“I’M sort of past the age at which people get discovered and yet I seem to have been given a second chance, so I’ve been very lucky,” says comedian, writer and director Stewart Lee.
He’s performed stand-up since he was 20, contributed to various BBC radio comedy shows and directed the Mighty Boosh’s 1999 breakthrough Edinburgh show Arctic Boosh as well as Simon Munnery’s well-received BBC2 programme Attention Scum in 2002.
The 41-year-old is perhaps most remembered for two things: Co-creating the anarchic Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy for BBC2 alongside former comedy partner Richard Herring and helping write and direct Jerry Springer: The Opera.
But we’ll get to that later.
He recently returned to television after more than a decade with the acclaimed BBC series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
“Ninety per cent of that series was shot as a live performance and I was very careful about making sure we did that. I wanted to try to get the same degree of excitement you get in a live performance on television. I didn’t want to film it in a TV studio or with edits,” he says.
“I had a really good team of people working on it and it was also in-house BBC which is great because there isn’t any sort of hidden agenda there, they’re just trying to do their best so it was really enjoyable.”
I caught up with Lee while he was preparing to bring his latest live show – If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One – to Ipswich’s New Wolsey and Chelmsford’s Civic Theatre.
“The show is three long half-hour routines that eventually coalesce into a despairing view of the world,” he laughs, despite being 150 dates in at the time.
“It has sort of gone through a kind of wall where I’ve found all sorts of way by necessity, I think, to improvise and change things and keep it alive.
“Also there are two or three bits that are very difficult to do and I never quite know if they’re going to work, so it is exciting every night. I think I’ve probably started to write those kinds of shows precisely because you need that element of danger to keep it spontaneous.”
That includes throwing a song in the mix for the first time.
“Every time I write a new show I try to do something that is beyond me or that I’d be uncomfortable doing, so I thought of trying to do a song.
“A lot of the show is about what we value and how you don’t have any control over how all the wonderful things about modern life seem to be up for sale to be degraded and changed.
“Like songs getting put in adverts and suddenly what you think of the song changes because you used to associate it with the time you met your wife, now you associate it with crisps. My song is about that, it’s a song I used to have a relationship with which I no longer do because of its use in an advertising campaign so I thought I’d get it back by doing it as well as I can.”
Lee is really pleased with how the show has gradually come together since he wrote it in a tiny room at Edinburgh’s Stand Comedy Club.
“Normally I get 25 per cent more people every time I tour and that doubled this time because of the telly show I think. What’s nice is that the people coming seem to have more of an idea of what they’re coming to. They’re prepared for the fact they’re going to have to listen and it’s more like a story.
“Sometimes, particularly at weekends, I used to find there’d always be people in the audience who wanted something else really.
“It’s not their fault, but they weren’t going to get it off me,” he laughs, “They weren’t going to get loads and loads of jokes. It’s more sort of, you have to do the work yourself if you listen to me.”
Lee is no stranger to controversy, so does he think these are tough times for comedians?
“Comedy, particularly, seems to be under bizarre scrutiny. I’ve just read the reviews of this film Chris Morris has made about Islamic suicide bombers and there are loads of people posting things on the internet saying it is simply not a fit subject for comedy.
“They haven’t seen the film; they don’t know what he’s done with it. It’s very unlikely he’s said Islamic suicide bombers are a good thing. No one ever says this about poetry, art or theatre,” he adds.
“The problem with comedy is people assume you’re laughing at subjects, right, but you can be laughing about it and can be laughing in sympathy. There are all sorts of ways of laughing at something and they aren’t necessarily cruel.
“You can do a horrible sick joke about cancer or you can have cancer writing a stand-up show about having it which Bill Hicks used to do. So it can be illuminating as well as something cynical. People still don’t seem to take that on board.”
Lee doesn’t believe the anxious times we live in has much effect on stand-up.
“When you’re doing live shows and writing one the judgement call is entirely your own and I think that’s the exciting thing about it.
“As an audience you’re plugging directly into a single person’s point of view of the world, be that view wrong or right or something you like or don’t; you know it’s not been arrived at by committee.
“Even if what they’re saying is rubbish it was their own opinion and they did think of it themselves and nobody told them what to say. That’s an increasingly valuable commodity in comedy,” he laughs.
“Stand-up is one of the last places where you can see comedy in an unmediated form, that’s not to say political correctness has gone mad and you can’t say this and you can’t say that.
“I think the main restriction is, sort of, newspapers trying to sell stuff by drumming up fuss about things that didn’t exist.”
Which brings us to Michael McIntye and Frankie Boyle, who some have pitched against each other in a war for our comedic souls.
“It’s funny you mention those two; by sheer coincidence, and it wasn’t planned, the opening half-hour of the new show is sort of about what do you do if you don’t want to be either of those things in comedy.
“If you don’t want to observe the tribulations of everyday life like Michael or you don’t want to sort of fabricate anger towards trivial targets like Frankie would, what’s left to talk about because they do seem to be viewed as the dominant forms of comedy by consumers and critics at the moment?
“It is a journalistic creation and a massive over simplification. I think they’re both very good at what they do but I think they’re the same thing really – essentially safe content providers, it’s just their markets are slightly different.
“I think stand-up is in a good state because there’s such a huge variety and love him or hate him; millions of people have been to see Michael live and bought his video. All that means is that, on some level, more people than ever before in this country are able to count as a possibility that they may enjoy a stand-up comedian and I think there must be a good trickle down effect from that.”
He does feel the current complaint culture effects what kind of comedy, for example, is commissioned by broadcasters.
“The BBC is in an impossible position where it’s criticised for everything it does by all the different factions of society. It’s much more sensitive to criticism now because of the ease with which people can complain about things or marshal a crowd together. Obviously that does have an effect.
“You get the feeling on telly that bets have been hedged a bit, you still get the occasional brilliant thing that comes out but it’s much more difficult I think now. It’s not the fault of writers or the people commissioning things; they’re under pressures they were never under.”
Before the multi-media revolution, all show-makers had to fear was Mary Whitehouse.
“We did a series for BBC2 in about 1995 called Fist of Fun, then a new series called This Morning with Richard Not Judy on Sundays. If you look at them, particularly the Sunday morning one, it seems amazing we were able to do it. Not in terms of language, there wasn’t much swearing in them, it was just a really weird programme to be honest compared to today,” Lee remembers.
“I do think there was quite a lot of mad stuff that slipped through then that no one really noticed. No one would like it and the people in charge wanted to cancel it so they didn’t really ever look at it or bother coming to check anything because they weren’t interested in developing it anyway.
“So we were just sort of left alone and put stuff in and no one would do anything about it. I don’t think you’d be able to do that now because I think newspapers are always looking for some angle. The stuff I’ve got in trouble for subsequently was nothing compared to then and it’s only 15 years ago.”
Lee is, of course, referring to Jerry Springer: The Opera, which despite winning four Olivier awards after its National Theatre run was targeted by right-wing Christian pressure groups.
“We never saw that coming. It seemed like it was on the side of the angels. It was a satirical critique of the sort of value-less culture of American talk shows; most of the things that were complained about in it weren’t even really in it.
“It just kind of went out of control. But by then we were living in a post-internet era where if 60,000 right-wing, born again Christians in Texas wanted to make a point they could just press a button. People don’t even have to write a letter or explain what they mean any more.”
As a fan of Lee and Herring, I have to know will we ever seen them back together?
“We met when he was 19 and I was 18 and I think the funny thing about that double act was that it was based on this sort of power struggle of an adolescent relationship, it was like teenage boys trying to outdo each other. think it started to reach a point where that didn’t ring true and I think it really wound up at about the best point, although we didn’t choose to knock it on the head,” he says.
“But we have done two little benefits in the last sort of 18 months, where we just threw it together at the last minute for charity. I think it’d be really funny, the longer we can hold off and if there’re any people who like us still alive, to suddenly do it in your sixties or even seventies.
“To do that childish adolescent bickering when you’re old will be really, really funny; because there’s something about old people when they end up being like teenagers again – stroppy, forgetful and selfish.”