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Stewart Lee: What I really think about Michael McIntyre

...and the Daily Mail, too

On Sunday, at 2.26 in the afternoon, a man claiming to be the transport correspondent of the Daily Telegraph rang me up asking me why I had described Michael McIntyre as ‘spoon-feeding his audience warm diarrhoea’. I hung up, assuming it was some weird prank call, like the people who ring me at 3am asking when I am going to play Leamington Spa, and wake up the baby. I mean, why would the transport editor of the Telegraph be asking me about a line from a routine I did in 2009?

The next day in an article in the Telegraph, the transport editor David Millward, whose last three pieces have been about a flying car, mileage clocks, and bio-fuels, tried his driving-gloved hand at writing about stand-up. He explained how Michael McIntyre was unhappy about comedians making fun of him. I had declined to comment, apparently. It seems the transport editor of the Daily Telegraph really does have my mobile number after all. He probably has my PIN number too then and will delete important messages in the event of my murder. In the current climate, I now have to change my phone number. Bollocks.

What had happened, it transpires, was this. TV’s Michael McIntyre had been on Sunday morning’s Desert Island Discs, where the presenter Kirsty Young had confronted him, as evidence that he was hated by comedians, with a quote from my act, in which I said he spoon feeds his audience warm diarrhoea. The line comes 2,673 words in to a 27,190 word, 105 minute show, 2009’s If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One, which takes McIntyre, and the Frankie Boyle/Jeremy Clarkson offence model, as polarised extremes of comedy, between which I try to find a third way.

The show opens with me attempting to give audiences what the struggling stand-up Stewart Lee imagines they want, namely a McIntyre-style routine about high street coffee shops. I cast the audience in the role of baffled onlookers as I try to complete this normal routine, while being continually distracted, over a 20-minute period, by invective and Nineties style pirate whimsy.

When the audience fail to respond to me reading out a letter from an angry pirate, I say to them, in desperation: ‘You have my sympathy, you know? It’s 2010. It’s a weird time for stand-up. ’Cause you, you sit at home, don’t you, all of you, watching Michael McIntyre on the television, spoon-feeding you his warm diarrhoea. I’m not going to be doing that. I haven’t noticed anything about your lives. They’re not of interest to me. This is a letter from a pirate. It’s not about going to the shops or anything.’

I wasn’t being interviewed. I was in character. Context, Kirsty Young, you are better than this. As Morrissey said to you on air: ‘Your pretty face is going to hell.’

Later on in the same stand-up show, raging off mic from a theatre box as part of a 15-minute offstage freakout about how all my DVDs are downloaded illegally by hipsters, I call the millions who queue up to buy McIntyre’s ‘captured partisans digging their own graves’.

The case is overstated, for comic effect. I’m not going to pretend I like McIntyre’s work in of itself, and would hate this piece to be misconstrued as an apology, though I do find much to admire in him as a comedian, and the phenomenon of the stadium-sized observational stand-up is, to me, both a fascinating and an amusing oddity. But the way the diarrhoea line was presented to him, shorn of set and setting, does make it read rather differently.

Doubtless someone with a search engine will turn up something horrible, but when I am asked about McIntyre in interviews, as all us comedians are now, I have learned to complement him on having converted a nation to the idea of stand-up as a viable entertainment option, and usually find a way to leaven any negative comments with positive ones, (though these are often edited out), even to the extent of expressing the genuine desire to be allowed to tour all his most famous routines myself, word for word, to see if their very familiarity would lend them to a tonal reinterpretation.

(Could the endless noticing of everyday quirks be delivered in such a way as to suggest they were the work of a vengeful and malevolent God, for example?) The on-stage Stewart Lee however, a more bitter man 20 minutes into a failed routine about coffee shops, thinks McIntyre is a purveyor of warm diarrhoea. As well he might.

McIntyre went on, on Desert Island Discs, to say how his attendance at the 2009 British Comedy Awards was ruined by comedians making fun of him, and how sad it was because his wife had bought a new dress, and he had won after all, beating me and Frankie Boyle for some spuriously defined gong. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there. I went once in 1992 and I’ve only been invited once since, when I was working anyway. It’s not my bag. I saw it on TV once and there was a big, frightened, unhappy snake writhing around on stage, and loads of drunk TV twats were laughing at it as it flailed miserably towards their coke-flecked tables.

Nevertheless, Monday’s Metro carried the following headline; ‘Michael McIntyre has told of his upset after fellow comedian Stewart Lee insulted him at the British Comedy Awards.’

I wasn’t at the British Comedy Awards, as I say, but by now the story seems to suggest that, in the moment of McIntyre’s triumph, I jumped up, banged the table with my fists, shouted something about diarrhoea, and tore his wife’s dress.

I wasn’t there, and yet I’m continually quoted as the focal point of the rudeness that upset him. Is there no-one who was actually there who could be named instead? Jonathan Ross mocked him from the Comedy Awards podium and Lee Mack had recently called McIntyre a ‘skipping cunt’ on stage in Canterbury. Why don’t they mention them instead?

For the record, I have met Michael McIntyre four times. In the Spring of 2005 he was hosting a show at the Tattershall Castle where I went to near silence, as I often did at circuit gigs, and he seemed keen and confident. A few weeks later I saw him in the street in Kilkenny, where he said he’d been ‘telling everyone how marvellous’ I was, like he was the Mayor or something. That summer, in Edinburgh, I stood near him and Jimmy Carr in a courtyard, but I don’t think we spoke. And at the BAFTAs last year, where you get a better class of TV cokehead, I shook his hand and wished him luck, even though his flamboyant manager, Addison Cresswell, had just whispered under his breath to me the half-serious threat: ‘Stop making fun of my boy or you might find your career peaks too soon.’

These days I mainly meet other comics at the 60 or so unpaid charity benefit shows I do every year, and I never see McIntyre at any of these, so I don’t know him. I don’t know anyone who knows him. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t want to. I want to keep him in my imagination as a phenomenon. David Baddiel has warned me, in an unsolicited e-mail, that I am now too well known to do jokes about people because I will meet them and find they are all right, really. He has underestimated the full extent of my anti-social nature.

Anyway, today The Daily Mail has got hold of the story, so all sense and reason is out of the window now. Their chief rage monger, Jan Moir, censured in 2009 for her comments about the death of Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, wrote a column with the headline, ‘Heard the one about the right on comics who HATE the funniest man in Britain.’

There is very little point in trying to reason with The Daily Mail, and attempting to do appears to have driven Robin Ince mad. But once they have written a load of shit about you, it buzzes away in annoyance ruining your day, and you have to purge it somehow, and so thanks to Chortle for this opportunity to squeeze this one out.

Moir’s column about ‘foul-mouthed left-wing’ comics who hate Michael McIntyre is only to able to suggest two examples of this ‘cabal’, me and, bizarrely, Frankie Boyle, the paper’s default bęte noir. Here we go, point by point, chop chop chop, Timber.

Firstly, I am not ‘foul mouthed’. I swear once in the 180 minutes of the first series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, not at all in the 105 minutes of my last live show If You Prefer A Milder Comedian…, and only once in the 90 minutes of the previous live show, 41 Best Stand-Up Ever, when I describe Moir’s fellow Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn as a ‘cunt’, for saying the East Anglian sex worker murders were of no consequence. Michael McIntyre actually swears more than me.

Apparently I represent ‘a slime pit of unpleasantness’ and once again, a Mail newspaper de-contextualises one line from my 45 minute 2009 routine about Richard Hammond to prove this. The same routine also references the anti-PC brigade’s attempts to ‘upset the grieving relatives of Stephen Gately’, an explicit nod towards Moir herself, who either chose to ignore this, didn’t understand it, or hasn’t watched the piece. (You decide).

Ironically, because people like Jan Moir mean it’s impossible now to employ any degree of comic ambiguity for fear of them choosing to misrepresent it, the DVD of the bit actually ends with the line, to camera, “I don’t really think Richard Hammond should die. What I was doing there, as everyone here in this room now understands, just in case there’s anyone from the Mail on Sunday watching this, is I was using an exaggerated form of the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear to satirise the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear. And it is a shame to have to break character and explain that. But hopefully it will save you a long, tedious exchange of emails.’

Again, Jan Moir either chooses to ignore what is, essentially, a direct address to her, or else she hasn’t watched the bit.

Mail and Mail on Sunday writers who hadn’t seen the Hammond bit continually misrepresented it in search of scandal, as they did with Jerry Springer The Opera, which I contributed to, but when their own critic finally went to see the show he concluded; ‘In context, nothing Lee says [about Richard Hammond] is offensive.’ How about some joined-up thinking?

Moir continues: ‘Lee claims he was making a point about bullying, but the viciousness is breathtaking. Which brings us to Frankie Boyle, the malcontent Scottish comedian who thinks it is funny to make jokes about child rape, Madeleine McCann and, famously, Katie Price’s blind, autistic son, Harvey.’

No. What I do does not ‘bring us to Frankie Boyle’, because I don’t do anything about child rape, Madeleine McCann or Harvey Price or anything like any of that; and it doesn’t bring us to Frankie Boyle because he has neither been quoted as commenting on Michael McIntyre or ever been described as left-wing and PC and liberal, which surely makes him utterly irrelevant to both the title and the supposed content of Jan’s silly article.

At least this time The Mail have misrepresented me, my mother isn’t here to be embarrassed by her Daily Mail reading friends, pitying her for having a son who would do and say all these things, that I didn’t really do or say.

There is no story here, no facts, no names, nothing. Perhaps Jan Moir knows this, and this is why she has appended this Boyle irrelevance to the end of it, and conjured a cabal of McIntyre-hating foul-mouthed left-wing comedians, without actually being able to name a single example of anyone who fits this bill.

And, prior to Frankie Boyle’s joke about Jordan’s son, the last time the public spontaneously moved against someone on the grounds of taste and decency, it was against Jan Moir herself. To paraphrase her own comments on Boyle: ‘You might think there would not be a rock in the country big enough for (Jan Moir) to crawl under and disappear for ever.’ Moir’s piece is diarrhoea. And it’s not even warm.

The problem with doing jokes about McIntyre is that it’s become a cliché. Everyone’s doing them, and by the time I got to record my Michael McIntyre song for TV in January I was already aware it was dead in the water, though thankfully it was cut short by people walking out bored. To quote Simon Munnery, a greater comedian than anyone mentioned on this page, and one who has never won a British Comedy Award,: ‘When the crowd get behind you you’re probably facing the wrong way.’

But it is necessary for people to be reminded that there is more than one way of doing stand-up, as McIntyre’s observational shtick becomes a gold standard, and young comics think their only chance of success is to get a slot on his roadshow.

I’ve made the point, in a piece for the Independent, that McIntyre’s ubiquity means ‘alternative’ comics do, for the first time since the ’70s, have a clearly visible mainstream to define themselves in opposition to, and this has benefitted me, for example, enormously I think.

But, despite the suggestion that he has been victimised by Frankie Boyle’s imaginary liberal cabal, McIntyre is a very powerful figure. Indeed, I once, mistakenly in retrospect, pretended to be Michael McIntyre and, for a joke, rang up a famous comedian who had made fun of him. The panicked 15- minute apology he gave me before I’d even had a chance to reveal myself spoke volumes about the influence he is perceived as wielding.

The downside of all this nonsense, apart from having to change my phone number and waste a whole morning during Edinburgh preview season writing this righteous blow off, is that I would still really love to do a tour re-interpreting Michael’s routines, but I expect all this makes that dream even less likely to be fulfilled.

On the positive side, my wife worked for The Daily Mail as a researcher in the early Noughties and, as a punishment for this, whenever it runs a stupid made-up story about something I’ve worked on, I make her have sex with me.

So far The Mail has made up stuff about Jerry Springer The Opera and the 41st Best Stand-Up set, and so now we have two beautiful children. A third will soon be on the way. And I will name him Michael. Michael McIntyre Diarrhoea Lee.

Posted: 19 Jul 2011

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