'It's all worked out very well... I'd been in a real rut'

James Randall interviews Stewart Lee

How's the tour been going?

Its been going really well, I gave up stand up for a few years, then I started again. I've been getting about two or three times as many people as a few years ago.

Why did you record the 90s Comedian DVD with the Go Faster Stripe?

I did a DVD the year before with a company called 2Entertain. It was really good because the money was nice, but the main thing was that I had a record of that year’s show, and then you could draw a line under it for next years one. I wanted to do another DVD, and my management couldn't find anyone to do it for me. In the end I told them to offer it for free if they just filmed it. In 2005 I literally couldn't give my work away.

And then this guy who was a tech support man at this arts centre in Cardiff read an interview saying that. He had seen the show and liked it, and he then set up this company to film it. Basically I didn't get any money for it, but I get a share of any sales. Subsequently he's filmed about ten DVDs with people like Richard Herring and is doing really important work.

I made about £2,500 out of it, but mainly it has drawn a line under the show. So when people come up to and ask you to do a certain bit you can say, “Well there's a video of it…” it's a way of forcing yourself to move on

Congratulations on becoming a dad. As a father do you think you'll be carrying on with such large tours for many more years?

No I don't, I've been very lucky because we had the baby last year and we really needed to get some money in, to get him his own room. A 70-date tour, plus Edinburgh, was the longest I've ever done. It’s just getting ridiculous, it was very hard on my wife.

However two weeks ago BBC Two decided they were going to do a series with me. It was first talked about in 2005, then it went back on the slate in 2007 and about two weeks ago they commissioned it. The great thing about that is that I can work on that for about a year, then when I do tour again the whole se-up will have changed. Perhaps a 30-date tour of bigger places.

In the short term I won’t have to be away for much, which is great because every time you go back after three or four days away the baby’s different. The last year everything has worked out so well, I'd been in a real rut for a long time.

Are you going to this year’s Edinburgh Festival?

I am, I'm going to do a little play, about an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, conducted by Sir Walter Raleigh. I'm also going to do stand up five nights a week at The Stand. It’s not a proper show, but it will be used to generate new material for the TV show. It’ll be a bit of a shambles.

What do you think of the big four comedy venues separating and forming the Edinburgh comedy festival?

I think it’s incredibly insensitive and rude. The Edinburgh comedy festival has essentially announced that it’s separating from the main event, but not a single person involved in it has issued a statement to artistic policy. It’s all about branding and money. And also I think it could have a real damaging effect, if they keep talking about it in the same light as Glastonbury.

Why do you think Glastonbury haven't sold out this year?

It’s because if you went to Glastonbury 20 years ago, half the bands gave their money back and that went to charity, so there was a real feeling of mucking in. As a comic you got paid about £100, but you didn't mind because you were part of a bigger thing. As artists you have to sleep in a ditch with all the mud, but Neil Diamond’s not giving his fee back and Kate Moss is flying in in a helicopter.

Then you think, “hold on a minute, someone's doing really well out of this, why should have to endure shit conditions?” Likewise it's the same with the Edinburgh Fringe, at the moment if you're watching a really good comic, in a cold venue with water dripping on your head you don't mind because everything is done on a wing and a prayer. If I'm in at a comedy festival that has a £500,000 sponsorship I'm going to be pissed off if I'm on sitting with water dripping on my head. I want to feel like I'm part of something, mucking in for a big free for all.

The money won’t feed through to the acts, but as usual it will all go on branding and bars. So I think they are in danger of really fucking it up in Edinburgh. Part of the fringe is that you don't mind if it’s rough and ready as long as no one takes any money out of it. If the Edinburgh fringe comedy festival has big sponsorship people are going to feel ripped off.

Do you think TV execs have been slightly wary of you since the backlash over Jerry Springer The Opera?

I really don't know. I think the thing about telly people is that I get all these big reviews and they think, “Here's a good one, we will get this one on telly”. Then they come and see me and think, “I can’t have this on telly”. It’s not so much about content but style. I'm 40, I talk really slowly about involved things, you can’t put me on BBC Three for 16 to 24 year olds. So it’s not fear so much. It’s difficult for telly people – none of them have got any idea but there in charge .

Any aspirations to become a telly exec?

Not really no, I know Richard Herring applied for a job at head of comedy at BBC Two, but I think they thought it was a joke. But I think it would be really great, he can write and he does gigs, and he knows who everyone is. How about that then?

Once I get the other side of this TV series I will see if it gets enough viewers to be re-commissioned, if they don't, I won’t worry, I will have a bit of money to get a room for the baby to sleep then I can go back to doing all the really interesting fun things, hopefully go back to the world of making art with renewed gusto.

Did you find more people recognised you after your guest appearance on Have I Got News For You?

Yeah, and it wasn't much fun. You get about £600 quid for going on, and really I don't really like doing things like that, because I'm not very good at them. But I was getting married and we needed the money for it. A week afterwards, we were on our honeymoon in Aberdeen. Six million people watch it, so every other person in the street was shouting, 'hey funnyman'. It’s fucking terrible. If you are properly famous you're probably not wondering around Aberdeen at night. You think at 25 it would be really cool to be recognised, but being 40 and being recognised everywhere is quite upsetting and intimidating.

Richard Thomas is apparently writing another opera, this time based on Anna Nicole Smith, are you going to be involved?

No I'm not, but I would love to do something with him again. It became very difficult, all the opera, stuff, because of this campaign against us from the Christian right, we couldn't get paid anything. I really love his work and I really love him, his one of my best friends, and I will do something with him eventually.

He's good fun to work with, some people are precious about things, and some you have to be careful with their egos, but Richard works really hard, if he doesn't agree with you, you just have a forthright argument about it. I've worked with some people who have been a real education.

How farcical was the 100 best stand-ups programme? You were beaten by Jim Davidson

I was sitting with all the Jongleurs comics in Bristol the other night, and we were having a laugh. A lot of them were off the mainstream circuit, a lot of them do cruises. All the Jongleurs comics do the same sort of stuff, but they're making £50,000 to £100,000 a year, and yet you've never heard of them! There were people playing last night that I’d never heard of who have got three houses! The comics that win awards and get five-star reviews are on teacher’s money.

All those sort of shows are farcical, I was asked to do a show about the comedians’ favourite comedians. I said yes, I’d like to talk about Simon Munnery and Chic Murray. But they said we haven't got them on the list, can you choose one of these three…

With regards to the 100 best comedians of all time, there is no way that me and Daniel Kitson would have got on that list because of a public vote, because were simply not well known enough, but I think they tried to give it a degree of credibility by shoehorning in a few people that are critically seen as good into it.

Any plans for another novel?

I did the first 30,000 words of the last one, then my management started to tout it around to people. So we got all this money and we got a deadline, but you can’t rush a novel, it sort of went wrong. The one I'm doing now I've done about 10,000 words, but I'm not going to take it anywhere until it’s done. But also I'm tempted to see if I can get it published without anyone knowing that I'm a comedian. I think proper writers are slightly irritated by the celebrity culture of publishing, there's a section in Waterstones called celebrity hardbacks!

There are no Americans on the bill of your ten best stand-ups that you are currently hosting at the Bloomsbury, why is that?

If we could have got Chris Rock I'd have had him, but he's doing the O2. Apart from him, there would not be a living American I would put on at the expense of any of the people on the list.

What were trying to do is present people who are not known, or have been forgotten about, like Simon Munnery. Or Harry Hill, who people don't realise what good stand ups he is. I suppose there was sort of an agenda behind it: these people are all really brilliant and you may not know.

  • Stewart Lee's Ten Best Stand-Ups Of All Time is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre every Friday until May 23.

Published: 2 May 2008

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