Who better to interview a comedian than another comedian? Andrew Doyle talks to Stewart Lee about his recent “wave of popularity”, Twitter, gay marriage, and Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance.
AD: Were you surprised to be recommissioned for a third series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle?
SL: Yeah, I was. I was really surprised because there hadn’t been much enthusiasm for the second one. You can be grateful for a commission, but it’s like awards; you can’t think they mean anything. They’re all a result of such a chain of random events. If you start thinking there’s a rational logic behind commissioning procedures, then you have to ask why was Horne and Corden on? Would I be worse than Horne and Corden if my show didn’t get recommissioned?
But I am grateful for the work, and I’m really grateful that lots of people lobbied on behalf of my show. I’m grateful and I’m pleased, but I don’t think it means that I’m any good.
AD: According to Brian Logan at The Guardian, you’re now TV’s “favourite funnyman”. How do you feel about that?
SL: That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Most people don’t know who I am. I got between half a million and a million viewers for my last series, and if you look at the level of hatred for me online, the people who don’t like me absolutely hate me. I’m only the favourite funnyman of a coterie of journalists writing for liberal broadsheets.
AD: Maybe he means you’re his favourite funnyman.
SL: I don’t even think that’s true. I think when a journalist writes opinion pieces like that they have to sum up their readers’ feelings. But I don’t even think he’s done that. There are plenty of people going on the Guardian website saying that they hope I die of Crohn’s disease and things like that.
It’s weird to be part of a consensus, especially when that consensus isn’t reflecting general public feeling. And you worry about being flavour of the month before you then disappear. But obviously this is what I do, I’ve got to do it forever, and hopefully I’ll be able to ride out this problematic wave of popularity.
AD: But I wonder to what extent the media are trying to create that perception. Doesn’t the media determine what people think?
SL: Well you could say that, but when I won two British Comedy Awards I wasn’t mentioned in any of the rundowns of the winners in any of the newspapers except for The Guardian and The Independent. The same goes for my BAFTA award. They just missed me out of all the lists in the tabloids. They mentioned everything else.
In a way that’s a victory. To have managed to win these things is great, but to still be of no interest to celebrity journalists means you’ve done it without being known.
So if I could manage to carry on like that that’d be really good, because obviously being thought of as a celebrity compromises you as a comedian. Unless you’re John Bishop and a lot of your routines are about knowing famous footballers and things like that.
AD: In a way, then, you think it’s advantageous to be marginalised?
SL: Yeah, it is. It’s much better. Because I don’t have to spend any money on advertising. I don’t have to employ joke writers or go on panel shows. I just sort of plod along at my own pace. And every now and then the Daily Mail tries to stir things up against me, but when you look on their guestbook afterwards it’s clear that most of the Daily Mail readers don’t know who I am, or have any idea what I do, because they say things that just don’t relate to me at all.
So in a way it’s quite good. Even when they try to make something up about you, it doesn’t really stick because there’s no target for it to stick to.
AD: Do you think mainstream comedy has trained audiences not to have to do any thinking for themselves?
SL: Yeah, I do. But I think there’s been a backlash.
Weirdly, I think it might be economically driven as well, because the thinking audience is valuable to advertisers, because they can sell them certain types of products. But to be honest I think this Jimmy Carr tax avoidance thing is pivotal. I think the public need to get fed up with stand-ups, and then the distinctive ones will be left standing. It might be a watershed moment.
I think the assumption will be that any comedian on stage is a cunt and has stolen loads of money and therefore isn’t entitled to talk about anything. It might make it difficult for everyone. When I was investigated by the Inland Revenue I got a rebate. I’d like to point that out. (Laughs.)
AD: What do you think of Jimmy Carr’s position?
SL: First of all, in his defence, what he’s done is a tiny drop in the ocean compared with what some of David Cameron’s friends in business have done.
Which is why it’s so funny when Cameron chose to single out Jimmy Carr. It’s clear that no one’s advised him. He hasn’t talked to anyone and he’s just opened his mouth. If handled properly, this could bring down the government. To pick on Jimmy Carr when you’re giving knighthoods to CEOs who are evading much more is absurd.
AD: And hasn’t George Osborne got a four million pound trust fund in an offshore account?
SL: Yeah. And Cameron’s father ran a system for offshore banking to avoid tax.
AD: It’s hilarious.
SL: It is hilarious. And it would be brilliant if Jimmy Carr did his next show all about that and gave all the money to charity. That would be really interesting.
But this perception that Jimmy Carr is in some way left-wing has always struck me as funny. There isn’t any indication of him having any political affiliation at all, although his material would suggest if he did have one it would be right-wing anyway. This might be the end of irony comedy.
The idea that you’re being ironic about the weaker members of society doesn’t really work if you’ve concealed millions of pounds a year which would have gone towards helping them.
AD: I know that a lot of your on-stage anger is feigned or exaggerated. But when you talk about Twitter in your new show, the anger seems authentic. Am I right?
SL: I hate Twitter. I can’t stand it.
It’s full of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, who have done no research, making ill-informed pronouncements that have a personal impact on other people. Every time I look on Twitter I get really annoyed and I’m glad that I don’t have an account.
This week I looked up Jimmy Carr to see what people were saying. And just twenty-four hours after the story broke Nicky Clark, the disability rights campaigner, had said that I had been very quiet about all this, and suggested it was because he had paid for my stand up DVDs to be made.
AD: What does she mean?
SL: Exactly. I’ve been quiet about Jimmy Carr? I don’t have a newspaper column. I don’t have a blog. I’m not on Twitter. So what does she fucking mean? And as for him paying for my stand-up films: there’s a bit in one of my books when I say that in 2005 Jimmy Carr said he would fund a DVD of mine if I wanted one because I hadn’t made any. But I didn’t do it anyway. If I was on Twitter I’d now be in a war of words with her.
AD: So you prefer just not to respond to these things?
SL: I’m so irritable and paranoid. I couldn’t cope with going on Twitter in order to engage with people saying things about me that aren’t true. It would drive me mad.
AD: But for less well know comedians Twitter and Facebook can actually be really helpful in terms of generating an audience.
SL: I can see that about it, and I wouldn’t want it to stop. But I hate this assumption that I should be involved in it. If you’re a comedian now you’re supposed to be transparent, you’re supposed to be blogging about your life every day. But if you live in the public eye it makes the on-stage character less credible.
Your last show was like that, wasn’t it? We were meant to think: has he really done the things he’s talking about or not?
AD: Is your on-stage persona a character, then?
SL: Up to a point. I mean, obviously there is a considerable overlap with me. In my current show, the Stewart Lee comedian complains about Russell Kane’s show.
Stewart Lee, the man talking to you now, wouldn’t complain about Russell Kane’s show. I haven’t seen it. But the Stewart Lee on stage would think that because Russell Kane’s got a streak in his hair, he can’t be any good.
Stewart Lee the comedian is more pedantic and pessimistic than I am.
I personally wouldn’t have said that Richard Hammond should have his head smashed off in a car accident, but the comedian Stewart Lee would get to that point as a result of a forty-minute logical argument.
AD: I hear a lot of people on the circuit having a dig at the big mainstream comedians. Do you think you’ve started this trend?
SL: I wouldn’t have thought so.
When I started stand-up in the eighties there was such an identifiable difference between the mainstream television comedy and alternative comedy – a lot of people did jokes about Benny Hill and Bruce Forsyth or whoever. And I think what’s happened – although it’s got nothing to do with me – is that this identifiable difference is back again. In 1979 there were a lot of hugely wealthy tax-dodging people presenting television programmes and using gag writers to create generic material. And there were lots of people doing little clubs called alternative comedians who didn’t do any of that.
And now, thirty years later, we’re in exactly the same position. If there are a lot of people doing jokes about them, it’s because the mainstream comics are funny and ridiculous in the same way as they were thirty years ago.
AD: Do you think having children has changed who you are as a comedian?
SL: Absolutely. First of all, on a practical level, I don’t have time to write word-for-word a two and a half hour show and learn every line of it. It has to be generated on stage up to a point. So obviously that changes the tonality of the show; it sounds more conversational and less scripted.
Secondly, I find that I’ve felt more engaged with society since having children. I wouldn’t say this is true of childless people generally, I wouldn’t want to speak on their behalf, but it’s certainly true for me. It’s changed me because when I was young, it was easy and amusing to affect cynicism.
But I think if you’ve got children you can’t afford to be entirely cynical because you have a stake in the world, and you have to hope for their sake that things are salvageable.
You have to be more optimistic, and that does change what you write about.
AD: People know you as an outspoken atheist. Do you have any views on the Church of England’s reluctance to give up on the gay marriage issue?
SL: I think it’s really bad. Because as a lapsed Protestant I like to berate my Catholic wife with the moral superiority of the Church of England and now I can’t even do that.
AD: It does feel a little desperate, like they’re fighting a battle they’ve already lost.
SL: It’s over. It’s over. It just makes them look ridiculous.
It’s awful for gay people at the moment to have these major institutions down on them, but it’ll probably force the issue and I think that’ll be a good thing. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s a good bloke really, but he’s a broken man now.
I’ll bet he’s really glad to be retreating back into the world of academia rather than having to fight this battle, because it probably will split the church. And for a lot of gay people who are religious it’ll be nice for them to go to a church they feel they have a connection with, but who don’t seem to despise the fundamental core of their being. I think it will work out for the best in the long run.
AD: Finally, what can we expect to see in the third series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle?
SL: It will be more abstract. I’m hoping that the third series will include a three-minute silent image of a piece of gingerbread being thrown into the air. That’s the only idea I’ve got at this point.