He’s hated by religious zealots and disliked by half of every venue he plays, but is Stewart Lee as bitter as he seems?
One school of thought holds that it is classiest never to complain and never explain. Stewart Lee, judged either “the most exciting comedian in the country bar none” (The Times) or the 41st best stand-up ever (Channel 4), did not attend that school. Complaining — about his status, other comedians’ success, culture, religion, and his mother — is what fuels his erudite if apparently rambling monologues. Explaining, meanwhile, is both form and content of his very funny, madly solipsistic new book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Over nearly 400 pages, it explains why he abandoned stand-up in 2001 and how, after the unhappy furore that surrounded Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote, he finally found an audience (and a woman) who understood him.
The book is a riposte to critics who call him “inexplicably bitter”. Thanks to footnotes longer and more obsessive even than the stand-up shows they amplify, Lee is now, hurrah, explicably bitter. But is he? Bitter, I mean. Meeting him in a hotel opposite Broadcasting House, I feel I should check. For those who remember him from his double act with Richard Herring on Fist of Fun on BBC Two in the Nineties, I should warn that he no longer resembles a gorgeous, sulking boy band member. He is 42, heavier, with authoritatively whitening temples — a married man and a father — but he does seem a bit friendlier. Is his bitterness an act?
“I don’t know. I think it’s a bit like when you see some band and they’re young and they’re angry and you think, ‘Try getting up at half past five every morning and having a bad knee all the time’. The other thing is you don’t want to become like a guest on Grumpy Old Men.”
Were he bitter, the Occam’s razor explanation would be simple resentment at his contemporaries’ fame and fortune. Frank Skinner, David Baddiel, Ben Elton and Russell Brand all get kickings in the book. Russell Howard, he tells me, earns £4 million a year. Success issues are no new affliction for him. In the late Nineties he threw me out of a show on the Edinburgh Fringe for spurning his invitation to interview him. I told him he was not famous enough.
But although, as an adopted child, he is vulnerable to the psychological cliché that he performs out of a need to find love, he works as hard to be disliked as liked. His act is not, as he puts it, “a night out”. He deliberately divides a room into the alienated and the persuadable and is suspicious if he wins too much agreement. His response at the turn of the millennium to losing his TV show, profitless tours and, indeed, temporary homelessness occasioned by splitting up from his fiancée at the time, was not to make his act more populist, but to quit the stage. He wrote a novel, directed for television and, in due course, created with the composer Richard Thomas, Jerry Springer. He returned to the circuit only after the musical had deteriorated from a succès d’estime to a succès de scandale and its profits had drained down the plug hole of a libel action against the Daily Mail. Yet his comeback show was even less designed to appeal to the Jongleurs crowd. Happily, times changed. Teenage fans of Fist of Fun were now in a position to book him for their own venues. He could reach a niche audience through comedy websites. He dropped his agent. Newspaper reviewers got the hang of him. The BBC, whose executives had been threatened for broadcasting Springer, commissioned Lee’s Comedy Vehicle for primetime BBC Two.
“The answer to making things work creatively and financially was not to have a big hit. It was to do something at a manageable level with low over-heads, playing to the tiny minority of people that I imagined might like it. I don’t do TV advertising. I don’t have a bus. Frankie Boyle takes a chef on the road with him — I probably should; I eat mainly sandwiches from garages, that’s why I put on so much weight, but you don’t have to do that. You can make it work. In the old days, being in a big machine, it was more difficult.”
If he is bitter, I say, it can only be at the state of popular culture. In one routine, Lee, who studied English at Oxford, ridiculed his mother for being amused by Tom O’Connor on a cruise. In another, he garrotted Dan Brown, lethally quoting from The Da Vinci Code, “The famous man looked at the red cup.” An elaborate Comedy Vehicle sketch scolded Britain for regularly voting the moment Del Boy falls through a bar in Only Fools and Horses as television’s funniest moment. It is the audience that disappoints, isn’t it?
“Well, not the audience, really. I think, you know, a bunch of people are basically all right. Don’t forget that culture is imposed upon them by middle-class graduates making s*** programmes for an audience they despise.”
But his act depends on a hierarchy of value, on elitism? “Well, I hope it doesn’t depend on elitism. I think Dan Brown is an interesting example. Dan Brown has gone the full circle, in as much as all those columnists that are paid to have interesting opinions, instead of saying he’s rubbish, say he’s good because people like him.” He had an argument about this with, oddly, Ann Widdecombe. “She said it was fine. At least people are reading. But there’s loads of well-written books that are fun. Tell people about those. Don’t be Dylan Jones [editor of GQ magazine], wasting space in a broadsheet newspaper saying that Brown’s good. You’ve got a marked duty to use your powers to crush it into the dirt.” His stage act goes farther, however, than crushing others. It makes claims to being art itself. This becomes most obvious during his sanity-threatening repetition of words and sentences. The principle that if the 99th time it isn’t funny, on the 100th it might be is a conscious throwback to the tropes of modernism favoured by Beckett, Cage and Glass. The first episode of Comedy Vehicle, he tells me with pleasure, lost 300,000 viewers during a sketch where he mordantly reprised his mother’s observations about teenage stuntbikers. Nevertheless, BBC Two has recommissioned it, albeit at a reduced fee and for a brave new post-Newsnight slot.
Lee’s attempts to take comedy into art are brave but so is daring to admit to the plan in How I Escaped My Certain Fate. You would have thought he’d had enough of explaining and being misunderstood after Springer. After the failure of a private prosecution by the religious activists Christian Voice against the BBC for blasphemy, the show went on a much-barracked national tour and Lee was sent out to defend it. In one debate, in which he had tried to explain that the opera was not about faith but “taste and culpability”, a woman told him, “It is all just words to you.”
“It was,” he says, “pointless.”
After the BBC received 55,000 complaints and picket lines formed outside regional theatres, a DVD of the show was withdrawn. “The perception was that I was a millionaire because of it [the show],” he says. “I used to think I’d made £100,000 over the four or five years I worked on it. I suspect it might be a bit less.”
This financial disaster coincided with a breakdown in his health and a spell in hospital, attached to a drip, with diverticulitis, “a step up” from the ulcerative colitis that he had suffered as a teenager. (The rectal bleeding and “eternally unstable stools” were more, it turned out, than just a result of his diet of baked beans, crisps, chocolate bars and curries.) In hospital, he wondered what his legacy to his chosen art form might be. The result, in 2006, was a remarkable show.
At its climax, 90s Comedian contained a 20-minute sequence in which Lee described how, drunk and unwell in his mother’s downstairs lavatory, he had vomited into several of Christ’s orifices. You could take that the wrong way. Some did. But that no one thought of prosecuting him for blasphemy is possibly thanks to the comedian Bridget Christie. Lee had met her at the Leicester Comedy Festival and married her the same year as 90s Comedian. He writes: “In real life I was furious with the religious right for messing up my life, professionally, emotionally, physically and financially, and I wanted to take it out on its spiritual figurehead.” But on Christie’s advice he changed the routine so that now Christ, turning, as it were, the other cheek and wishing to make up for his nuttier followers, meekly offered himself as a receptacle. Lee was making peace with God.
There are two sledgehammer ironies buried in the heart of Lee’s marriage. The first is that unbeknown to him, when they met Christie was subsidising her comedy career as a researcher on the very column on the Daily Mail that was at the centre of its producers’ libel action (it had claimed audiences for Jerry Springer: The Opera were dwindling). “She didn’t tell me for a while. I knew she wasn’t doing well enough on the circuit to make a living. I thought she was a sort of high-class escort, the type that doesn’t have sex with you but you’d take to things.”
The other is that she is a Roman Catholic and that the atheist Lee agreed to marry her in church. The priest, apparently, trod a “diplomatic path” with him. To make, for love, such a compromise, suggests that he has changed. He remains, of course, more principled than most comedians on the planet. He insists, for example, he would never work for Channel 4 because “it just give me the creeps, so much of their output” (the reality shows, not the comedy). He was pragmatic, however, about the BBC lawyers’ demands when it came to Comedy Vehicle. A reference to the Conservative Party’s “inherent racism” was diluted and he did not complain when the God episode was moved from Good Friday. The last thing he wants to do is to criticise the BBC when it is under pressure.
I would favour tracing his principles to his mother, who adopted him as a baby and who, when her marriage broke down when Lee was 4, brought him up on her own in Solihull. But he talks only of her “straight-down-the-line work ethic” and how she told him as a child he was a “plodder” until he miraculously passed his 11-plus. His explanation for not selling out is lack of opportunity. “It’s very easy when you are not being offered anything and, also, when you’re not responsible for anyone. Now, when you’ve got a child, it would be difficult to walk away from a life-changing amount of money.” Their boy, Luke, is now 3. Lee has taught him a joke. When guests visit their home in North London, Luke points to a garden ornament. “Look, Gnome Chomsky,” he says. But Luke prefers his mother’s more visual humour. “He saw me on the stage one night and went, ‘Daddy’s out there talking and no one’s laughing.’ Yeah, I know, he’s with about 59 million other people on that.”
Yet with a new tour this autumn about celebrity and charity and bookings up 40 per cent thanks to Comedy Vehicle, things are going rather well for Lee, just at the moment they need to. Lo, has he not, at last, become famous enough for me to interview him? The only problem is if people notice and assume he has joined the Millionaire Comedians Club. How I Avoided My Certain Fate’s good work would be undone. Stewart Lee’s bitterness would, once more, become inexplicable.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate is published by Faber & Faber on August 5. To order a copy for £11.69 inc p&p (rrp £12.99) call 0845 2712134 or visit thetimes.co.uk/bookshop
Stewart Lee’s Silver Stewbilee show is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on August 18.