On wanting to stay alive
Robert Wringham meets Stewart Lee
Arriving at Crystal Palace’s Cafe ABC after a long journey down from Glasgow, I was surprised to see people smoking at the tables and around the bar. Of course, the ban was yet to reach London but I’d become accustomed to smokers – Scotland’s out-group of the moment – being huddled in the streets while everyone else enjoys the no-longer-filthy indoors air. It was weird then that Stewart Lee and I – two ex-smokers – were asked to take our conversation out into the midnight gutter. Some people are just born to be outsiders.
Mr. Lee, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is the writer and director of the controversial Jerry Springer – The Opera and has been a veteran of the stand-up circuit for some twenty-five years. His comedic persona has developed something of a Maharishi-like status among younger comedians and his subversive, self-referential style is not easily emulated. To the current generation of twenty-somethings, he is probably most famous for his TV work with Richard Herring: twelve episodes of Fist of Fun and eighteen of This morning With Richard Not Judy, but he also writes witty novels and reviews for national press. Oh, and he’s a DJ. And a DVD director. And he’s said to have invented Alan Partridge.
Are you sure you’re happy doing this out here? It’s a bit nippy.
“Yeah, no problem. I like to have a mooch around before I go on [stage] anyway. This is nice.”
How do you feel when looking back on your TV work and early stand-up?
“It’s a mixed bag of emotions, actually. I’m very pleased with all the stand-up, I think, and I still like the first series of Fist of Fun. We tried something different for series two for various reasons. There was a slight change of tack, only I don’t think it worked too well. I’m quite proud of series two of This Morning With Richard Not Judy, which was a show that took a while to become established and get off the ground. The stand-up is weird. Generally, I look back at my early stuff and see a cocky, arrogant, surly young man. And then get all nostalgic. [Laughs].”
Your comedy often has a subversive edge. Do you set out to subvert?
“No. No, not at all. You just write what you’re interested in. I don’t think any of us [try], even [Jerry] Sadowitz or Chris Morris. They just do what they feel works at the time. I think it’s a bit desperate for a comedian to deliberately engineer subversion: it should really just be a by-product of what you’re doing. It’s not in a comic’s professional interest to be controversial. The promoters and venues are less likely to work with you if they think you’re going to be a pain. If you earn a name associated with mischief, it’s not going to work in your favour. I’ve had a lot of stuff blow up because of that. The management at the BBC is weird: even if all the middle managers love a project but the guy at the top smells a rat, it’s still not going to happen.”
Is that what happened to your Cluub Zarathustra* project?
[*Cluub Z was an alternative comedy cabaret co-founded by Stewart Lee in 1993, based around the principal that traditional stand-up be avoided in favour of other, stranger, more inventive ways of performing. In 1995, a TV pilot was commissioned with Lee and Simon Munnery at the helm. But it was never rewarded with a series.]
“No, that was Channel Four. It’s a different situation there, mainly a budgetary one. But all that stuff was channelled into different projects anyway, like a show we did for the BBC called Attention Scum.”
I was going to ask whether you were a rebel by nature or not, but you’ve already sort of answered that.
“I’m really not. But people in broadcasting are difficult. You’ve had it if they just don’t like your tone of voice.”
Do you have a favourite comedy club in which to watch comedy or perform?
“A favourite venue? Probably The Stand, actually in Edinburgh. It’s very intimate and focussed upon comedy rather than having it as a sideline of something else. ABC here is nice too, of course. [Laughs].”
Who do you currently most admire on the circuit?
“Hmm. Can I give you a list of names? Simon Munnery, Josie Long. I think Kevin McAleer has really peaked. Daniel Kitson. John Hegley, of course.”
You’re connected to John through Simon Munnery, of course.
“Yeah, that’s right. He’s part of the same comedy family, if you like. Though he came along much later: I first saw him perform in Southport near Liverpool in 1990. It was a John Peel session featuring John Lee Hooker. I was about 22. I love his work. Hegley has a certain style that I love and think really works. He sees things from this unique point of view and maintains this sense of public indifference. [Laughs]. He’s made a career out of that style, I suppose. It has a certain solvency to it.”
Comedy was important in the satire boom of the 1970s and in alternative comedy in the 1980s. Can it still be important and interesting and subversive enough to change things?
“Things have just changed so much in comedy since then, but I think so. The tone of voice unique to alterative comedy in the 80s has become the voice of XFM and radio one and advertising. It has this slightly detached, smug cynicsm. Comedy has become heavily commercialised: where there were once twenty comedy clubs there are now sixty plus lots of other places with one-off comedy nights. There weren’t as many open mike nights or open bills back then though, which is an area one can’t deny is progressive, but it doesn’t really function as an outside entity any more: it IS popular culture.
“Alternative comedy is mainstream now. I don’t know what the new alternative comedy is – there’s no new tone of voice. There’s The Book Club of course, which is very important but it is hard to find anything that is genuinely ‘underground’. There’s very little now to really identify with in the way that we did with alternative comedy back then.”
What do you reckon will be the name for the current comedy zeitgeist then? Post alternative? Post-9/11?
“I dunno. Not Post-9/11. That mainly goes down in America, which is full of guilty liberals. [Laughs].”
While an atheist, did you consider your trip to the American South-West a spiritual mission?
“Yeah! Absolutely. I think the shaman-clown hybrid is the perfect substitute for religion. With comedy, you can cheer people up and then ask questions. Comedy tends not to oppress: it’s very inclusive.”
On the subject of inclusivity, your comedy refers to itself a lot and to comedy devices generally. Is it important to have a particularly comedy literate audience for this sort of material or can you use it anywhere?
“I’d like to do that less, actually. Though it’s never not worked. It was a bit of a problem in America, I guess. It’s not that the American audiences I had weren’t comedy literate but a lot of the time they just don’t know what you’re talking about because their world view is so horribly limited and fed to them by Fox News. Self reference is just a way of referring to the world, so they just don’t get it a lot of the time.”
[At this point, a member of the house band comes outside to tell Stew that his play-on music is going to be “the imperial march from The Empire Strikes Back.” As the door is opened, I can hear Josie Long on stage and I wonder if Stew is annoyed at missing her set. He doesn’t seem concerned though.] Why do you suppose he chose the Imperial March?
“[Laughing]. I have no idea!”
Talking of that sort of thing, are you enjoying the new Dr. Who?
“You know, I’ve not seen it! I’ve been out of the country. But from what I’ve heard it looks okay. I always felt it was a show that suffered a lot due to decisions at the BBC. They were constantly axing it in spite of popularity and its originality. I suppose it’s a good example of a show that can really take off when it’s given decent production values and proper respect for its subject matter.”
What are you reading right now?
“I’ve just started reading a biography about [jazz saxophonist] Sonny Rollins. It’s very good.”
You often like to juggle a microphone and a cigarette. How are you going to deal with the smoking ban in Scottish clubs?
“I’ve quit! I quit on February thirteenth. No – fifteenth. I’ve been enjoying things a lot lately and decided that I actually want to stay alive. Three years into Jerry Springer [The Opera], I started to think seriously about pensions and stuff: it’s been a long haul so I have to live long enough so as to get the payout. It’s gonna take longer than I thought as well: the DVD didn’t do as well as I hoped and they’re not going to put out a second one. So I have to stop smoking for the sake of longevity. I’ve put on two stone though since I quit smoking which isn’t good! But I’d rather get fat than get cancer. [Laughs].”
Ah, but obesity causes cancer too.
You pretty much did the direction yourself for the DVD and you directed the Johnny Vegas DVD as well. How do you feel about that medium? Do you think stand-up comedy is an ephemeral thing or does it translate well to DVD?
“Well, it’s always better live, obviously, just as music is. But it depends on how it’s filmed. For example, on a lot of these DVDs, the director shows you the comic and then cuts to the audience laughing. It’s important to get some audience shots because they’re a component of the whole thing but cutting and chopping around like that can really break up a rhythm. With Johnny’s DVD – which I wasn’t completely happy with – I tried to get it all on a flat plane with the audience laughing in real time. Otherwise, it just feels confused and it’s as though the director is daring the viewer to join in. It’s best filmed live and with a bit of thought.
“I did both my DVD and Johnny’s at The Stand [comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow]. It’s good to do set these things in difficult situations.”
Difficult situations? [I recalled that the Johnny Vegas DVD was set in the quasi-fictional wake of Johnny’s gross selling out as a comedian and that Stew’s was shot shortly after the controversy over Jerry Springer – The Opera].
“Yeah, it’s just that these places aren’t designed to have things filmed in them. Anything could happen, especially when you’re recording live. You need that risk element: for it to be possible that something can be lost. I mean, it’s a real event and you could easily fail or get booed off. I loved that we chose Glasgow to film the DVD, actually because I basically went up there and insulted Scottish people and their heritage right to their faces: it would have been very easy to get booed off with that so we had that sense of peril that made it a real stand-up event rather than something set in a studio – which can be very sterile and have no sense of atmosphere – or something with an audience so big you can’t really tell what their reactions actually are.”
I actually had a friend with me on that night who was both Gaelic and Gay!
“And he was okay with all that stuff?”
“You know I did some gigs on [The Isle of] Skye and the Orkneys?”
Yeah, you seem to be a fan of doing stand-up in unconventional places. I’m sure you said in an interview [on ITV’s Des and Mel] once that you wanted to do a gig on an oil rig.
“That’s right yeah. You get a different audience and so you get that sense of peril and unpredictably. It no longer seems staged.”
Is there a new tour planed or a new project at this year’s [Edinburgh] Festival?
“No. I’m not keen to do Edinburgh this year. It’s been a very long year, actually and a lot has happened. There’s talk of a series though: a Stewart Lee stand-up series, which’d be great. I’m working on getting another book deal because I’ve written a second novel. So I’m touting manuscripts around for that. And I’m pitching film ideas as well: a comedy superheroes thing called American Justice and a thing about the Napoleonic Wars. I’m basically just trying to stay alive out there. [Laughs].”
You must be able to depend upon your past work though to counterbalance being such an awkward customer. Kids of my generation were watching Fist of Fun when we were twelve and now we’re old enough to write these articles about you and stuff.
“Yeah, that’s spot on. People who took to Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy are all journalists and promoters now or working in radio. It’s very convenient. [Laughs].
“I’m just happy not to have done anything dreadful. While I’m marginally ashamed of some of the old stuff and wouldn’t do a lot of that stuff now, at least I’ve not done a ‘We Will Rock You’. I mean, Hegley and Sadowitz have never driven anybody away: as long as there’s a loyal body of fans, each giving you £7 a year, you’re okay and you’ve still got some integrity. It’s like one of the bands I like – The Fall – they do well because of a good fan base and having no promotion fees.”
Nice one. I think I’ve got enough to work with here. Can I get you a drink?
“Yeah, okay. I’ll have a pint of the beer.”
As we head back into the cafe, Josie Long is just finishing up. She introduces Stew and he makes his way to the stage. Strangely, there is no imperial march. “So,” he begins, “I recently had the opportunity to interview Ang Lee ”