. But there a cultural taboo in Muslim culture about dogs, so it was thought it would be inflammatory to do something about that.
“And then it turns out that Al Qaeda had actually been training dogs to carry bombs.”
Despite being wheeled out like an unwanted child who occasionally wins an award, it’s obvious that as a broadcaster the BBC is closer to both what he, and his on-stage persona would align themselves with. Lee wouldn’t feel comfortable going to Sky where many of his contemporaries such as Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci now work.
“That 1989 generation, they’ve gone down and bought all of them. They’ve got all the ancient blues men of comedy, and then all the people like Charlie Brooker who have come and copied them as well,” Lee says, laughing.
“Sky don’t want to be remembered as being associated with Murdoch eavesdropping on the phones of dead children. They need something credible, they need to have stuff which makes Guardian and Independent readers subscribe to the channel. They thought that buying in Mad Men would make it happen but it hasn’t. All the ABC1s wait for the box set.
“So now they’ve got all the ABC1s' favourite comedians working for them. They’re not necessarily paying them more than the BBC, but they are commissioning them to do something which the BBC was either unwilling or unable to do.
“The problem the BBC has is that if commissions The Trip and it gets 0.8m viewers and wins a Bafta, the papers go, ‘How dare they spend all this money’ etc.
“If Sky do it, and make something like The Trip, and it gets 0.2 million viewers and a five-star review in The Guardian, they're delighted as they feel that they’ve begun to penetrate that market.
“Lucy Lumsden at Sky is a really nice, clever woman with good taste and she’s obviously delighted to be able put together the discerning comedy fan's dream roster. But at the end of the day she’s able to do that is because it’s about advertisers on a commercial channel de-toxifying their brand.
What about Stewart Lee himself?
“Going to the BBC instead of Sky, people load onto me the idea that it was ideologically driven. It is a little bit, because when I made the decision to stay at the BBC it would have been more difficult to make fun of lots of things which are wrong in society on a Murdoch channel, because you are already part of the problem.
“And I think it’s very interesting that Charlie Brooker is able to circumnavigate that, and he doesn’t get bogged down in the fact that he is like a bloke in a traffic jam driving a car, complaining about there being lots of cars on the road. I think he’s really good but he doesn’t seem to implode under the weight of the contradictions he embodies.
“The reason I was really pleased to stay at the BBC is because at the end of the day, TV is ephemeral, you can get dropped, fashions come and go, but live work is there forever.
Early days: Lee and Herring with Fist Of Fun
Lee has a complicated relationship with Twitter. He isn’t a natural fan of social media and Twitter in particular bothers him because, as he says, ‘everyone keeps on talking about it’. However, just because he doesn’t choose to use Twitter doesn’t mean that he isn’t aware of what is said about him.
“Though I don’t engage with social media I am aware that social media takes care of certain things for me,” Lee says.
“Like, when the Daily Mail made up loads of things about Jerry Springer: The Opera in the early noughties the producers had to sue them. But when they made up that I had been rude to Michael McIntyre’s wife at an event I’d never been to, and then I said all this stuff about Richard Hammond without any context for it whatsoever, I wrote a piece on my website explaining point by point why this article was wrong.
“And then that got linked to on Twitter, not by me, but by someone so thousands of people read it.
“And three days later, there wasn’t an apology from the Daily Mail, but the piece had been removed from their website – so it does make a difference and that means that now the only place you can find that piece is on my website, which I put up to show people what they had said about me.”
Lee’s social media relationship doesn’t stop there though. While some comedians court controversy to keep their profile alive and others go out of their way to not offend anyone, Lee has simple disdain for anyone who engages on it at all.
However, snippets of comments from Twitter and sites such as the Guardian have now become a part of his live shows, as he takes these comments and uses them directly in his sets. A curious relationship has emerged where you can never be sure whether those abusing him online are fans or critics.
“When I first realised how much there was, I didn’t really know about Twitter and stuff like that. I looked and thought ‘fucking hell, this is a bit strong',” Lee says. “I was really surprised at the level of hatred. So then I decided to find as much as I could. But it’s a little like giving yourself a disease you then become immune to and I began to find it hilarious. So now I sort of think you can use it, and it might be a strength.”
“A lot of the comments are really negative to the point where they are a parody of people who don’t like it. Actually people who hate me have given up because they’ve sort of been crowded out by false comments which are so much more extreme.
“It’s like that Terry Christian thing a few years ago. That’s become a meme I think, where any mention of me, anywhere like Corgo The Gorilla’s let himself go, or abstracts of this.
A quick check on Twitter sees the following post: "Was feeling miserable about going to the shop in the cold and rain, then I saw Stewart Lee at the bus stop! (looking even more miserable.)”
You don’t know whether this is a critique, or a fan joining in as part of the joke and hoping Lee will read it. And it’s here where Lee is playing around, with his audiences on TV, in the live arena and now online – and, in a way he’s enjoying, it. Lee might not admit it, but he looks much more comfortable now than at anytime we’ve seen him. He can afford a laugh, which is refreshing.
Looking forward to the next series of Comedy Vehicle, he says: “What I’ve noticed they say now is that people don’t actually like my act, but they go along to try to pretend to like it to look clever, which is a lot of a commitment, to be fair,” Lee laughs. “Especially with what I’m charging nowadays.”
“So that’s the thrust of the start of the third series, that no-one likes it, you're not actually meant to like it, if you try to pretend to look clever. Meet the things head on.”
It’s approaching midday as we finish the interview and before Lee departs he gives me a quick potted history of the area: why Clissold Park has deer in it, where Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, why Stoke Newington Town Hall still has camouflage paint from WWII on it - along with a list of other notables who have lived and worked in the local area. ‘There you go, that’s your lot,’ Lee says jovially. And like that he was gone.
Stewart Lee's latest DVD, Carpet Remnant World, is available now.