Much ado about nothing
Comedian Stewart Lee isn’t just brilliant at telling jokes – he also deconstructs them as part of his act. But with younger comics stealing his routines, and his kids stealing his time, his new show is about ‘nothing’
‘IS THERE SOME way of keeping a lid on the degree to which you’re exposed so that people don’t tire of you, while at the same time maintaining enough of a profile to make sure they know that you’re on somewhere?” Stewart Lee is flopped on a couch in a dressing room, arms above his head, legs outstretched, pondering a question that haunts him.
For some years, Lee has tried to find an answer to this, with his conclusion, “I’ve kind of fudged it, gone in the middle ground.” The “middle ground” is not really a phrase evoked when dissecting Lee. For more than 20 years, he has been allergic to the middle, averse to easy options, and consistently gravitating towards the edge. “It’s a delicate thing. It’s an old-fashioned thing as well,” he says thinking of that leading question again, “I think a lot of people think of fame as a smash-and-grab ram raid: get in, drive through the front of the shop, get everything, and get out before you’re found out.”
Lee craves low-key consistency, so maybe he has fudged “it” a little. Instead of cruising just under the radar, as he seems to desire, he veers in and out of detection, sometimes wildly, generally brilliantly, occasionally with some controversy trailing behind him. The career paths of comics such as Daniel Kitson, who can sell out seven nights in the National Theatre in London in 45 minutes without even doing any interviews, as Lee points out enviably, evade him. But perhaps it’s for the better.
Maybe Lee has too much to say.
He’s more than halfway through a mammoth 80-show run at the Leicester Square Theatre, where by the time it’s over, more than 40,000 people will have seen him perform Carpet Remnant World. “The conceit of this show is that because I’ve just been getting more popular and driving around doing gigs all the time, because I look after children, I haven’t had time to write any material, so it hasn’t got any structure and it isn’t about anything,” Lee explains. “But actually, it is about something. It’s about idealised notions of society and the idea of how do you get ideas for a show when you don’t have any experiences?”
“Conceit” is a word Lee uses a lot throughout the show, as he faux-patronisingly explains the mechanics of his jokes to what he perceives to be a new type of audience arriving since he won two British Comedy Awards for the BBC2 series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. His concerns about this new section of his audience, with whom he has a rather Cobain-like discomfort, could be excruciating, but it’s hilarious theatre, subverting the idea of the comic trying to win an audience over. Instead, the audience wants Lee to like them. It’s this eye-poking approach that Lee has worked to perfect since his early days with Richard Herring on Radio 4’s On The Hour, Fist of Funand This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
His biggest adventure came in 2005 with Jerry Springer – The Opera, a project that would eventually teach him his biggest professional lesson and lead to that irksome question of balance, which still bothers him.
“If we’d kept that to six singers and a piano player and we’d toured it around 150-seater art centres, we’d have made more money on it than we did upscaling it and putting it in the West End and touring,” he says. “The kind of people who [attacked it and] went for it would never even have found out it existed.” (He later refers to them less kindly as “these kind of psychos on the Christian right”.) “We’d have been able to move on and do another thing without being caught up in a chaotic legal situation [the Christian Institute tried to prosecute the BBC for broadcasting it]. And we’d have been able to control it a bit more. Ultimately there was nothing to be gained from trying to run it as a commercial proposition. It wasn’t better because it was bigger.”
Later, Lee learned another major lesson on his show If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask(his book with the same title has recently been published by Faber and Faber). “I got all the sorts of things the Top Gearpeople say about other minorities and turned them back on them.” Lee made an infamous joke saying he wished Richard Hammond had been killed in his car crash. “I said ‘don’t decontextualise this if you’re from a newspaper, it’s obvious how it works in context, it’s a knowing satire of their rhetoric’. I would say that on stage. Of course, the papers still did it and my immediate worry about that was a practical one: does this mean the show’s going to be closed down, because I’ve put four months’ work into it, and I had it all planned out for next year, and I want to turn over money for my life, for my family? A really dull practical consideration.” It’s these “practicalities of just trying to be ‘allowed’, not be stopped from working” that Lee is trying to balance with not censuring himself.
This mindset leads him on to discuss the notion of selling out, and how it has changed. “As you get older you’re more aware that there used to be loads of ways to be an artist,” he reflects. “You could go on Enterprise Allowance here [in the UK], you could sign on the dole, you could live in a squat. There were ways of subsidising it. Here, there have been very political efforts to close all those things down and to get everyone in the system.” Lee thinks there has been a deliberate effort “on some level to make it harder for free-thinkers to operate. I don’t know if there’s been a think-tank where that was issued as a directive, but, you know. . .”
Now he believes it’s hard to get by being an artist. “I was talking to Mark E Smith of The Fall about this. He had a song on a car advert in 1997 and funnily enough with that one I thought ‘oh great, I hope they get some money’. But he was so bankrupt at the time it all went to the record company and he didn’t see any of it.” He cracks up laughing. “He had all the shame of being the ex-punk bloke doing an advert and none of the benefits.”
An occasional curmudgeonly attitude is something Lee has in common with Mark E Smith, but his politeness, and willingness to engage in a remarkably honest discussion aren’t traits he shares with The Fall guy. “Most acclaimed things aren’t very good, and they’re normally a compromise,” he says at one point, claiming that his critical success must therefore be some sort of blip. “It’s a bit weird to get a British Comedy Award, because you sense you must have failed in some way.”
There’s an intrinsic conflict with the alternative being a success, with the anti-telly comedian being on television, with the outsider being, to some degree, part of the mainstream. And it’s something he’s well aware of. It leads him to believe that many of his fellow comedians “increasingly dislike” him. He’s not exactly kind to them either.
“For a long time, I was a sort of totemic figure for them. Popular and successful comedians like to be able to appear magnanimous, and so it was very nice for them to be able to go ‘but of course, my favourite comedian is. . .’ and then they would say me. But I was not in their orbit, so it’s a patrician pat on the head.”
But his increasing success changes that. “When I used to do stand-up making fun of how comedy works or complaining about commissioning procedures, or whatever, I did that from a position of being in an 80-seater attic in the Fringe, or in an arts centre somewhere. If the perception of you is a success, things that seem heroic when you’re perceived as an outsider very quickly look arrogant.”
Then there’s the question of being ripped off. “As soon as that happens, people will be irritated with me by association because it [Lee’s stand up] will start to feel not an alternative thing, but actually a trope.”
While being influential might be flattering for some, Lee has instead dumped some of his trademarks for Carpet Remnant World. “I think it’s pretty obvious why I haven’t done them – because there are 19-year-olds doing them. Things like long silences, lots of repetition that slightly changes over a 20-minute bit, stating very cruel things, very bluntly as if they were facts, getting off the stage and performing from unlit, unamplified areas of darkness, all those things I’ve done a lot of – I haven’t gone near them in this show because I’ve seen little kids doing them in open-spot nights.”
Seeing younger comics perform like him doesn’t exactly give Lee a warm fuzzy feeling. “It’s kind of like a Lego version of you. Reduced. Oh dear. It’s a bit annoying. I sort of think, that’s what I do, and I’ve got two kids and I’m 43 years old and I’d quite like to be able to eek this out until I die, and yet you’re making what I do a cliche and you haven’t even got any dependants, you horrible, selfish child.” He pauses post-rant. “But, on the other hand, it forces you on.”
After a long conversation about how the internet has created a “disproportionate paranoia” about how many people hate him, because as a medium it “amplifies the most brutal voices in society”, Lee wanders off through the venue, ready for the first performance of the day, an afternoon matinee followed by an evening show.
On stage, the sharpness of the material makes for a strange and effective balancing act of the abstract and the intricate, and Lee becomes perhaps the only comedian who can make meandering succinct.
He keeps saying the show is about “nothing”, and then qualifies it, saying again that it is a “conceit”. It is indeed a conceit, because Lee’s “nothing” is meatier than most of his contemporaries’ “everything”.