The achetypal smug leftie comedian? Moi? Stewart Lee comes clean
Stewart Lee, the “conscience of stand-up”, on his new BBC show, his “attack” on Michael McIntyre and why playing the 02 is a bit like the Nuremberg Rally
The good folk who run the Sathya Sai Sanctuary for old, injured, neglected and abused animals in Co Sligo will be very pleased about Stewart Lee’s brisk Irish tour next week. Following a routine he did about people illegally downloading his DVDs he managed to guilt-trip the offenders enough for his booking agent to receive an anonymous letter with a £10 pound note enclosed to compensate for illegally accessing his work.
But now all miscreants are being asked to send the required £10 punishment fee (which is cheap at the price) directly to the Sathya Sai animal sanctuary in Sligo (donkeys.ie). If he does the routine again next week in Ireland, the sanctuary will be able to do even more vital work for these distressed animals.
Handily enough, he’s already written his own review of the Irish tour. “Disjointed” is the key word, so save yourself the trouble of telling him that afterwards. The point is the new show is supposed to be disjointed, it was written that way. He’s using these live dates to try out and play around with new material for a new BBC show in the New Year.
“These Irish shows won’t be the typical show which have a beginning, middle and an end” he explains. “I’m specifically looking for six half hours of stand-up I can use for the TV show so I’m running in ideas on this tour. There will be no long-form material as there has been in the past, just a lot of disjointed 30-minute bits.”
He has a thing about televised comedy. “I think after the Jonathan Ross Sachs-gate episode, there’s such a lack of diversity now. It’s just two or three companies providing their own idea of ‘alternative’ comedy and it’s all very safe. You get three blokes basically saying the same thing on a panel show and the token woman who has to be a certain type of female comedian – whether that is a harridan or a frump. These people even look like professional comedians – and they treat it like it’s some form of career business plan.”
Although he never sent in an application letter for the post, Lee has been co-opted as the “conscience” of stand-up comedy. Whether railing about the Michael McIntyre type identikit comics or accusing many of today’s big names of having a team of scriptwriters to come up with their material, he is very much the man outside the tent pissing in.
“You do pay a price for this” he says. “There was a newspaper article saying I had reduced Michael McIntyre’s wife to tears at an awards ceremony or something. I wasn’t even at the ceremony but because of one line I used about McIntyre I’m now accused of hating him. Now, I’m not going to pretend I like his work but anyone who has ever seen me on stage will know that I do overstate things for comedy effect. But for the Daily Mail I am ‘a slime pit of unpleasantness’. They came to this conclusion after I said, on stage, that Richard Hammond should die. But I said this only to satirise the rhetoric and the values of Top Gear. When you hear it in context, you understand this”.
The more he speaks out about the safe, homogenisation of today’s stand-up comedy world, the more he gets labelled “an archetypal smug leftie”. “I hate that phrase being used about me, it implies that the people who come to the shows are all vegetarian and knitting during the performance,” he says.
Handy tip: if you are going to heckle during next week’s dates, at least have the sense to ask him to tell the story about the nun, the pig and the astronaut and why Hollywood wanted to make a film version of the above story. It’s lovely stuff.
It’s some indication of how much the goalposts have moved in stand-up terms over the past few years that Lee – once just another acclaimed comic on the circuit – is now seen as some form of embittered, curmudgeonly Eeyore figure.
“I think this is because I am just a stand-up. I’m not using this – as so many do – to then become a TV presenter or a comedy actor,” he says.
“Granted, I am principled to the extent that I would never do an 02-type venue. But I have sound aesthetic and economic reasons for this decision. Economically, it doesn’t make sense. I think a lot of comics who do an 02 do it as a display of strength - “Look at me, I’ve headlined the 02”. Many of them lose money from doing so but they still do it as it’s a good thing to be able to say – they think. Aesthetically I could never do that size of venue as I think there’s a touch of the Nuremberg Rally about playing to so many thousands of people.
“The way I work is I like to divide audiences up and create dissent in the room but you can’t do that with an audience that size. A better alternative for me is to do a long run at a medium-sized theatre venue and play to the same size of audience but over a few weeks instead. And I’m not just saying this but I think Vicar St is the perfect venue for a comedian, simply because it feels like a club show but it actually isn’t.”