A voice of sweet reason in sour times, Stewart Lee knows what it feels like to put your head in the metaphorical lion’s mouth. And has a pretty good idea of what it’s like when the jaws snap shut.
Not that he’s complaining. Well, not much.
Lee has been performing stand up comedy for more than 20 years. He’s been in and out of fashion a few times – first as half of Lee and Herring in the mid-1990s; then ten years later as the co-writer and director of the ridiculously controversial Jerry Springer: The Opera which saw fundamentalist Christians hamstring his career to the point where he earned next to nothing for five years of work; and lately, most significantly, in the wake of his well-received series for BBC2, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
We spoke in the autumn of 2009 as he was preparing to go out on his most high-profile tour in years with a new show in which he was planning to ruminate on the human condition from the perspective of a (then) 41-year-old man with a wife and two-year-old son.
He’s not angry, just a bit disappointed. A little jaded, but crucially, still hopeful.
There’s something about life’s little frustrations, they let you know you’re still alive…
I was in my favourite high street coffee chain a few months ago and I tried to use my loyalty card but they wouldn’t accept it because two of the stamps were in a different colour than the others which I found annoying as I hadn’t faked it. On the back of the card it said: “If you prefer a milder coffee, please ask for one”. It was April/May time and I had to give the title of my new show to the Edinburgh Fringe so I called it If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One.
Then I read an interview with Frankie Boyle the comedian and he said that people over 40 shouldn’t do stand up as they lose their anger which got me thinking. So the show is basically me wondering aloud what I think about as a fortysomething dad. What speaks for me? I don’t fit the demographic of Top Gear. What do I care about? What happens when music I really like is used for adverts? Where do I live? Should I try to live in towns or move to the country?
I can’t just be cynical, not with a baby because they make your life on a daily basis. You have to be open to the possibility of improvements. But then this isn’t my dirty nappy show either, that’s a real cliché, although obviously children do change you.
After the furore surrounding Jerry Springer: The Opera, does it feel like you’ve come in from the cold? Is the comedy hierarchy welcoming you back into its bosom once again?
I’m not sure I care about that, whatever it means. We got 1.6 million viewers and should find out in January if we get a second series [they did]. It’s great to get paid for something I’m really proud of and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. The telly series and this tour will mean I can at last get a mortgage and sort things out.
I don’t know if we’ll get re-commissioned, but just to have done it is something – and to be told by comedians of all kinds how much they enjoyed it is really good.
I don’t know how that will translate to ticket sales on the tour. I get 1.6 million viewers, but they’re viewers for whom going out is a bit of a pain – they’ll have to get a babysitter and all that. Whereas The Mighty Boosh gets a quarter of a million viewers, but they’re a quarter of a million people with leisure time, disposable income and real enthusiasm for life.
You’re not a quick-fire gag merchant and you don’t up and you down stage telling us how successful and clever you are, is it difficult to make yourself heard over the noise?
Well, I don’t really do weird or wacky either, but I do get away with some big stuff because the voice I use is fairly measured. I get hold of subjects and twist and turn them, examine them, have a good look round. I like precision comedy, people like Dave Allen. I’m playing with the structure of what I do as well – there’s only really three routines. I’m hoping that people coming will have seen the TV show at least so they’ll know what they’re getting.
It’s a bit like when you’re at school and they tell you to include your workings out with the maths problems – how you get there is as important as the destination. Having said that you’d be surprised how often people sit through the show then come up to me afterwards and say things like: ‘Here’s one you can use: There were two Pakistanis…’!
My stepbrother asked me when I play Worcester could I mention his daughter’s birthday – at what point in my show could I say: ‘There’s a lovely little girl in row F who’s got a birthday?’ It just wouldn’t work.
The thing is I’ve always defined myself in opposition and now I’m perilously close to popularity again it feels like I must have made a mistake or something.