Those Comedians That You Have Now: Stewart Lee Interviewed
, March 3rd, 2016 09:30
Stewart Lee is back with another series of Comedy Vehicle. He tells Simon Price his thoughts on Lenny Bruce, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, swimming through piss, Brexit and the pitfalls of being constantly misunderstood
We meet at the bus stop. The No.73 has dropped Stewart Lee off from Stoke Newington, the steadily-gentrifying corner of North London whose social characteristics are increasingly providing material for his comedy. A green woollen hat pushing his famous quiff down into a tousled forelock, Stewart Lee the human being looks a lot like 'Stewart Lee', the onstage construct, after having made concessions to the cold March rain.
You probably don't need to be told Lee's story. How the pretty-boy star of Nineties television was on the brink of the really big time with Jerry Springer: The Opera, only to become the target of protests from Christian pressure groups, and the subject of an attempted prosecution for Blasphemy. How he was left skint, demoralised and somewhat beaten up by life, looking – to quote Lee's famous description – like a Morrissey (or Terry Christian, or Edwyn Collins, or Ray Liotta, or Todd Carty, and so on) "who's let himself go". How he nevertheless emerged creatively rejuvenated, and managed to revitalise his stand-up career by developing a persona who was fiercely disappointed by all aspects of modern culture, while simultaneously deconstructing his own methods and showing the workings. How, for the last ten-twelve years, Stewart Lee has been THE cleverest, and also one of the funniest, working stand-ups on the planet. How his routines about Top Gear, the Bullingdon Club, Braveheart, pear cider and racist taxi drivers have entered the immortal canon of endlessly-quotable and thought-provoking comedy.
The first evidence of Lee's astonishing renaissance that most people encountered was his BBC2 series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, which launched back in 2009. The fourth series of Comedy Vehicle starts tonight, and without much in the way of a publicity blitz from the BBC machine, Stewart has suddenly realised that he probably ought to do some interviews for it, and naturally thought of tQ.
As well as tackling Big Subjects (Islamophobia, Nationalism and so on), series four pushes both Stewart Lee and 'Stewart Lee' to new extremes in terms of the possibilities of a half hour stand-up programme, and in terms of the fragile sanity of the protagonist. It also, almost despite itself, delivers daft laughs, the line involving 2 Unlimited and nano-pathologists being just one to treasure. (If some of the specifics of this article don't make much sense right now, bookmark this page and come back to it again in a few weeks after you've watched the shows.)
We find a quiet corner in a loud city, and we begin.
Brace yourself, because I'm about to compare you to David Bowie and Prince. It's occurred to me that you're similar to them, in a strange way. They would both would take things that might be a bit challenging or difficult for the average listener, like Can and Neu! in Bowie's case or Stravinsky and Miles Davis in Prince's case, and turn it into great pop. In the same way, with the comedians you namecheck and draw upon, like Daniel Kitson, Ted Chippington and Lenny Bruce, you act as a sort of filter, using it to create something that's actually watchable.
Stewart Lee: That would be quite a good criticism, to be honest. In that... [sighs] You feel bad about it to an extent. Not just in comedy, but... Lots of the people I've learned from would never be able to make a living from it, like I have. But you've managed to take different things from them and tune it in. It would be fair enough if someone wanted to be annoyed about that. I mean, I'm like that with Bowie, to be honest. I knew about things like Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground, weirdly, before I knew about David Bowie. I didn't know what David Bowie was, when I was a kid. I thought he was like Visage. The first thing I knew was 'Ashes To Ashes', and I didn't know he had this whole history. I didn't pay attention. I thought he was one of that crowd. Which is fine, but I didn't know he was something else. I knew the things that Bowie had learned from. Although, an amazing thing happened the other day. After he died, I was in a record shop and there was this thing on, and I thought, 'God, this is really good.' It was like a weird avant-garde record with atonal saxophone on it, but it was quite well-produced, like a pop record, and it was really long. So I asked, 'Who's this?' and it was David Bowie. It was from Blackstar. So, without knowing what it was, I thought it was really great. Which is interesting. Cos he's one of these people who has so much baggage surrounding him that it's quite difficult to get cleanly to the man, isn't it?
I meant it as a compliment. Because I have to confess I've tried with Daniel Kitson and it's not working for me, I never really got Ted Chippington, and while I appreciate the importance of Lenny Bruce and I can dig the mythology, actually sitting down and listening to a double LP of his stuff can be hard work.
SL: I can see that. You know what, it's from a long time ago now, and you need your little dictionary of Yiddish slang. But with Lenny Bruce, lots of the things that I get praise for are things he's already done. I arrived at them independently of him, but was then very disappointed to find that they'd already been done, in 1958. For example, he's got this brilliant routine called 'The Palladium', which is about 40 minutes long. And a third of it is about how he's got this gig in London, and what material he's gonna do. Then he does the gig, and it goes really badly. And then he tells you about how he did it again, and changed the material to try and make it work. You basically hear the same stuff, three times, but the same lines get really different laughs, depending on how he's framed them, contextually. And also, another thing which I may have been aware of, but forgotten about, is 'To Is A Preposition; Come Is A Verb'. And I heard that again recently and went... 'Ohhhh.' I thought I'd found something, but it's there: trying to replace the words with rhythms, and still [have people] know where the jokes are.
The central conceit of your show, for a long time, has been that anything up to half the audience don't understand what you do, and are either indifferent or actively resistant to it. In one episode of the new series of Comedy Vehicle you talk about there being a "two-speed room", and in another you pick on an individual audience member for being "a dead weight in the room". But the more popular you become, surely the more difficult it becomes to sustain that fiction.
SL: But this is why it keeps on going. I always think it'll go wrong, but actually, 'he' (meaning 'Stewart Lee', his exaggerated petulant onstage persona), for about ten years from 2004 onwards, was annoyed for about a decade about people not understanding him. And now, he feels like there must be some problem if they are liking him. There's an element that it must be because he's done something really cheap. Or that they've just come because people told them it's trendy. So you can kind of keep that rolling. It is hard, though, to continue being in opposition, but luckily, the character begins to develop itself. So, when things are going well, he's concerned that there must be some problem because it's going well. Which actually is sort of me, as well...
Did you always foresee this? Did you plan ahead with the layers of meta upon meta?
SL: No I didn't. But actually it reflects me. You read an interview with some really famous comic and the interviewer goes, 'Oh, you've done really well' and they reply, 'Yeah, well I did Edinburgh five times, you know. I've worked really hard.' And I always think it's just a collision of flukes. It could just as easily have gone wrong, and it could go wrong at any minute. And as you say, there are all these people much better than me that I've assimilated, but who somehow didn't find a way of selling it.
[I don't think they're better. But I let Stewart continue.]
And so, there's this awful self-doubt. To be in a room like that Brighton room [the Dome, capacity 1,700]. I did that four times on the last tour, so that's thousands of people. And you feel this sort of confused anger about it, that something must have gone wrong to allow it to be that popular. So, that would make 'him' feel sick that something had gone wrong. Also, none of the things 'he' likes are popular, so there must be something wrong with it.
It's like teenagers, isn't it? A typical thing that teenagers say to grown-ups is, "Oh, you don't understand me!", but secretly their worst fear is that we do understand what they're thinking, all too accurately.
SL: Well, it is hanging onto that adolescent part of me. It really informs the stand-up. He's an adolescent me, inasmuch as he wears his tastes on his sleeve to some extent. He does it as a badge of superiority. He's also an absolutist in terms of what's right and wrong, which I understand, but which is also an adolescent point of view. So yeah, he's like an adolescent, going, 'You think you understand what I'm doing, but you'll never understand!' But the good thing about that is, life sort of takes care of the character, in a way. Because with a lot of stand-ups, you think, 'Why have they come out here, talking about this thing?' Whereas he's told you that he's got a mortgage and kids, and he's got to come out and do it. And then things go wrong, and he gets annoyed by the audience. Or suffers some terrible doubt about the whole of existence. The worst thing that could happen to him is that he becomes more popular, and that would only make him more upset, which makes it even funnier.
And is that also true for you, the 'real' Stewart Lee?
SL: Well, yeah! Not being anonymous is really difficult. Apart from being paid, and not having to worry on a day-to-day basis about money, there's very few upsides to it. You have to spend an increasingly long time away from home, it compromises all your relationships with people you know, life's weird for your kids, and if you're just having an idle chat with someone at the bus stop, you have to think, 'Do they know who I am? Is this going to go on Twitter?' So you live in a state of unease and paranoia. And I'm not the sort of person who would go to showbiz events and become Jonathan Ross' friend. So I'm actually in a double bind. But this thing with ATP [the ATP 2.0 festival at Pontin's Prestatyn, curated by Stewart, subject of cancellation rumours as we speak] is one of the few things, since I became an E-list celebrity, that's actually a nice thing to happen. A bit of the pay-off. So, there's a cliché of people saying, 'Oh, I don't like being famous', but I don't even really like not being famous, either. Being mildly famous, I find it makes everything really really difficult, but it's too late. The sort of personality I do, I don't know if I would have embarked on this, had I known in the 1980s what the 21st century would be like. Which is basically a surveillance state, where you're supposed to be on social media and everyone can talk about you. It's my worst nightmare.
People must tell you all the time that you'd be great on Twitter.
SL: Yeah, well this last 24 hours, I'm really glad I'm not on Twitter. Because I'd have to be answering things that I didn't really know anything about, and I'd rather just wait for the dust to settle and then say something. But yeah, it's a terrifying thing, really. Difficult for the children, you know, they're only little kids and another kid will say, 'Oh, my mum saw your dad doing something'. And he didn't even know I was a comedian, till he had the piss taken out of him at school for it. And of course the kids can then go home and look for it all on Google. And there's some terrible things about me, if you Google me. The third thing that always comes up is a Daily Telegraph page basically saying I'm a kind of sociopath, who should not be allowed to interact with people!
Aside from the imaginary construct of an indifferent audience, how about real-life hecklers? I can't imagine you ever welcome them, but if you've been doing the same show 20 times in a row, do they break the monotony? I was there at your Brighton show where you broke off for a long time to deal with a particularly troublesome one...
SL: I remember that, cos someone filmed it, didn't they? Shame, that. Cos I'm gonna police phones a lot more in future, cos you want to be able to improvise for real, and not worry that it's going to be out there forever. Anyway, with this show, that I've been touring for 18 months using half-hour blocks of stuff for the telly, a heckler like that doesn't matter too much, cos every half hour it's reset to zero. But with something like [previous Stewart Lee stand-up shows] Carpet Remnant World, or 41st Best, or If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, if there was an incident like that, it would often ruin the whole show. Because there's a through-line, and there's an emotional development. And if I have to go high-status, to deal with a heckler, I then often can't get back into the low-status bit of the story. So what I've tried to develop is a way of dealing with hecklers that is low-status. And to treat it as a genuine enquiry, which is what I did with him. And it also came out of, I think, being deaf for ages and not knowing it. [In one episode of Comedy Vehicle series 4, Lee reveals he's wearing hearing aids.] I don't need them now, but during a show I'd often have to say, 'Can you repeat that?' and it would make the whole process of heckling grindingly awful for everyone. But with that guy, he'd come along to this, it wasn't what he thought it was going to be, and he was annoyed. And I actually do sympathise with him, really. Cos since I've had kids... I mean, we went out on Saturday night, got a babysitter, and went a long way to see a thing that didn't really work. And I don't mind, because it's the right of an artist to fail, but it's an expensive mistake, when you have to get a babysitter. And that man may have made an expensive mistake. I wasn't really trying to be sarcastic to him. I was saying, look, you have my sympathy, but this act isn't going to change. And when you invite the audience into that process, it becomes funnier. Because of course you can't do anything about it. You can't become what that person wants, in an instant. Even if everyone hated it, you can't change. Because it is what it is.
Do you ever 'play chicken' with a crowd? By which I mean you dare yourself to deliberately lose the room, then see how far you can push it, how badly you can lose the room, before you bring it back around?
SL: Yeah. Yeah I do. And sometimes it doesn't work. One of the reasons I gave up, for a bit, in the early part of this century, was that I was sort of getting quite good at that. Creating that drama, and doing something with it. And I got a couple of reviews, particularly one in The Independent in about 2000, which said something like 'At one point he loses the room for half an hour, and it's awfully tense, and it's only funny cos it's so bad. And then he somehow miraculously clawed it back.' And of course, what I was thinking was, 'If I say this to that man now, I can bring him back in 20 minutes...' I was working a quarter of an hour ahead in my brain, thinking about controlling the mood. And instead of getting credit for that, I got criticism for having failed. Because they didn't get what was going on. And I thought, 'Well, I don't know what to do now. Because the thing I meant to do, and where I wanted to go, was being reviewed as a mistake.'
In the first series of Comedy Vehicle, I was impressed by how masterly you seemed, how in control of the room, how cocky, almost. You could turn your shoulder to the audience and walk away, safe in the knowledge that you had them in the palm of your hand. But that has disintegrated now, and your character seems barely in control at all. Was that a planned progression?
SL: No, it's just developed. I'd got to the end of that thing. If I was to watch that first series again, I don't think I'd like the stuff in there. Cos he's a sort of high-status figure, dissing people. And there's not enough in it that suggests the criticism's also of him, or suggests that he's got some sort of problem. It may be that it's gone too far the other way now. We'll see what people make of it. There were a lot of compromises in the first series, even down to their insistence that I wore a suit, which wasn't really me. And I fought, fought, fought to have it like Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club, and suddenly over my head it was decided that the punters couldn't drink in there, which really sterilised it. There was some directive from above which said that drinking would make the viewers at home feel that they weren't having a good time. Which made for this really awkward, terrible atmosphere. And also, the sketches. It would have been really hard to sell to the BBC this idea of half an hour of straight-through stand-up, with sort of filmic support. You had to give them something they understood a bit more, which was the sketches that were in it. But even the good ones broke the flow a bit. The third series, we really cracked it, because the film was this bit at the end which really supports the idea of the episode, and mainly has no dialogue. And Tim Kirkby, the director, did a really good job.
Halfway through the final episode, 'Stewart Lee' has an elongated emotional breakdown. And the laughter which it elicits is nervous laughter. Which is surely the most British type of laughter of all.
SL: It's probably even more English than British. Not cutting you out of this for being Welsh, but yeah, it's probably more English. 'Oh, what's going on, I'm embarrassed!' That bit caused problems on tour, occasionally. The bigger the room, the better it was. In the bigger rooms, there'd be more people who didn't get it, and were heckling and shouting things out. 'What are you doing? Why can't you do your job?' And then you could work with that, and that was great. But in little rooms, of 100 people, a bloke went 'You can't do your job, mate, that's your problem', and it ended up in a confrontation which was this close. And that was difficult. And I noticed in Dublin, when I did a bit about all the people who had died, that I knew, this woman gets her phone out and starts filming me. So I thought, what can I do? So I went, 'Are you filming me? Filming me talking about people I know, who have died? Why would you do that?' I needed to know the truth of it. Then she goes out of the theatre. And when I got home, I thought I'd Google it on Twitter. And it turns out she's a journalist for the Sunday Times for Ireland, saying, 'I've just seen Stewart Lee having a mental breakdown onstage, and I've got film!' And other people are going, 'You know that's the act?' And she goes, 'Well, it looked really convincing to me.' And I thought, 'Aw, I wish Twitter hadn't [been invented]. Cos then, that could have become a news story, and it would have been really interesting to see how that developed. But the problem with social media is, you almost want to say to them, 'Look, what happens here is a secret, don't go telling everybody.'
The little film that rounds off the new series is extraordinary. You're swimming through a vat of urine, surrounded by synchronised swimmers. It echoes so many things: a Busby Berkeley routine, Andres Serrano's Pisschrist, Ewan MacGregor climbing into the toilet in Trainspotting, Nirvana's Nevermind...
SL: Yeah. Yeah. I hadn't thought of Trainspotting or Nirvana, but yeah. What it came out of was, my little boy was having a bad time at school. But you can't really write about your kids, you know? Because it's their life, and other parents would go, 'Is that meant to be about me?' and stuff. Again, that's another problem: most of my life, now, is the kids. And lots of funny things, and sad things, happen involving them, but you can't really write about them cos it's someone else's life. I know there's a whole blogging culture out there where people write about everything, but I wouldn't do that. But then I sort of remembered that I was bullied at school a bit, which I'd kind of forgotten about. Probably a deliberately-repressed memory. And I remembered that I'd been kicked into a urinal and urinated upon. I knew who did it, and what their name was, and that I was told not to tell my mum... And then I remembered that thing people always say, that comedians are comedians because of some terrible thing that had happened to them. And I'd never thought about that, but actually, being kicked into a urinal when you're five is a pretty traumatic thing. So I tried to build that back in, as the reason why.
So, one of the things people would assume 'Oh, he made that bit up' is actually real.
SL: Generally, a lot of the things people think are made up are real, a lot of the things people think are real are made up, a lot of the things people think are spontaneous are cleverly faked, and a lot of the things people think are fake are spontaneous. I've seen people say, online, 'Oh he always does that bit with the heckler. It must be a plant.' I mean, the simple economics of that is insane. There'll be a person on Equity minimum rate, for a week. No, for a year! And you'd have to take them round with you. If you think about it for a second, you couldn't really do it. The problem with now doing so many gigs of the same thing, my improvisation has become decision trees, so I'm almost too good at it.
The symbolism of the piss is incredible. You have this beatific smile, as if you're surrendering to this pissy deluge, gladly drowning in it.
SL: I haven't seen it finished, because I haven't seen it coloured. Cos they had to do that in post-production. Does it look yellow?"
Yes, it looks yellow.
SL: It's a shame, actually. Because I thought I want to do synchronised swimming in a urinal, with a synchronised swimming team. And we got the Olympic synchronised swimming team. It was an amazing day. We were in the tank for 12-14 hours. And there was this underwater camera guy, who came with the place, the tank place, which was out in Essex. And I actually got in training for it. For a year, I went on a diet, thinking I need to be able to swim underwater. So I did all this stuff, swimming through these women, underwater. And then the underwater camera didn't work. And you can just see in the background, of one of these shots, there's a circle of swimmers with me going through it, and that's all that survived. But what that did, in the edit, was threw the focus onto the surface, and they used a lot of shots from above, with us all circling a giant cigarette butt, and it looked really good.
And it's soundtracked by some incongruously sacred-sounding music.
SL: That is Miserere by Allegri. It was a secret piece of music which could only be heard in the Vatican, but then Mozart, as a child genius composer, got in there and heard it, and went away and transcribed it. Initially we were going to go with Busby Berkeley music, but then we thought 'This looks like kitsch, or irony. Will it sustain a degree of sincerity, instead?'
It's what the composer would have wanted.
SL: I hope people think it's funny. It's such an over-the-top, self-aggrandising, over-dramatising response to this childhood incident.
It strikes me that you're the opposite of an indie snob's favourite band: instead of it being cool to say "I prefer the early stuff", it's "I prefer the later stuff". Do you ever meet people who hate your Nineties work, and only like what you're doing now?
SL: Yeah, yeah I do. Also, people who had never heard of it, which is interesting. Well, with that stuff, right, I mean... I was always doing stand-up on the circuit, and I think in my head, that was my thing, and the double-act stuff was this other thing. Which weirdly became much much better-known. I must have done five gigs a week, club gigs, through the Nineties. And we probably did about 30 a year, for four years, as the double-act. There was one tour where the improvisations got really good, towards the end. And of course it was never documented, because things weren't, in those days, were they? I really liked the first series of Fist Of Fun, and it's what we wanted to do at the time. It had a sort of bricolage, plastered-together sort of feel, which was what my sensibility was at the time. It's not unlike Mr Show, that thing in America at the time with Bob Odenkirk who ended up in Breaking Bad, and David Cross. But then the second series was conditional upon it being more Light Entertainment. With a shiny floor. They even did something to a band's music without permission. There was a band called Globo, who used to be Basti, who did the music. And without their permission, the producer got it and put all tones under it and cleaned it up. And I remember saying, 'You have to tell them!', and the producer said, 'Well, we own it.' And I said, 'You can't really do that to someone's music.' So, things like that happened, and the second series was made in a real rush. The second series, for me, was like a drift into Light Entertainment packaging. And I sort of sleepwalked into the rest of it. There's lots of bits, in things that we did, that I like. But it wasn't my plan, in the Eighties, to be in Light Entertainment-y sketch shows.
I have to admit I am one of those people. I was never really on board with your Nineties work, apart from a few bits here and there (notably the trendy teacher character in Fist Of Fun), and generally found it a bit studenty and overly pleased-with-itself. But I'm an absolutely obsessive fan of everything post-Jerry Springer.
SL: Yeah, and I understand that. And I don't mind. It feels like a long time ago, now. And also, it's of-its-time in a way that I hope the stand-up isn't. And there were huge cultural shifts going on, weren't there? Where by about '93-'94. with that New Lad thing, there was the idea that taking a reactionary position was in some way radical. Because there was a perceived PC orthodoxy. And where has that got us? Yeah, thanks for that. I'm sure the architects of New Laddism, which is David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, didn't really imagine that it would end up basically being a mode of government. Haha!
In the TV series Chris Morris is credited as script editor, and also cross-examines you intermittently during the show. Previously it was Armando Iannucci. But how much editing actually happens?
SL: Arm didn't do much, cos he was in America doing Veep. He sort of signed off at the end. Chris comes to see it, every few months. What he's most useful at is helping me with what parts would transition well into film material. Also, there's a bit in the fourth episode where the punchline is, 'The public-private partnership', and he said 'That joke doesn't really make sense. It's not good enough.' And I thought two things, there. One, I'll leave it in but make it worse. And two, I know that he's noticed it. So when it comes to the improvised interview thing, he'll probably criticise it. Which will be good. The film stuff, I used to really labour over writing it, but now I sort of delegate a bit. For example, the 'Orienteering With Napalm Death' thing. My original idea was to have it a bit like Michael Bentine's Potty Time, with a wide shot of a model landscape with these tiny figures of Napalm Death moving over it quickly. Then I said to Tim Kirkby, the director, 'If you had to make a rock video of Napalm Death, and they're orienteering, what would you do?' And he went 'Like this', and he brought up this Norwegian death metal video of these guys in a landscape, and we did it like that. So I basically take out all the scripts, for the film bits, and I say to the team, 'If you were doing this for real, what would you do?' and try to reverse into it from that. The main thing about having Chris as a script editor is that there's not much script editing you can do, because it is what it is. It stands or falls live. But the fact that he's seen it and knows it means that on the last day of filming, when I sit down for four hours with him and I don't know what he's going to say, he knows the stuff inside-out and he knows how to undermine me.
In the interview clips, he plays a sort of disappointed headmaster, and you're like a sheepish schoolboy.
SL: Yeah. And that works really well. Because, like you said, the character was more arrogant in the first series, and now that I'm seen on some level as a success, I need to be smashed down again."
You and Richard Herring worked with Iannucci and Morris as writers for On The Hour, but were edged out when it transferred to television as The Day Today. Presumably any ill feeling from that era must be water under the bridge...
SL: We've never really talked about it. It wasn't much to do with Chris. What happened was, there were four writers who weren't performers. And they were me, Rich Herring, David Quantick, and Steven Wells, who was like the Swearing Consultant. What a sad loss, a very nice man as well. Anyway, a lot of the characters, if we didn't invent them, we named them or whatever. So when it came to doing it for TV, our agent said that we ought to get part-ownership of things. We were offered a very generous amount of minutes-per-week writing, but we held on for a share of them, which seemed like the just thing to do at the time. We were told that wasn't happening for anyone, but it did happen, with Patrick Marber, who ended up getting a percentage of Alan Partridge, even though he'd not been involved in the initial writing of it. I always worried that this had never been resolved, and there was bad vibes about it, although there never seemed to be when I met people involved. Then about five years ago, this book came out about On The Hour (Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye Of Chris Morris, by Lucian Randall), and I read in there that apparently I was on a flight to Scotland with Armando Iannucci, where there was bad turbulence, and it was discussed. I said, 'We might die in this flight, so let's get all this sorted out.' And the brilliant thing is, I have no memory of that whatsoever. So I read this book and thought, 'Oh, I'm glad that's all sorted out.' I was probably drunk – I was young, I was on a plane – so I can't remember it at all. So it's a nice thing to find out, to read about yourself. That I was a quite reasonable person, even though I have no memory of it. It's fun for us to say we invented Alan Partridge, but we didn't. We invented a sports writer, and Steve Coogan did this voice, and that was it. It wasn't much to do with us. But other people have made more out of less, haha!
You often mention that people repeatedly nag you to tell jokes, and just be a gag-merchant, even though you're trying to achieve something different. Which brings to mind another musical comparison: Scott Walker. For all that we respect what he's doing on avant-garde records like Tilt or The Drift, there's always a part of us which would love it if he just went onstage and belted out 'Make It Easy On Yourself' and 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore'.
SL: Well, you know, basically I've forgotten how to write those sort of jokes. And when I do one by accident, I'll put that in and make a big deal of it. Because the rhythm's so odd. The problem with doing them at all is that it then gives people who make trailers something to work with. Then they make a weirdly unrepresentative trailer. Partly the reason I do it is because there aren't jokes, and I want to show people: I could do it, I could do it, but then I'd have to develop a different kind of character. If people think you can do something, they trust you more to not do it. With a lot of the free jazz guys, and I know this is something people take the piss out of me for but I do find it helpful, when John Coltrane's doing all his free stuff, the beginning and the end is my favourite, cos people know he can play. So when he does the free stuff, he's not gone mad – he's chosen to do it. He must have some sort of plan. But what a lot of the free people do now, they just do the middle, haha. So people go, 'Oh, they can't play.'
It's like that Simon Munnery thing you've quoted...
SL: Yeah, he says, 'Many are prepared to suffer for their art. Few are prepared to learn how to draw.' So what you wanna do, there, is show people that you could tell jokes: 'Trust me, I could do it, but you have to trust that I'm doing something else.' And that's what's got me into trouble, before. When I really tried to start again, in 2004, and really think about what I was trying to do in stand-up – and I had to do something, because I was in a lot of trouble financially and I knew I had to make something work – that's partly why I started to take the piss out of famous comedians. [Lee fans will be familiar with his mocking references to the likes of Michael McIntyre, Lee Mack, and "those Russell comedians they have now"] You'd get reviewers going, 'It's not shocking like Frankie Boyle', but I wasn't trying to do that. You can't say, 'It's failed because it's not that.' So I overstated my case, really, in order to clear the decks, so they couldn't compare me to anyone else. But the problem with that is, had I known how well it might do, I probably wouldn't have said that, about those people. Because the things I said hang around, and it doesn't make sense now you're doing four nights at Brighton Dome. Another weird thing, related to that, is that all phases of your life exist simultaneously. As if you're responsible for them all, now. Actually, even this series, it's got in under the wire but if you were starting it from scratch now, you'd have to think about Europe and all these other things. So the stuff's already... not what you'd say now.
That's interesting because, even though your feelings on shows like Mock The Week are well known, I wondered if you ever hanker for a format in which you could deal with bang-up-to-the-minute material, ripped from that day's headlines, rather than the broadly topical subject matters you deal with in Comedy Vehicle?
SL: Well, no. Because I associate that with the world of work. Because as well as doing temp jobs and doing circuit gigs in little pubs, for the first four or five years I was in London I was writing for Week Ending on Radio 4 and things like that, where you had to come up with topical jokes. And a lot of the radio things that me and Rich did, and when we wrote for things like Armando Iannucci's show, you'd basically get all the papers, and then you'd do mathematical equations about how things fit together. So it just feels like maths homework, to me. I did so much of it when I was young that it feels like an office job. If there's a fifth series, what I'd try and do for that, if I did news stuff, is that I'd take all the names out of it. And make it about big global trends in economics and so on. So you don't lock it down. For example, in the news today, scientists say we're in a new thing, not the Holocene age but the Anthropocene age. Which means we now define our age as one where climate is controlled by man, which it previously hadn't been. Well, that's not going away, is it? There's no danger of that feeling out-of-date. That's an example of something it would be good to do: broadly topical.
What's your view on the biggest topical story of the moment, the European Referendum?
SL: I want us to stay in. Principally, above all, for environmental issues. For example, this [gestures at London traffic in the street behind us] is two or three times over EU limits, out here. And what Boris Johnson – who wants to leave – does, to avoid the fines, is that when the particles get too heavy, he sends people with anti-freeze to spray the air around the readers, so the particles stick to the ground. That is documented. Because he doesn't want to pay the fine, he'd rather do that. He's let two of the machines go offline in central London and not fix them. But the reason we've got clean rivers, the return of various species, the last line in our battle for the defence of the environment against capitalism is the weird EU laws that say, 'You must have ten birds in this wood', and stuff like that. And everyone takes the piss out of them, but everything's dying at a hell of a rate. So above all, I'm pro-EU for environmental reasons. I want Europe to defend us, and our environment, against our own government. And other things, like disabled access is all because of the EU. And if you've ever been on the wrong side of a moral panic – and I'm talking about the Jerry Springer: The Opera thing, not the ATP thing – then things like the European Court of Human Rights would be very important to you. It's all very well people being against it when they've never been threatened with being tried for blasphemy or whatever, but at some point you might be the one who would benefit from cross-territorial human rights legislation. All the stuff about money and trade agreements, fine, talk about that till you're blue in the face. But that's my reason. And also, intelligence-sharing about ISIS, and the fact that Putin obviously has military ambitions. So I think all those things are reasons to stay in. And also because it will annoy Boris Johnson.
Do you think there's an argument that Boris Johnson's the most dangerous politician in Britain, and could be our Donald Trump, because people think he's 'a bit funny' and ignore his underlying agenda?
SL: Yeah. But Johnson has no views or values whatsoever, about anything. It's all about positioning himself. Actually, though, you watch Gogglebox, and all the people on their sofas see through him instantly. A random [selection] of British people, from UKIP voters to old Asian guys, they all go, 'Yeah, but whatever he says about Europe, it's all about him.' All the normal people on Gogglebox all said that. Which is very gratifying. But they also all said, the people on Gogglebox who I think of like my friends, 'We've not got enough information to decide.' Which I do think is a problem.
In the live show, last year, there was a routine involving an England flag covered in cat diarrhoea, and the cat responsible was called Paul Nuttall From UKIP. In the TV show, the cat's called Jeremy Corbyn. Why the switch?
SL: What happened there was, I had this whole half-hour on nationalism, and I had this idea of hanging it on a cat called Paul Nuttall From UKIP. Then within two weeks of the election, that whole routine fell off a cliff, because no-one was the least bit interested in him, or could remember who he really was. And I thought that was a shame, cos it was a good half hour, that. I did it one last time, at the start of September in a pub in Kingston, to prove to myself that it wasn't working. Nothing. But then, that week, Corbyn got in trouble for not going to the rugby match, and not singing the national anthem. So, ideas of national identity are still such a big deal, but they're not attached to UKIP now. They're attached to attacking Corbyn. So I thought, how can I bring him into the same story?
What's your personal view on Corbyn?
SL: I think he's an object lesson, in the way that the press have decided that whatever he does, they'll tear it apart. Just when I was starting to root for Cameron, when he was standing up for Europe, the next day he was really really pathetically rude to Corbyn in Parliament. Corbyn's like this weird Christ figure whose very presence reveals everyone else to be horrible cunts. But, you know, he is a Eurosceptic and I'm pro-Europe, and I'm not convinced about his defence position, all sorts of things. But it's nice that our children will grow up with an experience of what the Left meant."
The new series contains possibly the most avant-garde thing you've done so far. There's a routine about the columnist Rod Liddle always looking like he's got food on him, and it ends with you just making a chomping sound into the microphone for five minutes, like Paul McCartney chewing celery on 'Vega-Tables' by The Beach Boys. And you've somehow got that onto national BBC television.
SL: That's partly what I hope people will find funny about it. Not the thing itself, but the fact that it is on television. You know what's sad about that is, I filmed the shows in December, and all the dates had sold out so I added some more in January and February, but most of the routines peaked around the time I filmed it for telly. One, sadly, went off the boil round about September and I couldn't get it back, so I had to let it go. But one got better. And the one that got better was that one. I worked out how to time it, to make it funnier, even though there's no words in it.
Never mind putting jokes in the trailer. Imagine putting THAT in the trailer.
SL: That's what I want, you know? In the first series I managed to get them to make trailers that were all silent. But they won't do it again, so I'm trying not to give them any. They haven't noticed, though.
Another thing that makes it even funnier is that Rod Liddle isn't even a towering cultural figure, really. It's not like he's Katie Hopkins. A lot of people won't really know who he is.
SL: There's something funny about it being Rod Liddle, where people will think 'I'm not actually sure who he is, and why has he got food on him?' But if you do know who he is, he does look like he might have some food on him. It doesn't really matter either way. And the other thing with that is, when you make a joke about politicians, what happens is that all those bloggers and those people in The Daily Telegraph and The Times, they all go online. And the worst one is Tim Montgomerie, who has no sense of humour whatsoever. So when I said that the government destroying the BBC was as bad as ISIS destroying all these temples, in a column, he did a thing saying 'The Guardian's gone mad. No-one would think this.' And yeah! No-one would think that, it's for comical effect. So he's the one with the biggest power and the least grasp of nuance. But if you do a joke, you go der-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner, ner-ner-ner-ner-ner, bang-bang, about the news, then they go mer-mer-mer-mer, picking it apart in a sneery way. Because they don't have a sense of fun, or of the absurd, any of those people, it means that what they absolutely can't cope with is something about food being on one of them, that goes on for ages. Because they sort of think, 'Ah yes, what's this all about?' Like the headmaster coming in, going, 'What's this supposed to be?' and you're going, 'Nothing, sir!' And the headmaster goes 'It means something, doesn't it, Lee?', and you're going, 'No, it just means some food's gone on Rod Liddle.' And the headmaster says, 'Yes, I know, it's about anal sex, isn't it?' and it's not.
For all the boundary-breaking stuff you do, it can't be denied that a lot of what you do involves gross-out humour, giving people permission to laugh very easy laughs. The dog's cock in your face, vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ, and so on. In lieu of zingers and one-liners, there is that stuff, for lo-com-denom laughter.
SL: Well, yeah, but normally it's connected to some sort of idea. I dunno, we'll see what happens next. Every series feels like I've got to the end of a particular idea.
But there is also a small but significant extent to which you're a catchphrase comic. For example, there's a bit where you're talking about someone collecting mini pots of jam, and you say "He likes all the different types of jam... plain...", which regular viewers will remember is a throwback to the old routine about crisps.
SL: You know what, it's interesting you mention that, because originally I was saying, 'He likes all the different types of jam... Raspberry...' or whatever, then at the end of a gig, a punter came up to me and said, 'You should say plain, the same as you said plain crisps.' And I said 'It's a good idea, that. If I do that, get in touch with me and I'll give you a writing credit.' But I don't know who he was, so hopefully he'll notice it. Because the idea of 'plain jam' really made me laugh. Cos what would it be? Just gelatine of some sort. But my dad did really like jam. He used to be a rep for a cardboard company, and he spent a lot of time in hotels, and he would being all the little pots of jam back. He never bought jam, but always had a lot of small pots of jam. I'm the same. I've got enough shampoo for ever, now.
It's as if you're giving people reward points for loyalty, if they get the little in-joke.
SL: Yeah. The producer wanted to cut that bit, cos he thought it was only funny if you knew the other one. But I thought 'plain jam' was funny anyway.
Of course, you also play with the idea that the audience don't follow what you're doing at all, and are unreceptive to it. That becomes part of the plot, almost.
SL: I noticed the first few pieces about the telly show, a lot of them have picked up on how in the first episode I say something about how the room's cold and unfriendly. And they've written 'He does well, despite what he admits is a cold, unfriendly room.' But I have to say that, because I need to get into the Graham Norton routine [monologue in which he initially claims to be pleased for Graham Norton when he won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Show, but slowly reveals his simmering resentment and frustration], as if I didn't want to do it. I have to offer up this story, saying, 'I can see you're uneasy. To put you at your ease, I'll tell you why I genuinely like Graham Norton...' And I have to give them this whole ten-minute Graham Norton BAFTA story as if it were not the set, but it's this extra thing. Because if it looks like he intended to say it, it would look really gratuitous. But if you accidentally end up in a position where you're pretending to be James Corden spitting on the prostrate body of Graham Norton, but it wasn't your plan, that's sort-of acceptable. And you have to give them permission to laugh again. It's become a critical term, that phrase, 'permission to laugh', and I'm not exactly sure where it came from. But I have to pretend that the room is a struggle, to allow me to do that. And you'd think, if you watched it, that would be obvious to a critic, because it sets up the next bit.
That Graham Norton bit reminded me of Columbo, in the sense that from the moment you say you're really pleased for Graham Norton, we all know where it's going to end up. But the fun is in seeing how you get there.
SL: You know what, right. I don't watch much telly, but in the last two years I've watched every single episode of Columbo. My wife loves it, and she said 'You've got to watch this.' And I think it's the funniest thing. I think he's absolutely brilliant, Peter Falk. What a hilarious actor and what brilliant writing. So yeah, exactly that. In the first five minutes, you know who the murder is, and you know that he knows. So, I'd never thought about it but yeah, I suppose it does what stand-up does. You know what the end of the joke is, so how's he gonna get there? I like the fact that Columbo, almost in a postmodern way, destroys the idea of what a whodunnit's supposed to be. Because it shows you who did it! Also, normally the woman or whoever's done it will say something in the first three minutes and he'll raise his eyebrow, so you know he knows it's her. Also, you know there's a lot of improvisation in it?
No, I had no idea.
SL: Yeah, that's one of the great things about having it on DVD. And I looked it up online and he'd just say things to people. Like, 'That's a nice coat you've got there, where'd you get it?' And they'd got, 'Oh, um, I got it in the shop, Lt. Columbo.' So Peter Falk does what Lt. Columbo would do. He just throws in random questions all the time, and you can see them behaving really weirdly.
One tends to think that post-modern mucking about, like breaking the fourth wall or improvising or messing around with the form, is something that came through into mainstream television in the late Eighties/early Nineties, with shows like Moonlighting and Dream On. But Columbo was already at it a whole decade earlier.
SL: Yeah, but it's in Laurel & Hardy, isn't it? And it's in Chaucer. In a way, this is true of everything: if you knew more about it, you'd have given up. Cos you'd realise it had all been done."
The device of the Unreliable Narrator, which you employ via the onstage 'Stewart Lee', is also something that works well in pop. An obvious example being 'I'm Not In Love' by 10cc.
SL: Or 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose' by Dionne Warwick, where she's making out she's really happy to leave LA, but she isn't. Clearly something's gone really wrong, but she's saying she's really glad to be going, 'LA is a great big freeway...', like she didn't even wanna be there. I love that stuff.
I've seen you quote the comedic poet John Hegley regarding a workable business model for performers such as yourself, whereby you only need a small but loyal fanbase to sustain a living.
SL: When I was trying to start again, he said to me, and it was a really low number, something like 5,000 people. He said if there's 5,000 people and they all come and see you once a year and spend £10, you can live off that. Like a lot of things, once I'd given up any personal ambition is when it started to work. Like the bloke in The Shawshank Redemption who, when he doesn't want parole, they give it to him. And in 2004, when I'd been on telly in the Nineties, and I'd co-written and directed this Olivier Award-winning musical thing that didn't work out, I thought it's too late to do something else, so I thought about what I could do to cut things down and pare it back, and aim for that 5,000 model. Also, I'd just discovered Myspace. Which sounds hilarious now, but if you could get 5,000 Myspace fans, and get them to follow you, that seemed sort of do-able. And also, I realised that a lot of the bands I like, they've always got a CD to sell, and they probably see more on that than the one that's been released by Virgin Records or whatever. And I'd come back every year with a mainly different set, maybe one of the hits. And it seemed like, if you saw the business model as being like The Fall, rather than some big massive band, then weirdly you could keep going.
A more flippant approach, which I've also seen you quote, is that the ideal situation is to whittle away your audience down to the size where you can just stop the show and go to the pub.
SL: Oh, that was probably Kitson. Really, Daniel Kitson's what people think I am. He really doesn't do press at all, and he doesn't go on anything, or engage with anything at any level. And yet he will sell out six dates at the National Theatre."
You joke, in the TV show, that you hope it doesn't get recommissioned. And while I don't imagine for a moment that you actively wish to fail, is there a natural ceiling for what you do? Above which the whole thing would waver, falter and crumble?
SL: Well, I can deal with writing a live show that's one of the story shows, with the music and the sets and all that. I can deal with that. But if they recommission another series, I won't do that other thing. So I'd be doing something that's not quite what I ought to be doing, creatively, and I'll do it because the days when the BBC will pay you to make something are probably on the way out, anyway. And I've got the kids now, I've got a pension plan, I've got a house, I've got collateral. That's another thing that's changed the character: he's not living in a flat above a shop any more. So one of the reasons I'll carry on is for the kids, because I worry about what would happen to them. Between us, my wife, Bridget Christie, who's also doing well, we've had a good two or three years. But anything could happen. Suppose that ATP thing did fall apart, and people go 'Oh, you did that.' They won't, and I haven't killed anyone, but you know, you worry all the time that anything could scupper it.
Financial advantage is increasingly a factor in the arts. The independently-wealthy are taking over, after a Post-War window of relative meritocracy. People like Julie Walters and Laurence Fox have spoken out, on different sides of the debate. A recent survey by The Sutton Trust found that 75% of classical musicians were privately educated, as were 42% of BAFTA winners, and even 19% of BRIT winners (meaning they're over-represented by 171%). What do you make of that?
SL: I'm an interesting part of this problem. First of all, you have to be a little bit careful about it. Bob Mortimer's been sounding off about how he's looking forward to the film Grimsby, 'Some Oxbridge private schoolboys' take on the working classes' or something. But the co-writer of that, with Sasha Baron-Cohen, is Pete Baynham. Who's from Cardiff, and who left school at 15 to join the Merchant Navy. So, on average, they're less posh than Bob Mortimer. I can see things from all different angles, which I think shows itself in my act, in a weird way. I've got a chip on my shoulder, about not being privileged. But I'm also privileged, in that I got a part-scholarship and a charity bump into a private school. And I went to Oxford, at a time when you could get a full student grant. And it felt not-impossibly-exceptional that different types of people would be there. So on the one hand, I'm within spitting distance of the kind of education that people like Cameron had. In fact, I wrote a long routine where I pretended I was friends with him. Which is sort of interesting, because it's almost conceivably true. But then the actual circumstances of my childhood are nothing like that whatsoever. Also, this is a big thing, but being adopted, you feel like you have a slight disconnection from society. You understand that if the dice had rolled differently, you could be anywhere. So I'm able to move through it and see it from different sorts of places, and that's the privileged position to be in. But I did a talk at Oxford Brookes University recently and someone said, 'How can we stop Oxbridge dominance of the arts?' and I said 'Well, don't invite me to speak to you!', haha! So, class is not a defining thing for me, but it's gonna get worse. Those surveys go, '75% of people doing this job went to public school.' Well, of course they did. It's not just about going to public school. It means their parents had 15 grand a year spare. Which means that when they're asked to do an unpaid internship in London, they can afford it. So it doesn't actually tell you that the school does that, but it shows there's a correlation to wealth. And I think it's absolutely, utterly dishonest of someone like James Blunt where he did that stupid thing where the Culture Secretary said there was a social imbalance in the arts, and James Blunt called him 'a classist gimp'. It's obvious when you look at it: the support networks that got a generation of people through it, like squats, and student grants, have all gone. We've got this whole thing where London celebrates punk rock this year, as if it's some part of our heritage. But it fundamentally would never have existed, in this city now. Because it's the music of cheap accommodation. It's utter hypocrisy.
Have you noticed a similar change happening in comedy?
SL: I have. If you went to the alternative night with all the weird acts, which 25 years ago was downstairs at the Market Tavern on Islington Green on Essex Road, you'd see Simon Munnery who is the son of a plumber. Or Johnny Vegas, who is not a member of the upper classes. The same thing now, which is the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society at the New Red Lion, is a very good night, but there's a higher proportion of people whose parents bought them a flat. Inevitably, because you can't do that sort of stuff that doesn't pay, unless you've got some sort of fallback position.
Is there an argument that an unintended consequence of the Alternative Comedy movement in the Eighties, which blew away the traditional working-class comedians in velvet jackets, was that it paved the way for all this?
SL: A lot of people have said that. It may even have been Alexei Sayle who said it, that you can disenfranchise the working class from comedy just by saying they don't conform to a middle class liberal set of ideas. That said, in the Nineties and the Noughties, there were all kinds of people on the comedy circuit. You'd go round the country on the gig network and there'd be an ex-soldier and all sorts of people. But you wouldn't get that now. Partly because for 20 years there was a Jongleurs and a Comedy Store-type club in every town, and they're all closing down now. It's like when a mine closes, and you see all these guys and wonder how they're going to make their mortgage. That's one of the saddest things of all.