Interview: Stewart Lee

“I thought we were heading into a bland dystopia but in the last few weeks I’ve thought ‘maybe – maybe something interesting’s going to happen’.” TOBY PARKER-REES talks to STEWART LEE, alternative comedian to most and a ‘shit-haired cunt’ to some.

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READ the extended interview here.

Superlative comedian Stewart Lee makes a lot of people quite annoyed. He annoyed Christian Voice for co-writing Jerry Springer the Opera – they were so annoyed at the image of Jesus in a nappy that they brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. He annoys reviewers: Jimmy Vespa described him as a ‘shit-haired cunt who resides at the very apex of all that is absolute, patience-testing wank’.  He is, essentially, a valuable relic from a bygone age, the gloriously Manichean eighties. Then, as he puts it, “there was a very different split between mainstream comedy and alternative comedy – you could go ‘ooh I like alternative comedy, I wonder what will happen tonight, I don’t know – exciting’ or you could say ‘I like mainstream comedy, I’d like to go out and have all my beliefs confirmed in a format which I easily understand”.

Nowadays, however, that distinction has been blurred,”‘to the point where it no longer exists or appears not to exist, because there are people that are broadly from alternative comedy roots doing massive stadiums to millions of people”. In a time where people can honestly and earnestly hold up artists like Noah & the Whale, or Lee’s current bête beige Frankie Boyle, as zeitgeist-wielding innovators, the terms alternative and mainstream seem somewhat redundant.

Toby Parker-Rees: What would be the best thing to shake comedy out of the homogenised doldrums you find it in?

Stewart Lee: I think the best thing that could happen to it is happening – I think that what’s happened in the last few weeks – the debate about Frankie Boyle, the debate about the Top Gear jokes, shows that people – particularly the younger people who are all on Twitter and things like that are appreciating again that not all comedy’s the same; that it’s differently nuanced, there’s different types and different approaches and it can mean different things and be about different things.

And maybe that means we’ll get a new alternative comedy boom. Maybe it’ll mean people will make a distinction – and the massive success of McIntyres and people like that will mean there’s room for weirder people to survive in a smaller economic bubble. I also think that perhaps the technology exists to enable that with Internet access to things and the way information’s disseminated. I don’t know. I thought we were heading into a bland dystopia but in the last few weeks I’ve thought ‘maybe – maybe something interesting’s going to happen’.

TPR: Tabloid campaigns and pressure from religious groups made it very difficult for you to continue with Jerry Springer the Opera. Do you think the current vogue for scandal is damaging to comedy?

SL: I don’t know. On the one hand, if you subjected Top Gear & Frankie Boyle to some rigorous analysis and they were made to be accountable it might make them focus their not inconsiderable talents. The flipside of this sort of thing, where people (usually on the Right) exaggerate sources to sell newspapers, the flipside of that is it can make you as a performer cautious even if they’re things you believe in.


Stewart Lee on his hatred of Top Gear

TPR: Has it made you more cautious?

SL: Certainly I have no interest in being much better known than I am already. Because at the moment I’m at a level which is sustainable, and were I to be better known I suspect the things that I say and do might be of more interest to tabloid newspapers, to the point where it would make it harder to make a living. There’s a phrase that often gets bandied around; the idea that controversy helps sell shows, but it doesn’t; with Jerry Springer ,for example, controversy just meant that we weren’t able to perform it enough places to get paid [he cackles], so it was entirely counter-productive [he cackles much more].

TPR: You sent a DVD to the Cambridge Occupation, and did a nice video showing support for it. Do the cuts that all these protests are responding to conform to the sort of limited view of the arts that leads to tabloid outrage and so on?

SL: For me, the core thing about how education is being talked about now, and what these protests hopefully reflect, is about values, and the idea that an education is only worth something if what you learn has a financial value; and I think that’s the opposite of what civilisation is supposed to be. I think there’s a core discussion to be had on philosophical terms to be had with the coalition here, and I don’t think it’s a discussion they could win. I think they would always win a discussion about finance, but I think there’s something else going on here, and that’s a sort of philistine agenda that’s against thought.

TPR: Do you think there’s any chance it will result in a revival of alternative culture?

SL: Well, you know, it did in the seventies and the eighties, but in the eighties things were a little bit different. If you wanted to make art you could get a shitty temp job and live in a cheap flat somewhere and still have access to cutprice culture and libraries and things like that. Or you could go on the dole, the enterprise allowance, so there were all sorts of ways round it.

Now, if you want to stop what you’re doing and create culture, even culture which may be financially valuable to society, it’s much more difficult to just do that because basic living costs have gone up so much since the eighties and also there isn’t the infrastructure of subsidised stuff that there used to be – in fact, what there is is being cut away. So I think it’s much more of a commitment now to do that. So on the one hand you’ve got a load of young people who broadly speaking, the more creative ones feel the government isn’t for them, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s as easy as it was thirty years ago to drop out and do stuff, because financially and socially the cards are all stacked against you.

In order not to end on a downer I should happily point out that Stewart Lee’s DVD and book are out and proud, and his Vegetable Stew show will be at the Corn Exchange TONIGHT.