Comedian Stewart Lee won’t court fame for a quick buck or a cheap laugh, he tells Lorne Jackson.
Stewart Lee doesn’t do interview. At least not in its most recognisable form.
This is hardly surprising, as he doesn’t do comedy, either. Traditional, obvious, unadventurous comedy, that is.
His live gigs are experimental affairs. During any given performance, the Solihull-raised stand-up rambles on to such an extent that his patter should arrive with a rucksack, flask and slab of Kendal mint cake.
“When people say there’s no jokes in what I do, I don’t accept that as a criticism,” he shrugs. “I just accept it as an observation. There aren’t any. Bad luck, if that’s what you want.”
This doesn’t mean that Lee – who arrives in Warwick tomorrow (Friday), on his latest tour – isn’t amusing or stimulating.
He just refuses to pander to the most basic needs of the comedy crowd.
Instead, he strives to give his audience something original, risky and challenging.
The same principle applies when he’s being interviewed. The usual platitudes and attitudes are dispensed with. He’s honest about fellow comedians, insightful about himself, and seemingly unable to spit out self-promoting sound-bites, preferring to give complex, layered answers to every question.
To understand Lee, you have to look at his career through the prism of alternative comedy in the seventies and early eighties, a period that greatly influenced him.
Back then, finger-wagging fury was higher on the agenda than eyebrow-wagging funnies.
Alternative comedy was a snarling, sneering snigger, aimed squarely at the hackneyed comedy conventions prevalent at the time.
I get the feeling that Lee’s upper lip still offers a warm embrace to any sneer that happens to be sauntering past.
He may be 42 years-old, balding and broadening, a husband and father, yet like any outraged teen, he still has a need to rail against the iniquities of life. And it’s clear that he’s disappointed with the current crop of superstar stand-ups.
“The comedian is the court jester,” he says. “That means you are supposed to make fun of the rich and powerful people. However, the very strange thing about comedians today is that, more than at any other time in living memory, they are the rich and powerful people.”
None more so than Russell Brand, who preens like a rock star, parades with a pop star (Katy Perry) and forged an acting career in Hollywood.
Lee recently watched Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. He did not find it an edifying spectacle.
“I saw it the other day on You Tube,” he cackles.
“It’s incredible! When he’s talking to Paxman, Brand uses strings of incredibly complicated technical words, and there are allusions to history, classical mythology and literature.
“But if you actually remove all those, he’s not saying anything clever. He just has this kind of hollow language. Window dressing, really.
“It’s far better to do the opposite of that. To make an interesting idea accessible by not complicating it with too many words or ideas that get in the way.”
Lee thinks the Brand brand of bumptiousness may have something to do with his previous drug addiction.
“Russell was a heroin addict, right? What they do is very sad.
“By necessity they try to ingratiate themselves with everyone they meet by being the person they think that person wants them to be. Because, sooner or later, they are always thinking, subconsciously, that there will come a time when they will need to borrow money off the other person.
“When you see Russell Brand interviewed, he sort of becomes the person that he imagines the other person would like to be.”
Such comments could easily be misunderstood as the jibes of a jealous man. Lee hasn’t achieved Brand’s level of success, after all. If you measure such things in terms of cash, groupies and tabloid tittle-tattle.
However, it’s clear that the older comedian doesn’t hanker after such shiny baubles. Anyway, he’s currently enjoying the most successful period of his career, in terms of critical plaudits. A biography (of sorts) has just been published. How I Escaped My Certain Fate is a footnote spattered memoir about his comedy career, interspersed with transcripts from various live performances he has given over the years.
It’s entertaining, thoughtful, unusual. Much like the author.
The book reveals how Lee struggled to make it in the world of comedy after graduating from Oxford. This was the late eighties, a time when Oxbridge educated comedians had fallen from grace, making it harder to get a break.
However, he wasn’t frustrated by the situation as he had little time for his fellow Oxbridge japesters.
“About a decade before I went to Oxford University, it seemed like it was a shortcut for getting to do comedy, particularly for the BBC. But one of the good things about the alternative comedy movement in the punk days was that it shook up the status quo.
“People forget that it didn’t just shake up the status quo in terms of asking people to think again about the explicitly racist comedy of the working men’s clubs. It also asked comedy fans to think again about the very middle-class type of satire, which was the alternative to that.
“When I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe as an Oxford student in the eighties, suddenly we weren’t the thing people were interested in. But that was good because sometimes I’d take in those Oxbridge varsity shows. The students would still be doing sketches where people came in and out of offices, and argued with each other in posh voices.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘I can’t believe this is still happening in the eighties.’ I had a scorched earth feeling towards all that. I thought the traditional Oxbridge sketch show would never come back.
“But now Armstrong and Miller, and the blokes from Peep Show, have got shows on television which are exactly like an early-eighties, pre-alternative, sketch show, and they’re really popular.
“The stars of those shows are professional actors and voice-over people. You don’t see them round the Edinburgh Fringe, trying to keep up with new developments. I’m not saying they’re bad, those sort of people. It’s just I wouldn’t have expected them to come back.”
Lee eventually made his mark in the world of TV comedy. In the early nineties he found a comedy partner in Richard Herring, and wrote for Spitting Image, Week Ending and On The Hour, the radio version of The Day Today.
Lee And Herring starred in several radio and TV shows, though they were never the hottest comedians on the box. Eventually they drifted apart, and Lee kept on drifting. At some point he had a crisis of confidence, became jaded, and gave up gigging.
Then a cheesy chat show host came to his rescue... In 2005 Lee collaborated in writing Jerry Springer – The Opera. The satirical musical was a controversial hit, giving the comedian a higher profile than he had previously enjoyed.
He also started gigging again, with renewed enthusiasm. Since then there has been a solo TV show, and a second series is planned.
You would think he would be glad. But this is Lee, a man who only really aspires to be a marginalised outsider. That’s why he is mildly horrified by all this sinister success bearing down on him. It’s not what he wanted and it’s not welcome.
“The level of fame I’ve got at the moment is already inconvenient enough,” he grumbles. “About once a week, if I do a search on Twitter, I can read about what I was saying to my three-year-old son on the bus. What we were eating in a cafe, or if we did a little dance in the park. That’s already irritating, the feeling that I’m being spied on, that what I’m doing with my child is being uploaded onto the internet.
“That’s why I really don’t want to be any better known. In fact, what I anticipate happening – and it’s not something I’m entirely unhappy about – is that my next TV series is going to be broadcast later in the evening than the first one.
“I expect it will have the same audience figures, or worse, than the last one. Meaning it will get cancelled. Then the heat’s off, and the people who casually recognise me because I’m on television will forget who I am. Particularly if I put on any more weight, or lose any more hair.
“The lives of my friends who have done well have not been improved by their fame. They have all been compromised by it.
“So I wouldn’t want to be any better known, because I’m not very good on chat shows, and I’m not good on panel shows, and I don’t have a personality, and I don’t like being written about or photographed...
“If there’s any justice in the world, I’ll be in the gutter by the middle of next year!”
* How I Escaped My Certain Fate – The Life And Death Of A Stand Up Comedian by Stewart Lee is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)
* Lee plays Warwick Arts Centre on Friday. See www.warwickartscentre.co.uk