Only The Lone Lee
Currently enjoying a renaissance and now rightly regarded as one of the greatest stand-ups of all time, at 43, Stewart Lee has mellowed somewhat and settled as a family man. But he’s still a restless soul, the daring, fiercely intelligent curmudgeon with a sharp slant on things. Ahead of his Irish dates, he opens up about grappling with his profession, dealing with controversy and his apathy for modern comedy.
Craig Fitzpatrick, 15 May 2012
A sneering tosser. Smug elitist liberalism. I find this guy hard to warm to. He’s a bit slimy. I hate Stewart Lee with a passion. He’s like Ian Huntley to me. Not my words, but ones taken from a rake of internet comments spread across the Guardian, YouTube and Twitter. All sadly missing the point, and missing out on one of the finest comedians of our generation. All posted on said comedian’s website as perverse badges of honour. And he’ll have a go back, in full flight onstage. “This isn’t for you,” he smiles knowingly at the paying audience, before instructing half of them to quickly exit the theatre.
It’s Saturday night in London, and Leicester Square has been laughing for two hours. No-one wants to leave, but they do, when the sharply-dressed, Morrissey-esque comic tells his last gag and brings the curtain down to rapturous applause. I find him in the foyer, graciously signing books and merchandise for his true believers. He stays until the last bespectacled teen walks away contented, autograph in hand, and I make my approach. Rather than cut me down to size with a one-liner, he strolls to the bar, grabs us a pint each, and leads me to the dressing-room. “If I don’t seem with it,” he offers as an ultimately unnecessary pre-apology, “it’s because I’ve been up since six with the baby.” Life as a working father. Copies of his two latest published works are placed in my hands, and he starts to change. The smart suit gives way to a hooded top, his trademark quiff falls slightly, and he collapses on a sofa. The act is over for tonight, now it’s time to talk. And there’s plenty to talk about.
Born in Shropshire in 1968, growing up in the West Midlands and going on to read English at Oxford, Lee fell in love with the idea of making people laugh (and think) during the ‘80s and the rise of alternative comedy. He began performing in London and soon met long-time friend and comedy partner Richard Herring. The pair found fame as Lee & Herring in the ‘90s, writing material for Chris Morris’ On The Hour and creating and starring in cult TV shows Fist Of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. It was a time when comedy was being dubbed ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’ and other British duos such Newman and Baddiel were playing stadia. As things tapered off towards the decade’s end, the two split and Stewart left the stage. He went on to co-write Jerry Springer: The Opera with Richard Thomas. Debuting in 2003, the controversial – and Laurence Olivier Award-winning – production provoked outrage from the Christian Right, with the huge attention persuading Lee to return to the microphone. When he did, he found a ready-made fanbase of comedians, comedy-lovers and critics. Every year since his 2005 comeback ‘90s Comedian, the audience has consistently increased. But that brings its own problems...
CRAIG FITZAPTRICK: I was just thinking as you were signing away earlier, you’re probably happier onstage than meeting your adoring public.
STEWART LEE: I didn’t used to like doing that stuff, I felt very uncomfortable. But actually, you’ve got to bite the bullet. The good thing about having stuff to sell is that, if people have got a thing that they take back to their house, then they remember that they liked you. In 2004, when I tried to work out how I could actually make a living out of this, as well as being critically-acclaimed, I talked to old rock guys, folk guys, and a lot of the old culty comics we have. They said, “Always have a thing to sell at a gig because people buy it and remember that they liked you.”
A kind of physical memento?
Yeah. Then basically you build an audience like that. And people are normally alright, which is quite encouraging.
A good sign for mankind. A large part of your act consists of you saying “don’t come again, this isn’t for you” when in truth most of the audience seem quite onside.
Oh, they were tonight. I don’t really like saying all that stuff but I think increasingly there’s an expectation of what a comedian is. It’s really great that there’s comedy roadshows on television but I think that they do tend to favour a certain type of comic. If people are coming to see you and they don’t know who you are, but they know you’re supposed to be a good comedian, they sometimes – and you get it with critics too – give you a bad review for not being Frankie Boyle or Michael McIntyre. Rather than give you a good review for being yourself. So saying “it’s not aimed at you” is taking control back from them. This is happening on my terms. You’re welcome to come, but it’s not going to change to fit what you want.
Is there a line you can cross?
I did this afternoon [at the matinée]. I kinda lost it and I think people felt a bit frozen out.
In a perverse way, do you enjoy that?
There was one show that really wasn’t working and I did all that stuff, saying it wasn’t for them, and ‘they’ were the majority of the room! But the minority of the people really enjoyed it because of that. If I hadn’t made a big deal about it, it would have just been an adequate show. Where, as it was, it was sort of brilliant and awful simultaneously. The people that were enjoying it in an excited sort of way will come back. It’s about consolidating. What I’ve tried to do is get enough people to come and see me every two years until I die. I have no higher ambition than that. If that was 10,000 people, that would be enough. It’s more like 80,000 this tour. Which is insane as far as I’m concerned.
Fame doesn’t concern you these days. In fact, you say it’s quite disconcerting when you reach a certain age and you’re recognised on the street. You also won’t do certain things, like panel shows…
Well, I’m not very good at them!
Well, you have to buy into this ‘comedy consensus’ with them.
That’s true. And I don’t want to be seen by four million people who don’t like me!
The flipside is that you say the best things happen when there’s a struggle and you’re challenging people. Is there the risk that your audience becomes so full of ‘true believers’ that it’s no longer challenging?
Yeah, I see what you mean. But you know what? If that happens, it’s still better than the alternative, which is not working at all. I don’t miss exclusively doing club gigs like in the ‘90s and constantly having to struggle. It was pretty good sometimes but it’s nice to play to people that know what they’ve come to see. If I was younger, maybe I’d worry about what you’re saying. But there’s normally a way of introducing something that shakes the audience up a bit. Even if they’re fans. Also, I’m 43 now with two kids… I’m fucking knackered! And nothing else I’ve done has worked out. It’s a luxurious worry to have – playing to audiences all who like you is quite a nice thing. I haven’t got the time or energy to worry about that now.
Plus with the upswing in popularity in the last few years, you can’t be seeing the same faces in the audience each night.
At least half this audience has never seen an ‘art centre stand-up’, which is still what I am. Even though I’ve managed to get into mainstream theatres, I’m still like one of those shows you’d see in an arts centre. Proper comics that write. I don’t quite know enough about what people are doing in Ireland. I know Kevin McAleer writes really good narrative shows. Tommy Tiernan does a bit as well, doesn’t he?
I think with Irish comedians it’s fairly rambling and, with the likes of Dylan Moran, they appear to be half-cut onstage.
Well there are more stories. I was on the phone to a guy from a Cork paper and I said that. He seemed to be accusing me of slight racial stereotyping!
Well, it’s true!
I feel very privileged doing stand-up in Ireland because, when I was starting out, all the comics that I liked were Irish comics doing stories rather than gags. The best people at that were the Irish ones. So in a way it seems odd to me that I’d be remotely popular in Ireland, because I think they’ve got a shit foreign copy of their better thing. The extent to which [famous Dublin comedian who appeared on the BBC and ITV] Dave Allen brought that through in the ‘70s really just influenced me. 15 minutes without a gag. Slow-builds and things.
Why did you stop performing at the turn of the century? The late ‘90s seem like quite a disenchanting time.
I kept losing money on shows. Couldn’t seem to get put on in places where the people would like me and just got sort of defeated by it in the end.
Almost defeated by your own material. With the last show you said you were trying to “transcend” stand-up comedy.
I was about 32 and sort of nowhere. In the late ‘80s and the ‘90s I did this sort of sarky, cynical character. It just suits a sneery young man but probably didn’t play quite so well as a 32-year-old. Weirdly when I came back a few years later, I think I looked so decrepit, old enough to be allowed to that be grumpy. Do you know what I mean?
Decrepit’s a bit harsh.
Oh stop it! Well, sort of ‘loose in the air’. You’re allowed to look like you’ve lived a bit. But your status as a comic changes so quickly that things that looked sort of heroic three or four years ago would seem like bullying now. You’re elevated by awards or by the understanding that you’re making quite a good living. It’s one thing to be in an 80-seater room at the Fringe slagging off someone on the telly. But as soon as you’re on the telly and you’ve won two British Comedy Awards…
You’re a bully?
You feel like a lout, like a yobbo pushing down on someone.
You need to be punching up.
Yeah. And that’s all changed so quickly. Even with the shows from ‘09, there’s already things in it that I wouldn’t do now. In that show the idea was, ‘You have Michael McIntyre nice, Frankie Boyle nasty – what are we supposed to be as comedians?’ It would be weird now to do a joke about Frankie Boyle because there’s not much in it between me and Frankie Boyle. You imagine he’s a lot wealthier with his corporate gigs and he’s got his Sun column every week... But in terms of public perception it would look naff taking the piss out of him.
Your main issue with his stuff would be that he doesn’t have a coherent world view? The idea that comedy should be more than just cheap laughs?
He writes really good jokes… (grins) Well, him and his team of writers write really good jokes. Of course you go for the laugh, you’re a comedian. But with the subjects he’s dealing with, sometimes it doesn’t add up. Sometimes he’s angry on behalf of disenfranchised Palestinians, then the next minute he’s making fun of a handicapped kid. It doesn’t quite square up. They’re bloody good jokes though.
You named one tour The 41st Best Stand-Up Ever following that Channel 4 Poll. You jumped to 12th in the last one, the last few years have really paid off.
When I started being a comedian in ‘89, you started like a folk singer or something. You’d play some clubs, make a record, but you’d never do Wembley. Then in ‘91 when people started doing stadiums you suddenly got people wanting to be stand-ups. But for me it was never a career plan.
So when people started getting broad recognition, was that the beginning of the end?
I think so. The perception over here is that comedy ‘made it’ when Newman and Baddiel played Wembley. In my book, as a kind of joke, I take the position that that was when it was over. I think David Baddiel’s a bit upset about that actually.
Is he actually upset about it?
Well… I don’t think he’s read it! It was a satirical position to take – “this is the moment comedy broke? Actually, the moment was over. Fucking finished there and then!”
You were on the same bill as Baddiel when you performed your first paid gig.
It was me, David Baddiel and Alastair McGowan. What I love about those stories is that it’s like The Beatles posters from Hamburg. “Isn’t it amazing that The Beatles played this tiny club on The Reeperbahn?!” Yeah, so did Ian & The Zodiacs. Y’know?
You recently received an email from David Baddiel more or less saying, “Look, you’re big enough now that you can’t make jokes about certain things”, didn’t you?
David Baddiel lives in Hampstead with all the Guardian readers, and he’s on Twitter. His perception of me is that I’m some huge success because people he knows like me. But my own family sort of… pity me, a bit. Because they don’t read the sort of papers where I get written about.
Your son’s not picking up a copy of the Guardian yet?
Ha, yeah. When I got the British Comedy Award, I rang my step-father up about a week later and he went, “Well done, you’re up there with Miranda now.” Miranda Hart. I don’t… she’s very good but it’s nothing to do with me. That was him trying to be nice actually. I think.
There was that joke tonight where you go, “I can do that type of stuff, I can be that comedian if you want!” How long would you last giving the people what they want before you killed yourself?
Well, I don’t think I could do it to be honest. There’s a self-sabotage thing where you can’t do it. You’ve got to be really happy, come out every night and deliver. There’s enough leeway in my stuff that, how I feel, I can actually use that.
It helps the act.
It actually helps the act. I couldn’t do it if I had to do proper jokes. It is amazing though that some people decide to do it. And it sometimes works. They make themselves into that person, y’know?
In terms of personal change over the years, I guess the break from stand-up helped that process. And you’ve said the Jerry Springer thing was the making of you. Suddenly you had all this material. Then you thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get back out there’?
Yeah. Also, it made you think about important things. Sometimes with writers, performers and musicians, you feel they’re really talented but they need some sort of event to galvanise them. A lot of adequate poets were turned into very good ones by the First World War. You’d have to be really bad to go to First World War and not come up with something good… Rupert Brooke was still a bit shit though!
So Jerry Springer: The Opera was you in the trenches, scribbling away.
Ha, well that’s an insult to people in the trenches. I had to cross the picket-line, but getting the odd tomato thrown at you is not the same as dying on wire and mustard gas.
Do you see that as dividing two completely separate stages of your stand-up career?
I was doing stand-up in the ‘90s and doing particular things that people didn’t like or understand. So the assumption from critics – and by association, the audience – was that I couldn’t do it or wasn’t very good at it. Whereas after you’ve co-written an Olivier Award-winning piece of theatre, the assumption is that you must know what you’re doing. I’m under no illusion, critics and audiences now look at me doing something differently and give me the benefit of the doubt. Whereas, when I was doing silences or failures or repetitions or whatever, they were sort of thinking, ‘This is a man who can’t run a room, can’t write and doesn’t know how to speak’. People who don’t like me now, what they say is, “The problem is you get all these people coming to see you and they like the idea that it’s arty comedy.” Therefore, they’d like it anyway, whatever it was. You can see why people would say that. There’s a certain kind of audience who, if I went on on drugs, incoherent, pissed and fucked the whole night up…
It would be performance art.
Yeah, an amazing critique of the idea of the performer!
Does it take a lot out of you?
It’s too much, this.
I know you said a few years ago, with your family to think about, you’d have to rein it in. That’s why the television helps a lot.
I didn’t not want to do this tour, because the interest was there. And again, because of the British Comedy Awards, it looks like the BBC might recommission the series now. Also, the good thing about doing a new show every year or 18 months is that things do have a shelf-life. With the 2005 show, ‘90s Comedian, that was about religious censorship and things like Jerry Springer: The Opera. The last time I ever did it was the week that those Danish cartoons of Mohammed were in the news. Obviously, Islamic offense takes a different form to Western-Christian offense. It gets violent more quickly, or at least the rhetoric does. So it just seemed really glib to have a 90 minute show about religious censorship and to not mention specific examples drawn from Islam. It was good that the tour had stopped because I would have had to redo that show. It was all about my personal grievances with Christian protestors, no-one from Islam had tried to put me out of work. So that’s quite a good thing about having a ‘clock’, the tours do stand for a particular time. Although people always talk about those Bill Hicks routines from the early ‘90s, about Bush going into Iraq. And then after he died another Bush went into Iraq! The same stuff happening again.
Would you not have been a fan? Of Bill Hicks, not Bush.
I think there’s an assumption that if you’re a comedian, you are.
He’s become a martyr.
Yeah. The thing is, I predate anyone knowing about Bill Hicks. I was doing what he was doing in the late ‘80s. The first American we all saw doing that was Denis Leary and everyone was going, ‘Oh, fucking hell, amazing!’ Of course, about three years later, we all realised it was a really badly ripped off Bill Hicks. He’d brought it over before Bill Hicks got here. One thing which I do think was really significantly influenced by Hicks – although the same sort of thing’s in Lenny Bruce who I listen to more – is that routine about how America aren’t developing world countries. And then when they take up arms against their governments, the Americans go and attack. It’s done like the scene in Shane, where the bad guys, the landowners, tell Alan Ladd, the rancher, to pick up a gun and he knows that if he picks it up they’ll have an excuse to shoot him. It’s done really slowly for about five minutes with no laughs. I thought, ‘yeah, you can do that, you can do that formal thing but add an idea to it.’ So I do really love that routine. But he’s the kind of person people in rock bands or crap journalists who’ve only ever seen one piece of stand-up will go “oh yeah, Bill Hicks!” about’. There’s loads of people who are alive who are better than Bill Hicks, y’know?
Is that idea you had of doing Michael McInyre’s act verbatim on the back-burner for now?
Well, I’d have to pay him! But yeah, I’d love to do that.
A Michael McIntyre cover act. Actually on that, I was disappointed you didn’t get the guitar out tonight. You did ‘Galway Girl’ before?
Yeah, I can play things quite well in a modal D tuning that sounds a bit country and a bit folky, but I’d have to get much better to do it for real. So I think I was just lucky that the two or three things I did do in the past were in my range.
You’re known to be a massive music fan. Are most comedians frustrated rock stars?
They are and they’re hampered only be their complete lack of musical ability! But funny enough, I’ve been working on an idea for a CD of tracks by comedians that were in bands. The problem is that it’s gone out of control now. There’s so many, particularly from the punk era. I’ve got demos from David Baddiel’s early ‘80s new wave band, I’ve got the single by a band Arthur Smith was in… basically all between ‘76-’79, it’s really funny, it’s like all this alternative comedy came out of punk.
Turning then to your Irish shows...
ONLY THE LONE LEE
Yeah I’ve got Dublin. Cork, Galway and Northern Ireland as well. I always feel so happy in Galway. When I was writing the last TV series in August 2010, I had it all in bits. I had to give a draft in for September. I had a gig in Galway at the start of the month and because it’s very difficult to work at home with the kids, I said to my wife, “If you let me stay in Galway for just two extra nights, I can do it.” So I stayed in this hotel room overlooking this weird industrial lagoon in Galway for two days. I got up at seven and worked till nine at night, and then I went to the pub. You go into a pub and there’s this fantastic little folk band on and all the people round the table are talking to you and everyone’s really nice. I sat with a couple who’d just proposed to each other – she was Irish and he was from Liverpool – and two French students that had pulled into Galway and had never seen anything like it. Just the fucking best nights of my life. No-one knew you or anything, really great. I left Galway with the whole telly series put together and assembled. So this time I’ve put a night off in Galway.
Is the long-term plan to be gigging every year and then maybe a TV series every two?
Well the ideal plan would be to do what Dave Allen was somehow allowed to do in the ‘70s, which was to do about six shows every three or four years. And then you never saw him on anything like chat shows or interviews or panel shows.
I’d imagine it made it all the better when he came back.
They can’t get their head around that, they think you want to be famous. I don’t think I can do it every year. People take the piss out of me. My wife is sort of aware of the slaggings and I’m not. People take the piss out of me for being this workaholic comedian. The producer of my TV show came to see me in September and said, “I just can’t understand how you have a new two hours, having just written three hours!”’ I’ve got this little book that came out, he said, “When did you write that, Christmas Day?!” My mum was an insane workaholic and I feel like I don’t do enough. I’m just starting to feel clapped out.
Another series of your Comedy Vehicle is looking likely though?
Oh yeah, it’ll happen somewhere, I think for 2014. Somehow!
And with that we wrap things up. He seems content to chat into the wee hours, but his yawns and heavy eyelids betray him. If he’s hanging on in there, it’s probably just to avoid the restless, long nights that having young children inevitably brings. So we make our way out of the now darkened venue. The comedian is all talk about the history of this fine publication, mentioning former Hot Press alumni Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews (now he’s stuck with me – how the mighty have fallen), and is keen to make sure I’m set for a Saturday night’s stay in the British capital. Of course I am. We part ways on the street, his hood up to avoid attention. And off he goes, looking for all intents and purposes like a typical latchkey kid with an ASBO. And so the centre of attention mere hours ago and one of the most brilliant comedic minds around strides away, unknown and disappearing into the fabled London fog.