The interview gets off to a bad start. I want to talk to Stewart Lee about his ultra-dry delivery and the layered ironic nature of his stand-up, but for some reason I tell him that a friend of mine didn’t find his new show very funny. ‘Why not?’ he asks. ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say. In fact it’s strange that you’re even bringing it up’. But he warms up when I ask him if he thinks there’s a limit to the awkward straight faced non-comedy that he increasingly uses.
‘No. I’m not required to deliver a punch-line every thirty seconds so there are other things I can do. For example if you were trying to write a piece of music and you decided not to use rhythms or tunes or anything with a harmonic relationship with anything else, as well as being limiting, it actually opens it up; you can do absolutely anything. You could argue that people like Jimmy Carr who do an hour of one-liners are much more limited than me. I’m allowed to do anything, so I don’t see there being an end point to it.’
And what about alienating the audience? ‘Ideally I would get to the point where no one liked it. You want to shake people off as much as possible. There might be a commercial end point to it, but not a creative one. For most of the musicians or poets that I like, there probably aren’t more than five thousand people who like them worldwide, but if you take ten pounds a year off all those people then that’s a living.’
I’m surprised that Stewart Lee is bothering to answer my questions; he normally interviews himself. Scathingly. Preceding the arrival of his recent TV show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, he decided to do the complete opposite of favourable promotion. ‘Time Out and The Guardian wanted me to write about myself’, he explains, ‘So I asked if I could just slag myself off in the guise of a journalist. I thought it’d be funny to create a wave of negative advance publicity crit. I just didn’t want to sell myself, it’s a bit embarrassing’.
The resulting pieces are hilarious in their own right. Lee, writing as critic Tim Out for Time Out, calls himself ‘shambling and pie-eyed’ while as Leeanne Stewart in The Guardian he writes that he is ‘a limpet-like figure, a kind of laughing gastropod, attached undetected to the barnacled hull of a whole host of more successful comedians’ careers’.
This attitude is consistent to Lee’s style-he has never had mainstream commercial success and he doesn’t appear to want it very much. ‘In the modern world you’re supposed to be a personality and let people know all about you so they’ll watch your work but I’d rather no-one was interested in that’. As such he isn’t exactly great material on talk shows. He was encouraged to go on 8 Out of 10 Cats and got approached afterwards by a man at a gig in Ireland, who said, ‘You were so bad on that program I tried to sell the tickets I’d bought to see you, but no-one would buy them. I tried to give them away but no-one would have them, so I came anyway.’
Lee claims he doesn’t have the speed or shared common direction needed to be a success on one of those shows. He admits this is a skill that he’s impressed by, but doesn’t have much love for the young mainstream comics of today.
‘There’s a complacency you seem to get from a lot at the moment. When I got into comedy 25 years ago it was an alternative to the mainstream, whereas now that has become the mainstream. Rock music and alternative comedy ought to be things that your parents or people my age don’t like, and the reason I don’t like comedy or music by most young people isn’t that it offends my sensibilities, it’s because it’s normally really conservative and predictable, and shit.’ After this he cackles uncontrollably, his only laugh of the interview.
He seems to have a lot of contempt for television, probably due to fact that his latest series was offered to him, then rejected outright a year later, then offered back to him shortly after that for no reason.
‘It tells you that there’s an insane randomness to being on TV or not. It’s like weather systems or water flowing over stones; it doesn’t mean anything.’
It helps explain why he’s been so keen to try so many other art forms. In 2001 he both finished a novel, the critically acclaimed The Perfect Fool, and performed Pea Green Boat, a show about Edward Lear’s The Owl and The Pussycat and his own broken toilet. Then in 2005 came Jerry Springer: The Opera, the critically acclaimed West End show which he wrote with Richard Thomas. The show was on the receiving end of a damning campaign from Christian Voice, a far-right set of extremists who managed to get 60,000 people to complain.
‘They’re a group who used Jerry Springer to get into the mainstream media and I don’t think many of the people they got to complain would have if they’d known what they stood for. They’re against Islam across the board, homosexuality, giving a survival cancer vaccine to teenagers, the legal stature of rape within marriage, weird things. You had to cross picket lines to go to work, and when you finally get to the dressing room there are letters from people saying ‘go to hell’, it’s a bit exhausting. ‘
Lee’s first gig was as a student at the Oxford Union in 1988, and he’s returning to Oxford with a new show on the 26th November. What can we expect? ‘There are three routines. One’s about coffee shops, one’s about Top Gear, and the other one’s about the advertising of cider. It’s just three jokes really.’
If that’s not enticing enough, he’s keen to say that it’s being put on independently at the Regal and that it will be cheaper than all his other gigs.