The comedian, writer and director talks about stand-up, his TV series Comedy Vehicle, Alternative Comedy Experience and Fist of Fun, parenthood, Lee & Herring, Jerry Springer the Opera and being called 'the comedian's comedian'.
~ 10,000 words ~
Published in Mustard #05a
Print sold out
Part I: Stand-Up
Part II: Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle
Part III: On The Hour, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris
Part IV: The Alternative Comedy Experience
Part V: Books: How I Escaped My Certain Fate and TV Comedian
Part VI: Stand-Up Parenting
Part VII: Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy
Part VIII: Ben Elton, Jimmy Carr and the hell of 8 Out Of 10 Cats
Part IX: Questions from Sam Bain, Rich Fulcher and Alan Moore
Part X: Jerry Springer The Opera
Part XI: Charity gigs, collaborating with Alan Moore and future plans
Is the label “the comedian's comedian” a compliment or a curse?
I think it's a compliment, though you may think it's a curse. The “guitarist's guitarist” would be someone for whom life was probably a financial struggle. But comedy is so popular at the moment that even if you're a stand-up who most people don't like, there's still 20,000 people who'll come and see you in London, which is great.
It was a bit galling, in the middle part of the last decade, to get really good press but with nothing really paying. But if I had those years again, I wouldn't complain about that as much because a lot of the people I really like in music or writing or film didn't really make anything. Many of them ended their days in poverty. I've managed to get a mortgage, which is probably more than most of them managed to do, so I've been really lucky.
You've talked about building pseudo-failure into your act. Why do you do this?
In order to say lots of what I say, and not appear like an arrogant bully, I have to be low status on some level. But 20,000 people are coming to see me in London. I need to have strategies for failure in the act in order to get the power balance right, to lower me.
You often use negative quotes on your posters. Is there method to this madness?
Yes, it started in 2007, when I was in the tent in the middle of Edinburgh as a showcase act for The Underbelly. I was really aware that, on Friday or Saturday night, people go out to see a four- or five-star reviewed comedian who they assume they'll like, and if it's me, there's a good chance they won't.
Y'know, I don't want the guilt of disappointing decent ordinary people who have got a babysitter and come out on a Friday or Saturday to see some comedy. I'd feel terrible about ruining people's night. So I put those quotes on the poster to keep them out. To say 'maybe it's not for you'. You can come, but I never promised you'd like it. So you can't come up to me afterwards and complain, because it even says I'm smug on the poster! [laughs]
I also do it because I find negative reviews of myself funny. I've got to the point where they're not really relevant. What I do is what I do. You may not like it, but you can't say I've failed because I'm doing what I intended to do.
So the extremity of responses is funny. To have 'the best comedian working in the country' from a broadsheet and 'as funny as bubonic plague' from The Sun on the same poster is nice. If something I liked had loads of bad reviews on it, I'm such a knob-head that I would feel flattered that I was in the coterie of people who loved the thing everyone hated.
Your stand-up takes pedantry to an art form. Where does this come from and does it make you the most middle-class comedian on the circuit?
I think I am the most middle-class comedian on the circuit and that's actually a scientific fact. I was adopted in the late 60s, when the ethics of adoption agencies were to parachute you down into the exact middle of society, so that your character wasn't impinged on by either privilege or deprivation. Statistically, where I grew up is probably exactly middle-class. It was in Solihull, a middle-class suburb in the middle of England. I was in a terraced house which my family owned, but you couldn't park a car in front of it. In 1968, that was probably exactly middle-class.
Yes, I am the most middle class comedian,
I think that's actually a scientific fact.
But for me, right, I think of a different sort of middle-class. I don't have that Michael McIntyre social aspiration thing. For me it's about not fitting in one place or another. For the working-class part of your family, well, you went to college, so you're different to them. But to proper middle-class people, you're not quite them either, so it's about not belonging and feeling a bit out of everything.
As far as pedantry goes, unpicking things seems funny. To meet heckles as if they were genuine enquiries for example, that's something I got from Ted Chippington. On his Man In A Suitcase album, there's a bit where he's going down badly and the audience are all chanting: “Who the fuck? / Who the fuck? / Who the fucking hell are you? / Who the fucking hell are you?”
And each time he waits for the chant to finish and then says: “I'm Ted Chippington”. Then they do it again. And he says: “Ted Chippington”. And they do it again and he says: “I'm Ted Chippington – for the third time!”.
I think that's hilarious. It's not so much pedantry as a clown thing, asking what if something were literally true. Accepting a thing and chasing it down to the absolute end. To apply pressure to a statement and see if it survives analysis, just for a bit of fun or sometimes to expose something.
You're touring Room With A Stew right now, and then you're taking it to Edinburgh?
Yep. Room With A Stew is about six or seven half-hours of material that I do on rotation. But in Edinburgh I do an hour, and with gigs on tour I do two hours, maybe two and a half. In January, for two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, I'll do three hours, what would be a four-hour show with intervals. At the moment I've got the hour I'll do in Edinburgh and I've got another 45 minutes, but come July or August I'll start dropping things out and bringing other things in. I'm not gonna write too much more until the elections, you know?
And is it true what Alan Moore told us recently, that he gave you the idea for the show title sarcastically?
Yeah (laughs). He said, all your shows are just stupid puns on your own name. I bet you would call one Room With A Stew. And I went alright then, I will (laughs). He had some other good ideas as well actually, I can't remember what they are now.
So I assume he gets royalties every time you say the title?
No, he doesn't get anything because he's not interested in that. He was trying to take the piss, but the joke's on him because it's been used (laughs).
You could give him sarcastic royalties. 5p in an envelope.
I suppose so, yeah!
Are you still going to film live shows for DVD, despite your concerns about illegal downloads?
Yeah I will do. When I left Avalon in 2006, they had a deal for filming my 2004 show Stand-Up Comedian, but the company they were using didn't want the 2005 show, 90s Comedian. I really wanted it filmed, because I knew that if you filmed it, that kind of finishes it as a piece of work, so you can stop doing that material. Whether it sold or not, it was really useful to draw a line under it. I was trying to think like an artist or musician who creates a body of work and then moves on to the next thing.
So I said to Avalon: any company that wants to film and release this can have it for nothing. But they weren't able to find anyone. Then I met Chris Evans, who runs Go Faster Stripe. He was a fan and was a tech support guy for an arts company in Cardiff. He knew some cameramen, so he said I'll film it and we can sell it on my website, which I think sold children's clothing that his wife had designed.
I said fine, we'll split it fifty-fifty. So that DVD, which Avalon couldn't find anyone to release, ended up on the Times Shortlist thing, where they called it the stand-up DVD of the decade.
So, yes, even if there isn't a market left for DVDs in any profitable form - because of internet pirating, and because Amazon and iTunes have created a monopoly where they drive down prices in favour of the consumer, at the expense of the artist - then I will film it anyway and do something with it, even give it away, because it's hugely useful creatively to say 'that piece of work is over, now onto the next one'. Otherwise you run the risk of being some kind of weird cover band, putting out your own hits, rolling them around.
Do you see your TV show, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, as an extension of your stand-up, or do you approach the medium differently?
I try to do exactly the same as I do at a gig. After series 1, I wanted to make it even more like a gig: for the lighting to more like a club, for the audience to have drinks, and to walk into a room where there's music playing. And not even break it up into different shows; just go straight through an hour and quarter on the night and then try and cut three TV shows out of it.
I noticed in the first series that you even had notes written on your hand.
Yeah, that wasn't an affectation. I have notes on my hand when I don't know the stuff. Despite the best-laid plans, in the couple of weeks running up to the recordings, a couple of the shows fell apart a bit and I had to rejig everything or do rewrites. There was stuff that I was doing for the first time on the nights, which was absolutely not what I wanted to happen. Whereas, with series 2, I had almost all of the 25-minute sets down two months before recording.
Did you make any changes between series two and three?
Yeah, I decided that the filmed stuff should be dialogue free, so that it would be a real contrast with all the talking in the rest of the show. There was a filmed bit in the second series that was only set to music, where a Toby Jug of urine with the face of Adrian Chiles was solemnly carried up some stairs by footmen. I was really pleased with that and decided that I wanted them all to be like that in the next series. Also, when there's no dialogue, you can expand and contract those segments more easily, depending on how the rest of the show pans out.
Another change was that ran into things a lot more (laughs). I knew where the room for improvisation was. They also let me dress much more like I normally would, so I felt much more comfortable doing it. All of that was really good.
The show was also changed by the fact that Armando [Iannucci] couldn't do his backstage interview bits, so Chris [Morris] did it instead. Which wasn't better or worse, but Chris undercut me more, which was great. It added to the dynamic and it meant that I could be more arrogant in the stand-up, because of the offset of him really humiliating me.
What has the reaction been to Series 3? It seemed like a lot of people were talking about it the next day.
I don't know, to be honest I can't even tell you whether the viewing figures were up or down. But I'm getting more people than ever on this tour [Room With A Stew], and lots of people come up to me afterwards and say it's the first time they've seen me and they only found out about me last year. So it does seem to have had an effect.
Also, the longer I do stuff the way I do, the more people have to admit that it's not that I can't do comedy (laughs). People have said, “You're so arrogant and patronising”. Well, obviously on some level I've chosen to be that, you know? You're not necessarily meant to like me. But if people see enough of it, they come around in the end, I think.
But I don't know, you probably know more than me what people thought of it. Because obviously, I'm me. So people's interactions with me are compromised by that (laughs).
Well there definitely seemed to be a buzz, on social media as well as real life.
I know that some TV comedians sit up all night watching Twitter to seeing who's talking about their show. But I don't do social media, so I only get a second-hand feel for that.
Although I have noticed that a lot of the stuff in the third series has had a weird secondary life. Because when related things were in the news, like UKIP or whatever, people would post a clip and it gets seen by loads of people - so I think that's been good for it.
Will there be a series four?
Yeah, the great thing was that there wasn't the usual worry about getting another series, because the BBC recommissioned two as a block. Which was really liberating because you didn't have to worry about pleasing everyone, you could just concentrate on doing what you wanted.
Initially the BBC didn't want to do a third series at all. So I went to see someone at Sky, and they said, “Okay, come and do a stand-up series for us”. Then I went back to the BBC and said, “Look, I'm not trying to be difficult, but Sky have said they'd do something, but I'd rather do more with you, are you sure you're not interested?” And they said, “Oh, we'll do another series then.” So I went back to Sky and said, “I'm really sorry, BBC have said that they'll do a series.” And Sky said, “Oh, we'll do two then.”
At that point I think I would still have taken one series with the BBC over two with Sky, because more people would see it. And also because the BBC don't advertise it or put your face on billboards, which I find quite embarrassing. But when I went back to the BBC and told them what Sky had said, they commissioned two series.
I think I was really lucky, with that and with the timing. There's a new controller in now who said that she wants BBC comedy to “show its knickers”. She seems great, but I'm probably not a 'show your knickers' kind of guy. So I wouldn't have thought there'd be another series after this next one.
But I think four's a pretty good run. And actually, their reluctance to recommission it each time has really worked out for me, by spreading the four series over ten or eleven years. When I first went in to see them in 2004, I said that I didn't want to have to do it every year. I wanted to be like Dave Allen, where you can have two or three years between series. That gives you time to write the material properly, rather than being like a lot of the telly comics now where they farm it all out to uncredited writers and it gets a bit confused, you know?
So are there going to be any more changes between series three and four?
I want to keep it pretty much the same I think. Except that I'm fatter and older and greyer, and look more knackered, which does affect the material. I want to try to write better film bits. I think last time the team did them really well, but you have to think that you can do better. It was a learning curve, using film, and we all had different opinions. So we'll get there.
Comedy Vehicle was exec-produced by Armando Iannucci and script edited by Chris Morris, both of whom you first worked with on the radio series On The Hour. Why didn't you move with them to the TV version?
Armando offered us a commission to write half the TV programme, 13 minutes per week. But we were holding on to get a format share. The format of On The Hour was created by Chris and Armando, who maintained, entirely correctly, that they owned the idea. But our manager's argument, which we accepted, was that we should be cut in on this in some way to reflect that a lot of the tone of the popular characters, like Brian O'Hanrahanrahan (a name I came up with) and Alan Partridge, were defined by me and Rich.
While this argument was going on, Armando was preparing a commercial audio release of On The Hour and our manager (again, with our permission – we weren't naïve) held off signing the contract to release our bits, as a bargaining chip.
So Armando, in a fit of rage, cut all our work out of the release. Whole sentences we'd written were cut, but also things we'd come up with were altered. He even managed, by some clever tape splicing, to change the names of characters by moving vowels around. So he proved the point, in the most definitive way possible, that the programme was bigger than any one contributor by literally taking a razor and some glue and removing us.
So we misjudged it. Under different circumstances, we might have ended up with a share of Alan Partridge, which could have been useful. Patrick Marber got a share and he wasn't even a writer on the programme when the character was invented, but he's very talented at inserting himself into things that he thinks might be a success.
Anyway, I recently read, in a biography of Chris Morris, that about a year and half after all this happened, I was sitting next to Armando on a flight to Glasgow when the weather got really bad. In this book, Armando says that I told him I wanted to apologise for any bad feeling about this On The Hour/Day Today thing, as I didn't want to go to my grave with it hanging over us.
Now, I can honestly say I have no memory of that whatsoever, but maybe there was free drink[laughs]. I was probably three sheets to the wind if there was a bar, as I was 24 years old. In which case, I've worried for years about all this not being resolved, but it turns out it was, but I'd completely forgotten.
It's obviously all okay now, with Armando helping get Comedy Experience made.
Armando fought long and hard for it. It was originally commissioned in Spring 2005; I was told I didn't even have to do a pilot, just to get on with writing a series. And then in April 2006 the offer was completely withdrawn – I still don't know what happened between my management and the BBC. I left my management after that.
Anyway, two years later, it was back on the slate. And I'm out the other side of complaining about the BBC now. There isn't another broadcaster in the world that makes such good programmes. We need to accept it for what it is: this vast thing with its own internal logic, like some weird weather system. You can't say it's for or against you; it is what it is.
It's a privilege, not a right, to be on television. I accept that I'm a comedian that no more than 1/60th of the country would ever like, and yet I'm playing to those million people on television. By putting on my show, the broadcaster is fulfilling a kind of Reithian ideal, and I'm very lucky it's me who's getting the show. But if it wasn't me, I wouldn't be sitting at home moaning. It's random, you just have to accept it.
Tell me about the philosophy behind The Alternative Comedy Experience.
Well, Live at the Apollo, Russell Howard's Good News, Live at the Electric and Michael Macintyre's Comedy Roadshow are all showcasing the same kind of comic. Avalon got the brief for Live at the Electric on the understanding that it would showcase the wide and diverse variety of British comedy that isn't necessarily reflected on television. But it turns out that 60 or 70 percent of the acts they put on are managed by them. Because they get the receipts for that as well. And some acts are working off the debts they've run up in Edinburgh, like a dog chasing its own tail.
So I just wanted to put on all the people that are really good but don't get asked to be on TV, or if they are asked on, don't get to do the things that they're good at. It was very well received, it got great figures, and everyone looked really good on it I think.
But apparently it wasn't worth recommissioning, because it wasn't watched by the right age group. One of the executives at Comedy Central, interviewed in The Guardian, said, “It's all very well having the cynical comedy that Stewart Lee likes, but we need the kind of thing that gets shared online in the 16–24 age bracket”.
But it was a little step in the right direction. And now there's some really good footage of great acts out there. It's interesting that, right from the early days of alternative comedy in the 80s, a lot of the really good people didn't get filmed. But we've got really good hours of Tony Law, John Hegley, Simon Munnery, Paul Sinha... Josie Long, who's never really been filmed properly. Bridget [Christie], my wife, was on too. Richard Herring said that it was bias, but she's won the Edinburgh comedy award and has been one of the best reviewed female comedians for decades, yet wasn't asked by any of the Avalon or Off the Curb controlled showcases.
It was really great to see them all in full flight. Particularly Tony Law, who is a real live phenomenon; we got some great footage of him. I regret in a way that the format meant that the editing chopped them up a bit, but that was a compromise towards telly. And all the footage is all there in the archive.
So that show's not happening again. Which means that all the people who think I'm very controlling and can get whatever I want done can see that's not really the case!
How did you whittle down the shortlist of acts, and was there much compromise with the broadcaster?
There was the odd compromise, more so in the first series. Comedy Central just didn't get it, because they're a commercially-driven channel who just want recognisable names. Plus, there were two or three people that I would have liked to have on that just don't do television. But it was pretty good, I mean 95 percent there.
Your book How I Escaped My Certain Fate features transcripts of three of your shows, plus footnotes that are even longer than the transcripts themselves. How do you balance deconstructing a gag with not killing it?
Some people have said all I do is deconstruct things. That's not really the case: I only do it when it's funny. A lot of things I like have a degree of self-awareness about them. I quite like making the punchline explicit or telegraphing it a long way ahead to get round the convention of comedy being about shock and surprise, to defeat that. Instead, you can focus people's expectation on the journey. It's the sort of thing that happens a lot in novels, where the narrative isn't always linear.
When I finished writing How I Escaped, one of the nice things was that I'd explained all my stylistic tics, and I hoped that people being aware of them would stop me doing them.
Also, I've noticed that some of the things I'd done were being copied. And I say that with a degree of caution because I know things can happen by coincidence and I also know that, when I was a 19-year-old doing stand-up, I exactly copied lots of people I liked. But there's a couple of things I've seen people do and I've thought, 'Ah, right, I'd better stop doing that now'. So it sort of takes care of itself: if the things you do are being assimilated, then you have to move on anyway.
Can you give any examples?
Well, I wasn't the first person to go off stage, wander around the room and pretend to have a nervous breakdown; I copied that off Johnny Vegas, really. But with him it's like a bear going mad in a shopping centre. With me, I wanted people to feel it was someone who'd thought too much having a breakdown. Also, Johnny would thrash around the room and I tried to get above people, to climb up on furniture.
I was doing 1,000-seater rooms, old theatres. Lovely Frank Matcham, 19th century ones, and if there was enough stucco plasterwork, you could often get straight from the stage, up the wall, into the first box and then round the circle balcony. Within a minute you could be at the back of the theatre. It's something I'd seen Julian Cope do at the Lyric. I started to see other people doing it and thought, 'Oh, I won't do that again'.
Each new tour, I try and do things I feel uncomfortable with. Initially, it was going off stage and talking to people. Then, in Vegetable Stew, it was singing a couple of songs that I'd written. I don't think I'm particularly good at them and I found it embarrassing to do, but that's a reason to do it – to keep trying stuff that's beyond you. Maybe I should learn to dance or do martial arts. Something that no one would expect from an out-of-shape middle-aged man, especially not someone who's perceived as a deadpan, lumpy act.
In the book you say how easy it was to manipulate your audience to boo Ben Elton “and yet we still wonder how Hitler succeeded”. What's the gap between stand-up and tyrant?
One of the things that I don't like about stadium comedy shows is that they seem like rallies. I feel uncomfortable with anything where everyone agrees with what's happening; it makes me feel like something's not right. The purpose of those mass events is to get everyone facing the same way, whereas I like to divide opinion in the room. I find it really interesting to have people reacting in different ways at the same time, but that's the opposite of what you're supposed to do in stand-up.
The problem I have, and it's a luxurious one to have, is that now more of the people that come and see me know what they're coming to, so it's harder to contrive a situation whereby the room is divided. Luckily, I've had so many good reviews for this tour in the mainstream press that a lot of people who won't really like me are coming by mistake, which makes for a more interesting night.
Adding an interval has been interesting. What normally happens is that the first half is a struggle and there are real pockets of resistance. But then they all go and have a chat at half time and when they come back in, they've decided that I must know what I'm doing and enjoy it.
I enjoy the feeling of panic in the room and there not being a uniform reaction to a thing. It's in a lot of things that I like. You know the band, The Fall? When I'm watching them, I often feel that I hate them, and then something will happen and I think it's brilliant. I can go in a second from thinking it's interminable to absolutely captivating. Same with a lot of free jazz: it's irritating and then it's sublime, stupid and then brilliant. And a lot of old folk music can seem cloyingly sentimental, but then suddenly really get to you.
I hate being led by the hand. Like in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, for example. When he falls off the building at the end, this sentimental music accompanies it, telling you that the death of King Kong is sad. In the original film, there's no manipulative music. And I remember, as a child, as all audiences watching that film must have done, being surprised by feeling sympathetic towards the ape. But now we're not allowed to decide for ourselves what we think. Everything is lit or underscored by music or framed in such a way as to tell you what you're supposed to think.
I like to unpick all that. When I say things on stage, it's not always clear if it's a joke or if I'm serious. I like the idea that you're offering things up for their consideration, and then it's up to them what they make of it.
I see you've now got a new book, TV Comedian, coming out in March?
Actually, that book won't happen for a long time. Is that date still hanging around in Amazon?
Well, I'd imagined that I'd only get two series of Comedy Vehicle, and then I was going to do this book about writing stand-up for telly: what telly has done to stand-up, people who do stadiums and stuff.
But a few things happened; first of all they commissioned more series, so there isn't an end of the book yet, it hasn't got a shape to it.
Secondly, the business of comedy and that's changing so fast at the moment, so if I'd written the book a year or two ago it would already be sort of irrelevant. Because now you've got things like Avalon trying to buy BBC3 – which is unbelievable, like some science fiction film where business controls media – so you'd have to include that.
And thirdly, on a practical level, my wife started working a lot more, and my kid was in nursery. The amount of child care hours I'd have to pay for to have time to write the book would cost two or three times what I'd get to write it. One of the things I said after I left Avalon was that I'm not going to lose money on things any more. I don't mind working for free, but I'm not gonna run up debt.
So those are ll things that have delayed it, but I will do the book eventually.
With both you and your wife working evenings, how do you manage child care?
We have a rota of five babysitters (laughs). We try not to be out of London at the same time. I tour when she's not touring, and vice versa. And even on the occasion where one of us is away and the other's got a London gig, or we've both got London gigs, the good thing about comedy hours is that you can still pick up your kids from school, do their homework, make their tea and get them ready for bed before the babysitter comes. Then you go out and get on stage at half eight, nine o'clock. Although the down side is that you get home at midnight and you're awake for two hours, but still have to be up do the school run, which can be quite debilitating.
But on the whole, being stand-up parents provides a degree of flexibility, and your kids see you a lot more than if you had a day job. There's always one of us there, which is great.
We don't use a nanny, so we save money on that. Apart from one time a few summers ago. Bridget had been sort of winging it while I was touring; for the first five years of having kids, her comedy took a back seat, really. So that year we got a nanny for July and August, so Bridget could write a proper Edinburgh show. And that was the one that really got her going again.
So it is hard, but we've been managing. It's good fun actually. And the kids like the babysitters more than us anyway (laughs).
How has parenthood impacted your comedy?
It does change things. These days people say to me “your stuff seems much more loose and improvised now, not so tightly written” and I have to pretend that's an artistic decision rather than being down to the fact there isn't the time to sit at home and piece it all together! You have to work it out on stage, which ends up giving it a much more conversational feel.
I fly much more by the seat of my pants these days. I can't imagine what I used to do with all my time before [laughs].
Yeah, Mustard used to eat up so much of my spare time, but the kids take all that now.
Well, I'm glad you're getting all the Mustard stuff online, it's a great looking magazine and it'll really stand the test of time.
How was it revisiting Fist of Fun to record the commentary tracks?
I really enjoyed doing the commentary for the first series. But doing the second series was really odd. I had forgotten a lot of it; I was watching things that I didn't remember writing or even filming.
But it did remind me that there were so many things that I wasn't happy about. I didn't like how they changed the music; that was personally very embarrassing to me because I knew the original band a bit, and the producer changed it without their permission.
I hated the redesign of the studio, I didn't like being in it. When I was young and I wanted to be an alternative comedian, I never imagined myself being on a shiny white floor. That's a light entertainment environment.
And I don't think we were given enough time to write it. It was December and suddenly they wanted to film it in March. I suspect that they'd found a little space in the schedule, and there was some money in the budget which they had to spend by April, you know?
So I think the second series is just a bit of a mess. And watching myself in it, I can visibly see that I had shut down and wasn't pulling my weight as a performer, which was horrible. I look like I've had a breakdown. I'm just a dead weight and the others are having to overcompensate for me. I don't really know what was going on.
I think maybe it would have been better if the double act had stopped after one series. I remember, we were on tour after the first series when we got a phone call – on one of those old mobile phones that's about the size of a brick – saying that they weren't going to be recommissioning it. I said 'fair enough', but I remember Rich had a meltdown in a Little Chef on the A1.
Then it was recommissioned but in a compromised way, where these changes were insisted on. I don't know if it was about economics or trying to make it more popular. But I don't think it looked right or made sense for us to be in this glossy environment.
Although, later, This Morning with Richard not Judy cleverly solved that problem by embracing the cheesiness of it, and saying that it's supposed to be like a daytime television programme. But on the second series of Fist of Fun it look like it doesn't know what it's being at all.
Still, there was some good stuff in it and I'm glad it's out there, and people really liked having it. And the first season I still think is great.
One benefit of working with Rich was that he was ambitious and had a work ethic.
Richard told us that there probably isn't going to be a release of This Morning with Richard not Judy.
Well, not at the moment. Saying that it'll never be released would be slightly melodramatic, but at the moment I don't want to put the required money in. I've got a mortgage and kids and it seems like funding a vanity project.
There are various things that have to be done to raise money for it, like old live stuff that was going to be released. But I wasn't very happy with that, and there were other people that had performed in it who hadn't yet been asked whether they were happy about it. The BBC also wouldn't give us download rights, which is a big part of how you make your money back now. As the years go by, physical media sells less.
I wouldn't think it's over but it's not happening right now. Maybe the fact that even we won't buy it will drive the price down! So someone will be able to get it for a lot less now, if they want it.
But it hasn't been destroyed. What's good is that, because there was some interest in it, it's been moved out of the room destined for landfill. And it's all up on the internet, so that's good.
But I was sort of surprised that Rich wanted to spend the money on it, having just lost £30,000 in Edinburgh with Avalon, and about to have a kid. We would probably have made the money back in the end, because we did with the other one, but the production costs would be more because there's so much of it, about twenty hours. It's like I, Claudius or something. But it'll turn up eventually, like a dog returning to its own vomit (laughs).
Why aren't there more double acts?
Because you only get half the money! Which is a very realistic consideration.
Also, in live comedy, you have to talk directly to an audience – we worked out how to do that, but a lot of double acts get sucked into talking to each other.
But most current 'double acts' aren't really double acts, anyway. Armstrong and Miller are actors doing sketches. Punt and Dennis are two guys standing next to each other doing material that either of them could be doing – there isn't a double act relationship.
In fact, I don't think there's anyone now who's a double-act in the way Morecambe and Wise were, or Little and Large, or Mike and Bernie Winters or even Reeves and Mortimer; double acts that have got a proper relationship where there are power struggle issues between them and they play it out in variety terms.
Going back to Ben Elton, why is he, in particular, so reviled for selling out?
I don't have the same anger about Mark Watson doing the Cider ads, or Steve Coogan doing the Fosters online thing. It's specifically about how, when I was 12 or 13, there was a comedy cultural wasteland until the alternative comedy guys came along, with Ben Elton pretty much at the centre of it all.
So the anger at him is about the child in you being betrayed. You thought it meant something to him, but if you look back on those clips now, you can see he's just like Clarkson, he's just working a market.
So it's like having your heart broken for the first time. For my generation of comedians, Ben Elton's your first crush, so he's the person you really hate for selling out. It's unfortunate for him really, but he's become the dumping ground for all that anger because of where he was in time. Of course, once you've had children yourself you're much more sympathetic to the conflicts of interest that might lead you to do particular kinds of work when you're providing for a family. But Ben Elton's betrayal, for our generation, was too early for any of us to have any understanding of why you might write a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber [laughs loudly].
Also in How I Escaped you talk about having to remain an outsider, an underdog, to keep true to alternative comedy...
It's much easier to do jokes about all that stuff out there if you're not part of it. Charlie Brooker is really great. Yet he's now married to Konnie Huq who's right in the thick of all that crap that he's made a career out of mocking – she's a bloody X-Factor host! It must be a bit weird.
He's said he can't do the vitriolic stuff anymore, because now he works in TV and he meets these people and realises they're not, y'know, Satan.
I prefer to not know that; to be able to continue objectifying them in an unfair way [laughs].
I'm doing better now than I ever did
when comedy was 'the new rock 'n' roll'.
I read a thing online – you must never read what people say about you online – where someone said: “It's ridiculous that Stewart Lee maintains this position now that he's selling out these big theatres”. Well, that exaggerates the extent to which I'm doing well. Although I am, belatedly, doing okay now. Much more than in the mid-90s, when I was technically more popular. I've managed to work out how to see more of the ticket price than I ever did when comedy was 'the new rock 'n' roll'.
But I'm still able to maintain the persona of the outsider because I'm rubbish at those panel games. I'm not a personality. I can't do all that stuff. And I would never be on those variety shows because I just don't have that kind of act. So, actually, it's convenient that I've chosen to write material from a sort of anti-establishment perspective, because there are no opportunities for me to do what I do in the normal places that comedians go to advance their careers.
Jimmy Carr, who I like as a person, and John Bishop as well, they're examples of people who work like they think it's all going to end tomorrow. In Edinburgh, John Bishop was doing 6,000-seaters every day, but he's working class guy who, in mid-life, has made it big, so you can't blame him for hammering it.
Whereas I'm this middle-class person with a kind of drilled-in Protestant work ethic. My Mum said I'm a plodder, same as her. So I'm in this for the long haul. It actually suits me better to spread it out; every year coming back with a new show in Edinburgh, tour it around, do a little run in London.
In the 90s, when I was with the comedy rock 'n' roll management, they treated everything like it was a smash-and-grab raid. And what that meant was, you didn't get asked back. You'd done it. You'd driven the car through the window, metaphorically, of the council-funded provincial theatre, having been given a guarantee that was unrecoupable, because not enough people were going to come. This time it's about sustaining it.
I don't want my career to be a smash-and-grab raid.
I'm in this for the long haul.
You've said that appearing on 8 Out of 10 Cats was the worst professional experience of your life. Why?
I realised within 30 seconds of starting that I was absolutely incapable of contributing. I hadn't given it enough thought. I hadn't watched the programme properly. Sean Lock and Jimmy Carr tried to help me, feeding me things, but I just couldn't do it.
We were asked to do a round taking the piss out of Big Brother: “Be as nasty as you like about it” they said. And it struck me how absurd this was because Big Brother was made by Endemol and so was 8 Out of 10 Cats. I thought this was amazing, like something out of a sci-fi comic: a global corporation that not only makes the product, but also makes the product that criticises the product.
So I started talking about this, just off the top of my head, but the audience just seemed bemused. And apparently there were people up in the gallery who were annoyed about it. After I finished, as the silence descended on the room, Jimmy Carr said: “In five years of doing this programme I've never heard a comment less likely to be included in the final edit” [laughs].
Also, it had just been Earth Day and they were all taking the piss, like: “It was supposed to be about the environment but all the celebrities drove there”. I tried to say that you can't criticise it for that, that's just how people get to places, it's about trying to bring attention to climate change. But you can't do that. Programmes like that rely on consensus: everyone has to be pushing in the same direction. Inevitably, that direction applies downward cynical pressure on idealistic, vulnerable or weak people.
I remember, at one point, I started doing something I do in my stand-up, where I do a set-up and then reverse it. I set something up going one way, and then Jason Manford jumped in, anticipating the exact opposite of where I wanted to take it, and attached quite a reactionary comment. And I just thought, this is so opposite to what I normally do. I can't do this.
You don't really do one-liners...
I don't want to write the kind of jokes that can be boiled down to their essence and put in a funny email or on a jokes page in Nuts. I like the stuff to be totally tied up with my delivery and personality. That said, I have tremendous admiration for the gag writers – Gary Delaney, Tim Vine. Jimmy Carr is able to get whole concepts down to three or four words.
As is Mustard tradition, here's a few questions from some other interviewees:
Sam Bain: What are the pros and cons of working with a comedy partner, and do you ever miss working with Richard Herring?
[long, thoughtful pause] The pros of working with Richard were that he was ambitious and had a work ethic; I don't think I would have turned over anything like the amount of stuff we did if I'd been on my own. He was really driven. During the mid-90s I was doing a lot of solo stand-up, but it was the stuff I did with him, especially the radio stuff earlier on, that seeded the ground for an audience 15 years later.
These days, I mostly prefer perform-ing on my own because I like to live or die by my own stuff and don't like the guilt of letting someone else down.
But I do like collaborations where the other person brings something that isn't what I have to offer. I've done a lot with Johnny Vegas where he's used me as a kind of Boswell figure to transcribe and organise his spontaneous ideas. And I really liked working with Richard Thomas [on Jerry Springer the Opera] because he's able to hear in his head eight lines of arranged classical music.
With Rich, even when not writing together, we'd sometimes arrive at the same sort of thing, tonally and content-wise. So there's no point to us being together. There used to be, because his humour required someone to stand next to him making a disapproving face, saying ‘this isn't alright'. But now he uses the audience for that.
We've performed a lot together live, maybe 200 shows altogether, but I've probably done 2,500 as a stand up on my own. As with a lot of double acts, ours was predicated on adolescent bickering, and I don't think that works well for middle-aged men, though I think it would work really well with pensioners. Rich probably thinks I'm taking the piss when I say this, but I'd really like to do it again when we're 70. I think it would be hilarious then.
That's never really happened to me. I mean... I don't tend to move in the same circles. Some of the comedians I've done jokes about, I'd maybe see them. Since I wrote my Russell Howard routine, I've bumped into him. And Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle... I don't think they'd mind because they sort of know it's true. I said about Jimmy Carr: ‘if you write a joke that Jim Davidson can steal, perhaps it's time to think about changing your material' – and I would say that to him.
Although, when I met Jerry Springer, he sat me down and told me I had misrepresented his programme and that what I was doing was the same as being an apologist for the Holocaust. I mean, it can't get worse than that, can it? To be told you're the same as a Holocaust denier?
Yes, it does. That's partly why I wanted to backtrack with Vegetable Stew. I wanted to get the TV audience up to where I was going with the last live show, Milder Comedian. With that, I reached an end point, and then had to find something else.
I was talking to comic book writer Mark Miller and he was saying that he didn't like that there's all these comics written for 40-year-old guys by 40-year-old guys, where you have to have been reading comics for 30-odd years to get them. They're caving in under the weight of continuity.
What I particularly admire about Alan Moore is that he doesn't let his erudition and his enjoyment of subverting the form get in the way of delivering the goods. You don't have to know that Promethea is some kind of arcane magical ritual to enjoy it as a Wonder Woman-type adventure comic.
I think there's something for me to learn from that. There's certainly more gags in Vegetable Stew than the last one.
That's great! I'll try and remember that. Funnily enough, my friend Simon Oaks, who's in a band called Peach, has always said I looked like Reed Richards, because the sides of my head went grey when I was about 20. I've got some other good ones to add: Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un (laughs).
What was it like working on a huge project like Jerry Springer the Opera?
That was an amazing experience, but I would never want to be part of something that big again. By the end of Springer we had a cast of 40, a band of 10 and all sorts of producers and investors we were answerable to. It was like moving an occupying army around.
Plus, we didn't get royalties for about a year. There were thousands of pounds passing through, and it wasn't enough to pay us. And with a kid and another on the way, there's no way I would ever spend 18 months unpaid developing something with the risk of it never paying. Not when I could be writing a one-man show that, even if I only did it five nights a week in a 50-seater room for a month, would make more than I did in the same period with Springer. It was a young man's game, and I was 36 when I came out of it.
Apart from the crisps, why do you do so many free charity gigs?
Well, I get asked. Some of them I volunteer for, but there seem to be about ten of us that are on a loop that get asked. There's me, Robin Ince, Ed Byrne, Josie Long, Jo Brand. Bridget gets asked a lot. I think it's because we fit into a slot where we might be available, we're well-known enough to help pull a crowd, but we're not so well-known that we are a hassle for them.
When there's better-known people, there's always people in their management company there, making demands and asking that they either have to headline because they're so important, or else they can't possibly headline because they're so important.
But I'm not expecting an OBE anytime soon. What's important is that they've given one to the bloke from Take That, who steals all the tax (laughs), for his work for charity.
But you know what else, they tend to be really good fun. Because the acts that do benefits are usually quite nice and I like hanging out with them. I do like 250 gigs a year now, which is as many as I ever did when I was a proper circuit act in clubs, except back then I'd meet four different comics every night, and now I'm mainly on my own.
I'm working on one at the moment for a charity called Funny Brains and so far it's me, Michael Legge, Earl Okin, Jo Brand – that'll be a nice dressing room to hang out in (laughs).
And Robin [Ince]'s ones are fantastic. You get to meet scientists, blokes from Indie bands that you liked in the eighties, Alan Moore does them – it's great.
I was asked to go on Jonathan Ross' chat show a few years ago, and I told him, “Look, I can't do it because I'd find it really awkward in the Green Room, because, no offence, but with the people that you have on, I probably won't like them or like what they do, and I don't want to have to sit there, being filmed being embarrassed”. So I don't really like going to showbiz things or British comedy awards, because I feel awkward around most of the people there.
But the benefit gigs, particularly Robin's ones, are what you always dreamed showbiz would be like (laughs). Loads of really nice interesting people in a room, with some wine and crisps and no egos, it's great.
What happened to the project that you were going to do with Alan Moore?
We pitched a thing to BBC, based on the Churchill Pig sketch in the second series of Comedy Vehicle. How it would have worked was that I would make up a plot, dress some rooms to reflect it, then brought Alan in and got him to improvise with me around spurious historical stories. I think it would have been really great, but they turned it down. But on the other hand at least there's a ninth series of Russell Howard's Good News (laughs manically).
Are you likely to collaborate with Alan again in the future?
Well, I wouldn't presume to say. He's a man who lives in a state of bliss as a result of having removed himself from contact with the entertainment business (laughs). Eliminating notions of ego or ambition from his life. And I'm sure there's all sorts of people that want to work with him, so I would never presume.
But that Churchill thing that we did about the pig in the bunker was so great. The crew really loved him, and he was really brilliant on the day. So we wrote this proposal up together and we just knew that it would have worked really well. But you know, never say no.
He and Mel [his wife and collaborator on Lost Girls] have managed to remain unchanged and unaffected by the esteem they're held in, and the amount of interest there is in them. I think he's micro-managed that in a very clever way, it's a very delicate balance. If I were him, I would not necessarily rush into affecting that.
If I'd known how the emergence of the internet and social media and camera phones and things was going to impact on the experience of being a minor celebrity, I'm not sure that I would have gone about doing what I do in the same way. So he's a very unique character, and they've made their lives work very well I think, the pair of them.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
Like all men that once owned a guitar, I wish I'd made an album. But I will do that eventually. I'm actually working on a folk-rock idea at the moment. It sort of happened by accident, which is nice. I had to do something at a symposium of folk music so I sang a folk song, and somebody said, “That was alright, why don't you talk to these people”.
I've also shed a lot of ambitions. I'd always thought I might like to write a film, or a sitcom, or do theatre again, and I realise now that I absolutely don't. Because I've already done those things, or tried them, and I've realised that it's not worth the hassle. I'm not good at dealing with layers of command, or conceding control, or compromise and cooperation.
Instead, I've realised that I can do everything that I want to do in stand-up, in terms of narrative or performance. You can write a little story one, like Carpet Remnant World, with an interactive set. Or some experimental drama, like Pea Green Boat. And if I want to bring a bit of music in, I can get Nick Pynn to help.
So I have no unfulfilled ambitions, except to carry on doing stand-up for as long as possible, and getting incrementally better, like George Carlin did in the States. I don't know if we have anyone like that here. Maybe Dave Allen. I suppose Billy Connolly, as well. I'd like to have real longevity.
And obviously I also want to make enough money to cover my mortgage and provide for my children. And hopefully have enough left over to be able to cut down the amount of work I do from my mid-sixties, given that I've left it pretty late in life to think about a pension.
So you know, they're really simple ambitions. I'll write a book about the business of comedy and telly if I have time, but there's nothing else I want to do, really. The time spent trying to write a bad novel would be better used trying to write a good stand-up show. I don't want to act, I don't want to be a personality, or appear on chat shows.
I did enjoy sitting in for Stuart Maconie on 6 Music recently. I did a two-hour show and I really liked that. And I enjoyed DJing on Resonance. So if someone wanted me to do a weekly radio show, I wouldn't mind doing that. But it's not like I want to become a radio personality. So that's it really. Although, actually, I'd like to lose about two stone (laughs).
Final question: are you happy?
I am, yeah. More than I've ever been. Which I think comes across in the shows. Certainly, from 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, there's an optimism in the shows. The anger isn't a cynical person sniping away; it's about how hope and trust are difficult things to maintain sometimes.
Part of it, again, is having children. You have to make an investment in the world because, on some level, you hope that it survives. You hope the things you like about it survive.
Stewart Lee interviewed by Alex Musson
in 2010 and 2015
Originally published in Mustard #05a
Print sold out