'I want to lead a dialogue, not a rally' | Stewart Lee on the vagaries of touring, TV and popularity contests

'I want to lead a dialogue, not a rally'

Stewart Lee on the vagaries of touring, TV and popularity contests

As every comedy fan probably knows by now, Stewart Lee is officially the 41st best stand-up in the world – since he used his ranking in a Channel 4 poll for the title of his current live show, simultaneously displaying both boastfulness and irony about the result.

‘I was really pleased and surprised with my place on that list, not being hugely well-known,’ he says. ‘And then I thought, “Obviously, it’s stupid, as all these lists are” and how everyone’s got their own reasons for why really brilliant people are missed out. But then I thought, “Maybe I can use it for marketing” and also for doing a funny show about the stupidity of how you value yourself.’

He could yet rise up the chart, as his newly-rediscovered place in the spotlight has helped him secure another shot at a TV series. But, while he’s due to film a pilot next month, he has mixed feelings about the potential for success.

‘Hopefully, it’ll be a stand-up show with some sketches in it. I want to do something like the old Dave Allen shows. really.

‘Part of my new tour is about how I’m supposed to be doing a pilot for BBC Two and how it then got cancelled due to internal politics.

‘But, after I’d written the new show and was performing it, they decided due to internal politics to put it back on the slate again. It’s really funny because, if it gets made, it’ll make it look like I was lying in the new show.

‘But I made sure I got a contract this time, and we’re filming at the end of November – just a one-off pilot. If they like that, there’ll be a series.

‘It’s kind of weird – I’d love to get the series because I’d love to see if you could make proper stand-up work on telly, and also because I’ve just had a baby and it’d be really nice to get paid and then we could get an bigger flat with an extra room for him to sleep in.

‘I remember when we did Fist Of Fun in ’95, we used to get two million viewers, but you used to get paid not much. I got, like, £20,000 for writing and performing six episodes, which is pretty good, but it’s not enough to compensate for being recognised by two million people.’

Fist Of Fun was Lee’s breakthrough show, starting on Radio 1 before transferring to BBC Two. After two series of cult success, the duo went on to make This Morning With Richard Not Judy, which went out in an unusual Sunday-morning slot in 1998.

‘It’s impossible to imagine how that was ever allowed to be made,’ Lee says. ‘If you look back on it, it would just be stopped immediately now, because of the content and the style. The content probably wouldn’t be allowed at night, let alone in the daytime – not because of language or anything, but because of the ideas – and the style of it was not cynical, really. It was quite upfront. It didn’t happen in inverted commas and it wasn’t all fast editing. It was from another age, I think.’

The end of that show, in June 1999, also marked the end of the Lee and Herring partnership – ‘and there aren’t any plans to get together again,’ Lee says.

‘People say, “Why don’t you do that again?” as if it were up to us, but someone would have to commission it and pay for it to be made. It’s not like you’re going, “I don’t want to do anything” – it’s just not possible really.’

That wouldn’t prevent a live tour, though.

‘We could do a live show, but you’d have to write it, work it out and try to do it places and, at the moment, when we go out separately, we can just about attract enough people to make it worth doing a tour, but with the double act we always lost money. We can’t afford to do it.’

Despite its financial limitations, live stand-up remains Lee’s passion.

‘With a tour, you need about 5,000 people nationally to make a living and it doesn’t impinge on your private life too much. But, at the moment, the live stuff’s just bizarre. Some towns I do 800-seaters, but on Friday I did 40 people in a 100-seater room. It’s better to play the small rooms, but if you only did that you couldn’t make the books balance.

‘I think there’s an optimum cut-off point for stand-up, which is about 200 people, but it’s hard to make that cost-effective night after night if you’re on a tour.

‘Large groups of people start to become like mobs, and a lot of good stand-up is about confusing ideas and things that aren’t certain, and things like irony go missing in mobs. In a smaller group of people, you feel like you’re leading a dialogue rather than leading a rally.’

Before asking what he makes of the state of stand-up right now, I mention that he’s sometimes been critical of other comedians in the past.

‘Have I? When?’

Well, there was a fairly sizeable attack on Joe Pasquale in his show 90s Comedian.

‘Well, that’s hardly… I mean, all his stuff’s stolen. It’s not a controversial opinion. All comedians know that. I don’t think he even really counts as a comedian, does he? It’s not even really a little dig about Joe Pasquale – it’s a 15-minute explanation.’

Pasquale aside, he’s very positive about the current health of the stand-up scene.

‘It’s really good. Live-wise, there’s a lot of really brilliant people and a lot of interesting things happening. It’s kind of split into all the kind of straighter acts doing Jongleurs and The Comedy Store and the interesting people doing all the independent little clubs and theatres and Edinburgh shows.

‘I think the best comic working today in the world is Daniel Kitson, and there’s some really good new people like Stephen Carlin, who I’m touring with at the moment, so it’s great. I think it’s in a better state than it’s been for years really.’

The future for Lee is in equally robust shape. He’s writing a second novel, while the play he wrote about Samuel Johnson for this year’s Fringe, Boswell And Johnson: Late And Live will tour Scotland next year. He’s also developing a five-minute show for Not The Nine O’Clock News producer John Lloyd’s website, Comedybox. But, his immediate future depends on the success of his TV pilot and, for now, he’s happy to wait and see.

‘If the stand-up pilot gets commissioned for telly, that would solve all my financial worries in the short-term and allow me to do more interesting things but, if it doesn’t, I’ll need to get another stand-up show going immediately. In a way, it’s out of my hands, it’s in the lap of some blokes in suits.’

Interview by: Robin Hackett

Click here for Lee's tour dates.

Published: 17 Oct 2007

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