I like to divide opinion... | Interview with Stewart Lee

I like to divide opinion...

Interview with Stewart Lee

Do you see the TV show 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. I want to make the second series even more like a gig. I want the lighting to be more like in a club. I want 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 that on the TV show, you even had notes written on your hand.

Yeah, that wasn’t an affectation. Despite the best-laid plans, 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 this time around, I’ve got five 25-minute sets down and for the sixth one, I’m just waiting for a funny prop to be made.

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 like John Fahey or Derek Bailey, people 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. 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, so I’ve been really lucky.

Your book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, features transcripts of three of your shows, plus extensive footnotes. 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.

So, in the second TV series I plan to consolidate all the stylistic things I’ve been doing on the last tour – not the same material, just the same tricks, so that I’ve done them for the telly audience. And then I’m looking forward to having a clean slate.

Also, I’ve noticed that some of the things I’ve done are 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.

On the last tour, I was doing 1,000-seater rooms, old theatres, 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. It’s something I’d seen Julian Cope do at the Lyric.

Each new tour, I try to do things I feel uncomfortable with. Initially, it was going off stage and talking to people. In the last tour, it was singing a song. Now, in this show [Vegetable Stew], there are two songs that I’ve written. I don’t think I’m particularly good at them and I find it embarrassing to do, but that’s a reason to do it – to keep trying stuff that’s beyond you.

I’m not touring again till 2012. There may be time next year – although we’re having another baby – to 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.

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 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, and I know that’s something I got from Ted Chippington. It’s not so much pedantry as a clown thing, asking what if something were literally true. It’s like 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.

In How I Escaped you say how easy it was to manipulate your audience to boo Ben Elton… 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. I like to divide opinion in the room.

The problem I have, and it’s a luxurious problem 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.

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. 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.

Going back to Ben Elton, why is he 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.

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.

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…

  • A longer version of this article appears in the new edition of Mustard magazine, which also features an interview with Richard Herring and articles by Alan Moore and Matt Berry, as well as comic strips and writing. Click here to order a copy for £2.50+p&p.

Published: 7 Dec 2010

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