The elite have 'stitched up' comedy
British comedy has undergone an elitist 'stitch-up', with poorer performers being ‘priced out’ of success, Stewart Lee has claimed.
The respected comic also railed against the BBC for allowing its forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe coverage to be dominated by one of the industry’s most powerful agents... and vowed to try to use Comedy Central’s Alternative Comedy Experience to try to dent the status quo.
Speaking before the second series begins filming tonight, Lee said he hopes some future episodes might exclusively feature acts from the Free Fringe.
The 45-year-old, who curates and is executive producer of the show, said: 'There's a crisis of social mobility in this country and way down the list of important things is the crisis of social mobility of stand-up comedians.
'But it is a sort of microcosm of what's going on, in as much as if you've not got money, you're being priced out now.'
Lee revealed that he has asked producer Colin Dench: ‘Is there any way of getting Comedy Central to do an Alternative Comedy Experience next year with three, four, maybe even six episodes from the Free Fringe? And only use acts from the Free Fringe?'
Many of the acts in the second series, which is being taped at The Stand in Edinburgh, have performed or will be performing free shows on the Fringe, even if those weren’t their main festival run.
They include Robin Ince, Josie Long, Simon Munnery, Paul Foot, John Hegley, Michael Legge, Nish Kumar, Helen Arney, Liam Mullone, Lou Sanders, Trevor Lock, Grainne Maguire, Helen Keen and Fern Brady. While returning act Henning Wehn pointedly mocked the Free Fringe model in a 2011 routine.
'Obviously we're not trying to co-opt the Fringe's reputation and we'll have to talk to the venues about it,' Lee stresses. 'But it would be great.'
Earlier this year, he spoke out against the 'tiny coterie' of comedy agencies such as Off The Kerb and his former management, Avalon, for making television shows that 'disproportionately' featured their own clients.
And today he reiterates: ‘Comedy on television is completely stitched up by two or three agencies and production companies In Cahoots with the Big Four [venues] at the Fringe, spending money on their own talent and getting their own talent into debt', justifiable by those acts 'being seen in the Big Four by TV people and journalists'.
'If you could actually have a television show where a criteria of entry was that you had to be in the Free Fringe, that would really start to rock the boat.'
He singles out the BBC, for whom he is currently writing the third series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, and Open Mike Productions, affiliated with Off The Kerb, for particular criticism.
His proposal, he suggests, 'would throw down a challenge to the BBC to make its Edinburgh coverage more in-depth than announcing three months in advance that Open Mike Productions are going to have a night from Edinburgh in which the bill is already largely confirmed.'
Edinburgh Comedy Fest Live will be broadcast on BBC Three and hosted by Off The Kerb clients Kevin Bridges – who is not otherwise performing at the festival – and Adam Hills, who has a limited nine-show run.
However, it also features comedians from other stables: Andrew Lawrence, Stephen K Amos, Jason Byrne, Romesh Ranganathan, Hal Cruttenden, Tom Stade, Des Clarke, Gary Delaney, Joe Wilkinson, Russell Kane, Roisin Conaty and Lee Nelson.
'They're such a brilliant production company that they've been able to look into the future using their clairvoyant skills and anticipate what the highlights of the Fringe will be,' Lee mutters sarcastically.
'Which is absolutely superb, because it makes the whole point of journalists, the public and even acts going there, largely irrelevant. You could ask Open Mike, “Am I going to be one of the highlights of the Fringe?” and they can tell you, “No, we decided in June” and don't bother going, save yourself ten grand.'
He adds that 'one of the things about [comedy] 30 years ago was that it was relatively egalitarian. I think it's weird that Comedy Central, a commercial broadcaster could help to reverse that trend, because it doesn't seem like something the BBC are interested in doing.'
He confesses to creative tension with the BBC over Comedy Vehicle, citing the corporation's concern at his plan to give an entire episode over to the show's ‘programme associate’ Baconface.
Comedy Central are shooting a set from the Canadian comic from the 80s at midnight on Friday night at the Stand. And the enigmatic figure in a Mexican wrestler's mask draped in bacon may yet appear as part of the Alternative Comedy Experience.
'At the moment, Baconface is in negotiation with the BBC,' Lee states. 'I want him to do one of the episodes but there's anxiety about whether you can have half an hour of a man whose face you can't really see, with bacon over it, talking.
‘Hopefully they'll be some stuff we can put in Alternative Comedy Experience and some stuff for the BBC but I don't know what he's doing. Baconface seems to have annoyed Richard Webb, producer of the BBC show, who doesn't want him to do it.'
The first series of The Alternative Comedy Experience tripled the audience for its slot, easing the commercial channel's concerns 'about people's accents or what they looked like' and so giving Lee greater authority in the selection of the comics featured for the second series.
'They were very supportive but nervous because it wasn't like anything they'd ever done, a lot of weird acts,’ he said.
‘Now they've really got behind it. We didn't have anyone we didn't want last time but this year we haven't had to make a case for any of them, they've give us more of a free hand and I'm absolutely delighted by some of the people on it.'
Other acts appearing over the second series are David O'Doherty, Isy Suttie, Paul Sinha, Tony Law, Susan Calman, Kevin Eldon, Andrew Lawrence, Andy Zaltzman, Stephen Carlin, Bridget Christie, Kevin McAleer, Alfie Brown, Ginger and Black, Maeve Higgins and David Kay.
Reprising the show's format, where Lee speaks to the acts backstage, he explains 'I didn't want it to be like Des O'Connor, where he gets his researchers to ask the comedians before what their jokes are and he sets them up with feedlines. I genuinely wanted to ask why they'd done certain things. And it was really good fun.
‘People have said to me, “I thought you were a horrible wanker. But when I saw you talking to them, having a really good time, then I thought you were probably all right.”
'Sometimes, when you see an interviewer like Jonathan Ross, there's a status thing going on where he's either a sycophant or trying to let the celebrity know that he's the king of brokering fame deals. But I think all those acts said something interesting about their work.
‘The one person in the last series I don't think I got the measure of was Boothby Graffoe. He's old school, like a Red Coat. And he was “on”, even in the interview. I know him quite well but I never really found out much about how he writes or what makes him want to do comedy. He's a consummate performer.'
Graffoe is now followed by McAleer, Hegley, Hayridge and Eldon, older acts confounding 'Comedy Central's worries about demographics' he points out delightedly.
'I wanted it to be a spread from people in their twenties to others in their sixties and seventies, and I got much closer to that this time. That kind of thing doesn't matter anymore, because young people are used to jumping around on YouTube and iTunes, they don't necessarily only want to see stuff by people who look their age.'
Lee dismisses criticism that the previous series' edit wasn't giving the performers 'room to breathe', pointing out that there was 'a longer continuous run of one person's act than you would get on Live at The Apollo'. But he added: ‘The edit will be more sympathetic to the material this time because we've all had a chance to see the first series.'
He foresees the show continuing for several years – 'there's loads of people in their forties, fifties and sixties that we haven't used' – even if, ultimately, it's sowing the seeds of its own demise.
'The fact that this outlet exists and people can see it might encourage them to think there's more point in doing a more interesting act,' he reasons.
'It could be, that in the same way Live At The Apollo and Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow have created a generation of more mainstreamy acts, maybe this will show that there's interest in slightly different things.
'Then you'll have to cancel it when everyone likes it!' he cackles.
Lee suggests that he will take a sabbatical from stand-up in the next three years. If the BBC confirm that they want the fourth series of Comedy Vehicle by spring next year, 'I'll do that in 2015, tour a big show in 2016 and then I think I'll stop for a bit.'
He has two young children with Christie, his wife, 'and for the first few years after they were born, it made sense for me to do lots of work and for Bridget to look after them because I was doing better. But things are really picking up for her at the moment and we're on a kind of rota, so I'm hoping she can do more and I can do less. We'll see.'
-By Jay Richardson
Published: 8 Jul 2013