2009 has been an exciting year for Stewart Lee. His TV show, ‘Comedy Vehicle’ aired on BBC2 to critical acclaim. This enabled Stewart to break out of the arts centre circuit and play large theatres for his new show for the year, If You Want A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One. Having seen the fantastic Swansea date of this tour (reviewed in this issue), I spoke to Stewart the next day to discuss the tour, TV show and The Daily Mail, amongst other things. Interview by Leigh
MM: You are currently in the middle of your new tour, having already done the Edinburgh Festival. How has the tour been going so far?
Stewart: It’s been going really great. In Edinburgh I did a hundred- seater room for a month, because I knew I’d be doing big rooms, and they are difficult to hear. You can’t quite gauge the responses, so playing the little room which I normally do, The Stand, was really great, because I knew the show worked properly before I had to upgrade it to spaces that aren’t always great for comedy.
The most difficult one yet was actually the Swansea one, because it was a big room which was only half full, so the bodies don’t quite absorb the laughs. It’s hard to get an atmosphere in the room and you have to trust your own internal timing as you can’t quite hear the room, because all the sound disappears into the roof of the auditorium.
So last night’s show was a mixture of a real performance, but also I had to trust that it was going better than I could hear and sort of fake it a bit, which I think that all these comics who are properly famous and who are used to doing stadiums do, because you can’t really get a proper flavour of what’s actually happening in the bigger rooms sometimes, and Swansea was one of the biggest places that I’ve done so far. It was great, but it wasn’t as spark-y as some of the others have been, because I couldn’t quite hear the room.
MM: One of the arcs of the show is based around Frankie Boyle’s comment that after 40 you shouldn’t really be doing stand up. Do you think there’s any truth in that comment at all?
Stewart: Ummmmm no. I think people in stand up get better with age, usually. A lot of musicians get worse. There’s something about being in a rock band, it’s kind of a naïve art form. It can be really great when you’ve got loads of energy and no technique. I think sometimes technique in rock music makes people kind of worse, actually.
With comedy you tend to get better. The pitfalls are that sometimes you can get sucked towards blandness as your life becomes blander. You’re not out there having adventures anymore. The other thing is that people tend to become more conservative politically as they get older, which doesn’t always make for great comedy. We are living in strangely reactionary times where you could almost not be conservative enough to satisfy many audiences.
It depends where you’re coming from. When I was 21 and started doing stand up I remember a quote from Victoria Wood, who is kind of a godmother of alternative comedy, and she said that no-one under 30 should do stand up as you couldn’t possibly know enough about anything. I don’t agree with that, either. But I also think that it’s part of Frankie’s sense of humour.
I don’t think he would really think that. Or else he was talking about himself and what he’s doing in his life. Stand up can be anything you
want, particularly if you’re Frankie Boyle, you know, he’s really popular, so there’s nothing to stop him doing anything he wants on stage. He could do a really thoughtful, nice show, or a story show, or he can do what he does now, loads of jokes. The main thing about him saying that was that I had an idea that this show should be about what I’m supposed to be writing about.
I thought, ‘what am I supposed to write about as a 40 year old comedian and a father of one?’ I had this idea about something that happened to me in a coffee shop and I started writing about it and thought, ‘that’s so bland, so middle-aged’. When I read that quote of Frankie’s I thought that it was a great way to set up an argument in the show. There’s someone who said you should give up doing stand up, so you have to prove why you should be doing stand up. What have you got to offer, you know? So I suppose that’s what the show is about.
I’m talking about all the slippery ideas, things that make me feel that there’s nothing left for me to relate to in culture as an older man who still has the political views he had as a teenager. I know Frankie; I wouldn’t hesitate to tell him that I’d done that. It was just something he’d said in an interview and it seemed funny.
MM: There is a bit in your new show which talks about Richard Hammond [a TV presenter for any of our non-UK readers]. The Daily Mail took sections of this bit completely out of context for a story. What was your reaction to this ‘journalism’?
Stewart: The guy came up to me in the street before the show in Edinburgh and said, “I write for the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, I understand you are calling for Richard Hammond to be decapitated” and I said, “Have you seen the show?” and he said, “No”, and I told him I wouldn’t talk to him about it and he’d have to make something up.
He said, “Well what’s it about then?” and I said, “It’s a joke, like they have on Top Gear”. There’s absolutely no point in talking to it about people, that’s what I’ve learnt. There’s no point in discussing it because there’s no way that the nuance of what you’re doing can translate to the Mail on Sunday. The problem was that if I had tried to explain it then it would’ve spoiled the joke for people coming.
And also no-one that reads the Mail on Sunday or likes Top Gear is going to come and see me anyway. So it doesn’t make any difference. What I learned from Jerry Springer The Opera, which I co-wrote and got in trouble for, they sent me around the country trying to justify it when people tried to ban it, and there was absolutely no point having a discussion with any of the people because they’d already made their minds up.
All that happened was that I was forced to explain what we meant by it, which I think spoilt it for people who were coming to see it, so I’d be happy to have a conversation about what I meant the show to be about with you, but there’s no point doing it on the back-foot when you’re being attacked by a tabloid newspaper.
Actually I thought the article in the Mail was really funny. The way it was written up was hilarious. They changed what I’d said, they had me saying, ‘I hoped his head had exploded into a million pieces’, which is pretty funny. They had this picture of me smiling, looking quite nice, then next to it a picture of Richard Hammond’s car exploding and then a picture of Richard Hammond’s face looking unhappy. It looked like something they do in Viz, you know.
Anyone with half a brain reading between the lines would realise what the joke was, it’s about…well you know what it’s about. It’s about if you are on Top Gear
and you attack the weak and the defenceless and say, “It’s only a joke”, then what’s to stop that being used against you? Nothing. You have no comeback on it because that’s your defence when you pick on gypsies or whoever. The best you can come up with is ‘it’s just a joke’. It’s just about that idea. No-one reading the Mail on Sunday would agree with that anyway, because they hate the poor (laughs).
It’s not as if I’ve lost any audience by it. At the end of the day, when you’re 41 and have a family it’s nice to get good reviews, but really all you’re hoping is that bad reviews don’t make it more difficult for me to pay my mortgage.
MM: This year you’ve gained more exposure with your BBC show. On your ’41st Best Stand Up Ever’ DVD you talk about the disappointment of having the show offered and then taken away. Were you surprised when the offer was then put back on the table?
Stewart: I was, yeah. It was offered to me in May 2005, withdrawn in April 2006, then back on the cards in spring/summer of 2007. So I was surprised and confused, because the offer was for exactly the same project that was already turned down by the man who had turned it down. The thing about television is that there’s no point trying to make any sense of it. It’s like looking at the weather system. If you go out and it starts raining and you get wet, it doesn’t mean that the weather was trying to harm you. It was just raining. Likewise if it’s sunny and you’re happy, it doesn’t mean that weather likes you, it’s just weather.
So you have to view television and commissioning procedures as kind of a random system that there’s no logic to. You can’t start to believe that it means anything because there’re lots of people much better than me who have never been on television and there’re lots of people much worse than me that are on television all the time, so it doesn’t mean they are good or bad, it just means that their face fitted at the time, and what strange decisions were being made behind closed doors about what kind of audience they were trying to attract.
That said, I still think that the BBC is out best bet globally for any kind of quality news coverage or comedy or anything.
There’s a tiny chink of risk there, where they can afford to make things without having to worry too much. I know it’s a deeply flawed system, but I’ve benefited hugely from it and I don’t think there’s any way that a commercial broadcaster would have made any of the things that I’ve done.
MM: In the series you did an episode criticising some aspects of television. Was there anything you wanted to add to that show but couldn’t as it was on the BBC?
Stewart: No, there was nothing I was stopped doing in the whole series, apart from one sentence about David Cameron that I was made to slightly re-twig so that it was factually accurate. It was just something he’d said about religious schools, I just had to change it so it was right. One other bit was this idea I had about religious dog training schools, and I wanted to have an Islamic one for training dogs, and there was a concern that was never really resolved that because there’s a cultural, but not a specifically religious, taboo about dogs in Islamic culture, although not necessarily in the Islamic faith, that it would look like I was being deliberately provocative.
I was asked not to do that, and to be honest no-one was really able to resolve whether this Islamic dog taboo was the case or not, so we just had to let it go. It actually made the bit funnier.
Those were the only things I was stopped on. But there’s other stuff that I wouldn’t have done on TV anyway, because there’s things that I do in the live shows that are very long and they are contextualised and they have balance.
You worry that on TV a sentence gets taken out of context and pinged around the world, and it’s not worth the risk with YouTube and all this kind of thing.
MM: Some of your shows talk about religion and atheism.With books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens hitting bestsellers lists in the last few years, do you think that atheism is being looked at more positively in mainstream society?
Stewart: Definitely. The worry about it then is that you have to remember to be polite. There probably isn’t a God, but it’s not worth getting too cross about.
You have to be able to carry on your discussions with your mental enemies with a greater degree of politeness than they’ve historically shown to us (laughs).
There’s a worry now that in Europe, as the rationalist’s cause starts to gain ground that you have to avoid triumphalism. Remember that there’s still a lot of work to do and that’s best achieved with a degree of cautious politeness, but you can understand people’s frustration when their work gets banned and they get shouted down.
MM: The TV series recently came out on DVD and, as you mention in your new show, you’ve had trouble with people illegally downloading your DVDs, so will you continue releasing live DVDs?
Stewart: I will do, in fact the guy that put out the last one sold 57 last week, so he’s just about to cover his costs, so he wants to do this show.
MM: Is that Go Faster Stripe?
Stewart: No, this is Colin Dench, who runs another company, but Go Faster Stripe are great as well, and I’ll definitely do some more with them if they’ll have me. Probably audio stuff or old archive, but the new show will be filmed with Colin Dench. He films it to broadcast quality which means you can flog it on to the Paramount channel or whatever.
Go Faster Stripe are really brilliant and what they’ve done is fantastic, because there a lots of really great comics who don’t get on telly, and there’s no documentation of them. Four or five of the DVDs that Go Faster Stripe have got are of the best people working today, people like Tony Law, Simon Munnery and John Hegley.
Will Hodgson is amazing and it’s really great that they are out there doing it. It’s one guy in Cardiff, Chris Evans, and I think that the British Film Institute should give him a grant because he’s documenting the best people, and they don’t get documented as a rule.
MM: He’s also bringing comedy out on different formats. He released your Pea Green Boat poem/story on 10″, and comedy hasn’t been pressed on vinyl for 20 years or so.
Stewart: (laughs) Just as everyone else is heading into downloads I’m going back to vinyl. Good idea.
MM: In your new show you tell a story about your youth and being friends with members of Napalm Death…
Stewart:Well there’s no-one that I knew in Napalm Death who are still in Napalm Death. The only person from the line-up on the first album was Nick Bullen, who sang on one side. Nick Bullen wasn’t at my school, but the other three were. The other three were, they were Daryl Fedeski, Simon Oppenheimer and Miles Ratledge.
I didn’t know them that well; they were in the year above me. I was in a play with Daryl Fedeski, I was a butler and he was a sailor, I was in a walking club where we used to go walking in Wales with the other members of Napalm Death. I did see them when they had that lineup and around that time they were only 14 or 15.
They got on these compilation albums that Crass used to put out called Bullshit Detector which were samplers of new anarcho-punk bands, but back then they sounded more like Crass or Poison Girls or something. They hadn’t got that sound, even that’s on the first album, where they sort of invented speed/metal/thrash/grind punk.
They played sort of early 80’s anarchopunk.
MM: Speaking of music, in your new show you close the show with a song. Did you approach picking up a guitar live with some trepidation?
Stewart: I stopped doing stand up in 2001 for three years, partly because I was never nervous and did the same sort of things again and again and I was sort of jaded with it, and I think that communicated to audiences. So every new show I do I try and do something I think is going to be difficult.
In the last show it was trying to show a degree of sensitivity, I suppose, about having a kid and things like that. In the show before that it was about having one 40-minute routine which only had one joke at the end. This time around I thought I’d try and end on a song. It’s sort of not something you’d expect from me, and also it’d make me nervous.
It means I’ll be nervous all the way through the show until the end, because I’ve got this thing coming up. It was a deliberate thing to do, and when I can afford to get him along I have a fiddler to play along as well. He helped me learn it. It was a deliberate decision to make it hard for myself.
MM: I think a few people may have missed the Sex Pistols reference in the song last night.
Stewart: Yeah… I do like the song ‘Galway Girl’, and I was sad when it was in an advert, that’s what gave me the idea for the words, with Iggy Pop and John Lydon being in adverts. Also things you like generally, Nick Drake songs being in phone adverts and so on. I thought one of the only things you’ve got when you get older is culture that you love, books, films, music, comedy that means stuff to you. It’s really depressing when it’s taken away or the meaning is changed.
Although I hope that the song’s funny, I am also serious in saying that we need to value these things more and let them retain their original meaning and not abuse them.
You’ve only got one memory, you’ve only got one life and those special things are what keep people going, and certainly the Nick Drake albums that I loved, you just now think of that horrible fucking BT advert where his music is playing and they are talking about options for friends and family and stuff like that. It’s insane, it’s awful. I know that’s an old-fashioned point of view, but that’s what I think. Leave stuff alone (laughs).
MM: You also talk about the recent Magner’s Cider adverts, and of course the comedian Mark Watson is the ‘actor’ in them…
Stewart: Yeah, I don’t mention him in the show because I’ve got no personal animosity with him. I wish it hadn’t been him and had been some anonymous actor. I know him a little bit.
I’ve seen some of his work and I like it, but it would be hard to watch him again without thinking of advertising.
MM: I like Mark Watson, but wondered why he’d decided to do an advert.
Stewart: I expect he did it because he’s got a family. He always does very well in Edinburgh, but for the rest of the year you don’t really hear much of him. I would worry if I were Mark Watson. The brand of Mark Watson, as a quirky young fellow who thinks deeply about things and wears a Socrates T-shirt is compromised by being in an advert, on a purely practical level.
I would imagine there are people who would stop going to see him because of it. But then he might pick up a lot of people who like cider (laughs).
MM: You’re closing up the year with a month-long season at Leicester Square Theatre with If You Want a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One. Have you done a season that long before in London?
Stewart: I think it’s six or seven weeks. I have done five weeks before at Soho Theatre, which is half the size. It may be that people won’t come, but on the tour I’ve been getting 25-50% more people than usual, so maybe it will be all right. It’s about a 350 seat theatre, and I could probably have done a shorter run at a bigger venue, but I chose this as it’s sort of an optimum size for stand up, especially with what I do. It’s not a big show.
So I decided to do a longer run at Leicester Square and see what happens. I hope people come. It’s been good around the country so far.
MM: Do you have any new projects for next year?
Stewart: I’m not sure yet. The BBC are supposed to tell me at the end of January whether we’ll do a second series. If they will do a second series then I’ll get on with that and I’ll do some stuff in Edinburgh and film it before the summer of 2011. If they don’t do another series then I’ll write a new show for August next year and then I’ll tour it and hopefully be back everywhere I’ve been before in about a year’s time. It’d be really nice to do a TV show again, because it’s nice to earn that money, and it’s nice to earn that money without being away from home when you’ve got a little kid.
On the other hand, just having it on at all has been amazing and it’s transformed my life. The money meant we could get a mortgage and stay in London and get a flat with a room for our son. And the exposure, it’s not like being Michael McIntyre, but it does mean I get six hundred people rather than three hundred, and that makes the economics for touring so much easier. I can get someone to drive and come with us and help us with technical things, I can pay an opening act properly and I can pay a fiddler for some of the gigs and it just makes life easier.
I was just getting old and tired to be honest, and I don’t know if I could’ve carried on doing what I did without a little bit of a leg up. I was getting burnt out. I was in a sort of funny quandary where I’d get really good reviews in broadsheet newspapers, but I’m not the kind of comic who does corporate gigs, I can’t do them, I’m not very good at them, or do the commercial gigs like Jongleurs or the Comedy Store, so unless I’m on the small theatre/arts centre circuit it’s hard to know what to do exactly, and the telly show has probably really helped get people along.
It will be interesting to see what difference this makes long term, but when I used to tour there was always 10-15% of the audience, maybe more, where I just wasn’t what they wanted to see. They’d come to see some stand up comedy and they end up seeing this boring bloke going on really quietly about things they aren’t interested in. Because the TV show was an accurate reflection of that, those people aren’t coming on this tour.
There was a bloke in Worthing that hated it, but on the whole, most of the people who come know what they’re coming to. You can have more fun with them and there are more of them. In fact, a lot of people who think they don’t like stand up come and see me because it’s not like other stand up.
It’s helped to whittle out trouble, the people who wouldn’t get it in an audience, which is nice, but on the other hand all of us think that who we are now is the sum total of all our experience in the past and I wouldn’t want to undo the twenty years I’ve had doing gigs to people who didn’t really like me (laughs).
I think it helped me become what I am now. It is nice now, at 41, when you have a kid and want to earn some money to be playing to large groups of people that actually want to see you (laughs).