WHEN alternative comedy emerged in the 1980s, a new wave of stand-ups savaged their celebrity predecessors for their crass sexism and racism and naff commercialism. Stewart Lee recalls “taking the piss out of Max Bygraves or whoever … tax-dodging multimillionaires who did any piece of shit that came along, all their material written by other people”.
Yet somehow, he marvels: “That’s where we are again. The mainstream telly comedian is now part of the same world of stupid, banal shit as the people we made fun of 30 years ago.”
Alongside Michael McIntyre and Frankie Boyle, with whom he shares a strangely symbiotic relationship – surpassed only by the “schizophrenic” bond he maintains with his barely repressed, teenage “cultural snob” – Lee has become our most influential stand-up, essentially in spite of himself and his ambivalence towards fame. His show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle won a Bafta and has been recommissioned for two further series on BBC Two in 2014 and 2015, yet his forthcoming book TV Comedian will describe stand-up and television as a “toxic mix”.
We’re at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, “the essence of the Fringe” as he puts it. While McIntyre courts controversy with two £31 “work-in-progress” shows at the Playhouse down the road this weekend, it was here that Lee tested out his own show, Carpet Remnant World, for a relatively modest tenner last year.
He cherishes this room, outside the commercial cartel of the big venues’ breakaway Edinburgh Comedy Festival, and which he says “is most decent comedians’ favourite place to play”. A few days ago, I watched Josie Long on stage here enthusing about taxpaying, never mentioning Jimmy Carr but relishing the crowd tacitly making the connection and distinction.
Long’s set was being filmed for The Alternative Comedy Experience, broadcasting early next year on the Comedy Central channel. Handpicked by Lee, the likes of Glenn Wool, Sarah Kendall, Paul Foot, Andy Zaltzman, Robin Ince, Stephen Carlin and Simon Munnery have little television pedigree, but a calibre, he claims, to get “comics at the back of the room laughing while the public are going, ‘Oh, I’m not sure about this.’”
He’s hoping the show will retain the club atmosphere, “warts and all” – including mobile phone interruptions during Long and Alun Cochrane’s sets and the “huge, rotund skinhead who feigned a sexual assault” on Phil Nichol.
Provocatively, he suggests that it’s part of a growing, comedian-instigated backlash against tightly edited, shiny-floor showcases. He’d wanted to call it ‘Not Live At The Apollo’ but claims to have been “threatened” by Live at the Apollo’s executive producer Addison Cresswell. Concurrently, Paul Provenza’s improv challenge Set List is transferring from the Fringe to Sky Atlantic, while Frankie Boyle’s forthcoming cabaret show for Channel 4, The Boyle Variety Performance is, Lee asserts, “‘Not The F***ing Apollo’ basically. All the rape joke acts.”
“Apollo’s content is nominally safe, whereas the content of a Frankie Boyle curated showcase would be nominally unsafe,” he explains. “Set List too, because you’re getting to see people think on their feet. Much as I’m sceptical about rape comedy as an end in itself, it is interesting that these are the things that make comedy exciting for comedians – taste issues, improvisation and weird stuff in intimate spaces.
“Between them, they could show that stand-up is a very wide and varied thing, that there’s all kinds of different ways of doing it, and that [the Apollo] model isn’t necessarily the only one. The idea is to show the public what they ought to like,” he cackles. “If they were any good at understanding comedy.”
He failed to persuade Jerry Sadowitz to participate, acknowledging that, while he finds the hate-spewing Scot “life-affirming” in the context of a 90-minute performance, in isolation even virtually unedited rants could be “unjustifiable to the point where you might imagine it would be legally actionable [and] risk misrepresenting him”.
Lee has largely eschewed panel shows for similar reasons, his anti-consensual humour at odds with 8 Out of 10 Cats’ conspiratorial banter. Still, an
inability to perform lucrative corporate gigs saves him “having to avoid tax”.
This combination of self-deprecation and sniping is typical, almost a reflex. Carr offered to fund Lee’s first DVD and is someone he personally likes, “with very, very good jokes”. But “Stewart Lee the Comedian” can’t resist.
“Stewart Lee the Comedian” is a burgeoning character, nurtured at school, where he instinctively disdained heavy metal because it was popular, so “now I’m the only person at the age of 44 to discover Black Sabbath and go, ‘Oh, this is really good, why did I write it off?’” Lee became aware of his (not wholly distinct) alter ego while writing his 2010 book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian.
He thrives on internet abuse about his act, if not that directed towards his marriage to fellow comic Bridget Christie. But increasingly, despite Comedy Vehicle’s ratings plunge between series, the awards and critical acclaim have accumulated and his approval ratings with loyal viewers have soared, boosting his live following.
A father of two, he’s successful and happy. To retain his dyspeptic, marginalised edge, therefore, he’s had to take “the memory of what I might have felt about things ten years ago and graft it on to current experiences”. Exceptionally clear-sighted on the comedy industry, he maintains a wilful ignorance of hyped new acts, preferring to sustain Stewart Lee the Comedian’s prejudices on five-minute television clips, simplistic media coverage and PR spin. So Bo Burnham is dismissed as a YouTube comedian; Russell Howard is mocked for his charity work and Russell Kane is derided as “a guy who’s got funny hair, he lies about his age, he’s won awards and he’s talked about his dad dying. I don’t know him though, he might be alright”.
However, irrespective of the low, outsider status he strives to retain, and which Stewart Lee the Comedian affords him, his opinions carry significant weight in comedy. Several fellow stand-ups and admirers have been stung by his jibes or learned to take themselves less seriously. But it’s invariably less about them than what they represent.
“There’s a boom or bust attitude to comedy now, with young comedians marketed like pop stars and celebrities. The assumption is that another one will come along. They’re on a short cycle and the problem of appealing to that market is that it likes novelty, then goes on to the next thing. I’m wondering if I can stay at a mid-range level forever.”
Despite being “in at the f***ing start of this”, he never expected the current stand-up boom. He recalls Robert Newman and David Baddiel booking the 314-seater Cochrane Theatre in London and thinking “it was hilarious, sort of ostentatious, almost an act of hubris”. When the pair sold out Wembley Arena in 1993 – a “fluke” he suggests – it created a “subconscious model” for the management company he then shared with them, Avalon, fostering “a set of unworkable expectations that have dogged the industry ever since”. More cackling.
Lee sees the Fringe as an opportunity to develop a coherent, hour-long “piece”, and objects to “big management” instructing emerging comics to “come out of it with ten six-minute bits for ‘Stand-Up For The Week’, Live at the Apollo, whatever. What are they for? To create an advert. In art, the things you do should be worthwhile in and of themselves, not endlessly deferred towards some presenting role.”
He quit stand-up for a time in the early noughties, but kept working as a Sunday Times music critic – making Rupert Murdoch his sole arts patron. Yet when the BBC dithered on renewing Comedy Vehicle, he knew any audience for a show on Sky Atlantic would be tiny and resisted the satellite broadcaster’s overtures, unwilling to boost their broadsheet credibility and efforts to “detoxify the brand by association” with the Australian. He recalls Saturated, a film he’d planned to make in the mid-1990s with Peter Fonda, Alan Rickman and Daryl Hannah, for which he spent five years gathering funds, two-thirds from digital television company ONDigital, which collapsed. Panorama recently alleged that a News Corp subsidiary was involved in leaking the codes for cards that allowed free access to OnDigital’s paid services. After hearing that, he says, “I’d feel a bit of a mug going to work in a place that used such dirty tricks.”
Still, collaborators like Armando Iannucci continue to defect, and he identifies Sky’s head of comedy, Lucy Lumsden, as “really intelligent, the only person in that job with any kind of vision”. Ultimately, however, selling out was anathema to Stewart Lee the Comedian.
“Because he’s got no self-belief but is also arrogant, he would stay at the BBC, a place he suspects he’s not really wanted anyway. He’d simultaneously complain about the defection to Sky and the BBC’s collapse, preferring to be a rat going down on a sinking raft. The degree of confusion suits the character, which works better trapped in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy than in a Phillip Dick, futuristic, Bladerunner broadcasting company.”
Forsaking television when his young son becomes a teenager, if his audience continues growing in the meantime, the “long-term, mad plan” for 2016 is “to tour a big theatre show that has the same relationship as my ordinary shows do with stand-up generally? Could I use monitors but on the monitors it’s not me, it’s an actor who’s better looking? Could you literally dismantle the theatre? What if there were speakers in different parts of the room playing different things? Is the template of the big scale, telly comedian tour so established in the public mind that they’re ready to see the rules broken?”
• Stewart Lee: Carpet Remnant World is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, today until 26 August.