Stewart Lee is in the midst of his most successful period as a stand-up comedian. In 2012, the BBC commissioned two more six-part series of the highly acclaimed Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, his live shows are more popular than ever and he is up for two British Comedy Awards, one for Best Male TV Comic and the other for Best Comedy Entertainment Programme. After years spent on the periphery and somewhat under-appreciated, Lee now holds a position amongst the British comedy elite worthy of his talent.
He remains eminently political, doing more than anybody inside Westminster to expose Ukip’s nonsensical and offensive approach to politics, while promoting the virtues of immigration in a way that should make the Labour party sit up and take note. His destruction of the anti-Muslim sentiment that still blights British society has surely been the most remarkable achievement by any comedian in recent times.
The alternative comedy movement pioneered in the 1980s remains at the heart of his work: bigotry is attacked and the work of comedians who mock minorities is rejected. Important sociopolitical themes are discussed sympathetically and thoughtfully, and mixed with silliness, personal experience and an ability to make his audience feel as uncomfortable as possible. It’s an approach which has seen Lee’s audience become bigger and more diverse, without the need for big promotional campaigns or appearances on primetime TV panel shows.
The New Statesman recently caught up with him to discuss his work and his view on politics. He was typically engaging and forthright, and what follows is an extract from that conversation.
I wanted to start with the process of writing stand up. I often hear great musicians say their writing comes very naturally, and I was wondering how it works for you.
Well, do you know what…I don’t know. I almost have no idea where things come from, which is increasingly terrifying. The process of getting the telly stuff is pretty different to getting the one-man shows together. The one-man shows, like Carpet Remnant World, 41st Best Stand Up Ever or If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask for One, normally there’s some particular thing that’s concerning you at that point that becomes a thing to hang it all on – a particular feeling, or whatever, and it gradually sort of spreads out.
With the telly ones, like the two I’m doing at the moment, I have to come up with six 25-minute bits that work as units, and that’s harder. Writing six half-hour parts for telly is like a sitcom. You can’t destroy the character, you have to be able to reset him to zero for next week. Whereas, in the tour shows over two hours, you can end up with him in a much worse position than when he started because it hasn’t got to begin again immediately. So they’re more like writing films, I suppose, or a novel. The telly stand up is like a sitcom where you can throw all these things at this person but you can’t break him. You can have him express particular opinions, but somehow he’s got to find his way back to the position he started at.
Fifteen or twenty years ago with stand up, I used to write stuff, learn it and do it. Now, I have some bullet points or particular lines that are strong and have a punchy rhythm to them, then I try to leave space for improvisation, and I make sure before recording for the telly I get a tour going, with dozens, if not hundreds, of gigs to work it all out and work out where all the breathing spaces are.
The sad thing about that is some of the things that do have a good improvised feel and can respond to things in the room differently every night but still get you where you need to be in a narrative sense, they tend to become not general improvisations but a decision tree. So after about 50 or 100 times, most of what will happen, can happen, so you have all these fall-back positions for them.
I don’t really have a set method and it’s terrifying because I was quite pleased with the last series and then, having to write the next one, I sort of can’t remember how it came together. I know one episode people liked about Ukip, I was in the car in the morning, I had the Today programme on, and I heard an interview with Paul Nuttall that was quite silly. I went home, found a transcript of it, and that episode was written in a couple of hours. Then another one, I fell off a table at home and nearly knocked myself out, and I started trying to write something about that, and that all came together in about a day. But then the episode that was about dogs and London and house prices and politics and the mayor and all that sort of thing – the one which equated attitude to dogs with attitudes to the poor – it took me about a year of re-writing that. I must have written 90 minutes or two hours of stuff for that half hour, but I kept chopping and changing it. It just never came together for months and months, it was so laborious, and I kept having to try different bits.
Stewart Lee on Ukip’s Paul Nuttall
The other problem with trying to write things for the next 18 months is…when the bit I wrote about Ukip two-and-a-half years ago, which went out about a year ago, Ukip were a silly, joke party, whereas now they’re quite a serious proposition. You would not have seen that happening over the course of a year. I wrote a bit in July about attitudes to Islam, and that was gonna be an idea for a half-hour block, but attitudes to Islam have been incredibly affected in the last few months because of the sexual abuse rings, Isis, and also, on the flip side, how well the Muslim community in Britain have dealt with distancing themselves from Isis, so it’s not as simple as it was even three months ago.
On the other hand, Scottish independence has resolved itself, so you can write something about that, and in May we will or will not have a new government, so that gives me six months to get something about that together. There’s not much point trying to write anything about the government at the moment because it might be no use by the backend of next year. So it’s all a bit difficult.
I’ve always wondered how much of your stuff is improvised.
Well, a lot more than it used to be. I got a lot more confident with that, and I’ve tried to build spaces in where I can change things. It’s never going to be as improvised as someone like Ross Noble or a proper jazz improviser because most of the pieces have a story to them, or an argumentative through-line, which you’ve got to get back to.
What was very satisfying about the last telly series was because I’d done so much time on stage with the material before I came to film it, on two or three occasions, when things happened in the room, I was happy to sacrifice some good material that I’d written in order to pursue an improvisation.
What I sort of do is let the character of Stewart Lee say things and do things and go to places I wouldn’t necessarily want to personally, and then he gets me into these difficult positions where I have to write him out of them. So you create a dialogue in your own head, which is sort of what a writing team does or musicians playing together do. They can force each other into new modes of thought or performances, but I’m on my own so I have to create a split personality and do it to myself. Sometimes I’ll be on stage and I’ll be sort of annoyed at where I’m going because I then know that I’ve got to get myself out of it, but that’s half the fun of it.
Tim Kirkby, Stewart Lee and Richard Webb of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle after winning at the 2012 Baftas. Photo: Tim Whitby/Getty
You mentioned there this distinction between the character on stage, which is a sort of exaggerated version of yourself, and the real Stewart Lee. What are the differences? Talking to you today, you seem much more amiable and much less delusional than the person on stage.
I’ve had to hang on to a lot of things from my teens and twenties. I’m very surprised that I’ve got to the point where I talk about him as a character. Part of the problem is when you do 150 shows on the same tour, if there’s a bit where you lose your temper, or whatever, you can’t really do that for real every night without going nuts. So you have to create a distance.
It’s very important to him that he’s ideologically sound, and I do agree with all that sort of stuff, but for the onstage Stewart Lee that’s tied up with a level of self-esteem and superiority. He wants have correct political views because he wants to judge people, but I also agree with them [laughs]. I agree with them but not for the same reasons!
He’s much more petty and spiteful than I am, and he’s got a sense he’s been overlooked in some way and should be getting more credit for what he’s done. He’s also more depressed than I am, although, I do have a tendency to look on the bad side of things, but he does it much worse than me. And he’s more prone to temperamental outbursts. All those things are in me but they’re things I’ve learned to suppress or I’ve grown out of, but I hang on to them in him because they make for good comedy. I mean, nobody wants to go out and see an entirely reasonable person talking reasonably about things for two hours. There has to be some sort of madness about it, so even though I agree with him politically and share lots of his dislike for people, it’s sort of magnified for comic effect.
I’ve seen you talk before about how you really try and make sure nobody can be offended by your comedy unless they’re really going out of their way to do so. Has anybody ever criticised one of your jokes and you’ve looked back and thought maybe they’re right?
Yeah, and I take that on board, and, in fact, there’s things I’ve changed because people have said that. I was doing a bit a few years ago about things that people say about me on the internet, and somebody had described me as looking like Morrissey with Down’s Syndrome. I read that out in a huge list of things, the idea of which was to show how disgusting the public are and that they criticise us for poor taste but will say these things themselves. One couple, whose kids had Down’s Syndrome, rang up and said: “I know you’ve not meant to make fun of people with Down’s Syndrome, it’s about what the public say, but we’ve come out for a night out and it really smacks us out of the zone we’re in to have to think about what those words mean in that context,” and I thought, yeah, the possible offence that could cause is too important to justify keeping this bit in.
Likewise, there was a bit in the last telly series where I make fun of Paul Nuttalls [sic] from the Ukips by using stereotypes of Liverpool about him. And one of the stereotypes about Liverpool I included was that they have a penchant for sentimentality, and sort of thinking of it in terms of the music and nostalgia-based comedy they had with Tom O’Connor in the 70s and whatever, and one or two people came up to me who seemed to think I was making fun of attitudes to Hillsborough, which hadn’t occurred to me at any point. Had I thought people would think that, I would have done it differently.
I don’t mind causing offence when I intend to, but I don’t like causing it accidentally.
Am I right in thinking you’ve moved from Stoke Newington now?
No, I still live in Stoke Newington. I got asked to write a thing for the Observer, and I wrote about Russell Brand’s politics, and it struck me that a lot of people writing things criticising Russell Brand’s politics have a sort of stake on the status quo remaining as it is. And I thought the person writing that article, me, needed a greater stake in the inequality of wealth in society, so it would be funnier for them to be complaining about Russell Brand. So I gave the person writing it, me, a backstory of having bought a mansion in the countryside. But I haven’t done that. I wanted people to go: “Oh, look, he’s one of those wankers who doesn’t want to hear criticism of society because he’s doing alright.”
I think Russell Brand’s books should be criticised for being rubbish – but it is true that there’s a professional class of opinion-former who has a financial interest in their job not being taken away. So I thought it would make sense to make myself appear like one of those people. I didn’t realise how inconvenient it would be for the next few weeks after writing it!
It does strike me as somewhat odd that Russell Brand is now seen by some as the potential leader of a revolution. What do you think of it?
Well, I think, in the same way as Ukip tells us about the lack of options rather than Ukip’s strengths, Russell Brand’s popularity tells us about the lack of options rather than Russell Brand’s strengths. My worry is that it will blow up in everyone’s face and discredit the left, and make it difficult to take seriously anyone who’s giving him any support, ya know?
I know you’ve done some sketches on immigration – ones I feel have helped further the left’s cause where that’s concerned – but do you think there are any negative aspects of immigration? Do those arguing on the other side of the debate have any legitimate points?
Well, you probably need to spend more on it. If you’re going to rationalise ongoing immigration by saying we need more workers to come in, generate income, pay tax – particularly if we’re going to support an increasingly elderly population – then you probably need to give more thought to infrastructure of schools, or whatever. But beyond that, I’ve pretty much always lived in multi-cultural communities and they seem to function reasonably well, to me. It seems that a lot of the anxiety about them comes from people who don’t live in them. I think that starts to ebb away as places get more jumbled up.
The reason I did the Ukip bit, first and foremost, in the last series, is because what Paul Nuttalls was saying to the Bulgarian ambassador on the Today programme that morning was transparently dishonest, manipulative and comically un-self-aware. And if I heard a Labour politician talking in the same way about something and it gave me an idea, I would do something about it. What is surprising to me is, given how stupid lots of the things Ukip say are, how a lot of the comedy about them tends to be just dismissive or personality based, when in fact their grasp of issues is so moronic it would actually be easier to engage with it in a slightly deeper way. So I don’t really know why that isn’t happening, perhaps because people would be accused of bias, I don’t know.
The things that Ukip say just don’t add up, and the reason people should do comedy about Ukip is not about political bias but because they’re the funniest party at the moment [laughs].
They seem to get an awful lot of media coverage despite their vile views.
People like that always do. They’re getting a disproportionately large amount of airtime and print media column inches, and they claim that they’re being discriminated against.
How successful can they be?
Probably massively successful. Probably more successful than they are already because they’re concentrating on one thing that isn’t massively well-understood. Big holes in their policies are never questioned or discussed.
There isn’t a party making the case for immigration, as far as I can tell. Why do you think that is?
Well, no one would make it.
Why aren’t Labour making it?
It’d be vote-loser.
What are your thoughts on Twitter?
Well, some things are really good about it. It’s really easy to mobilise people in a positive way, to get them to do something or to change something. When I did Jerry Springer: The Opera, there was a big fuss, largely centred around the misrepresentation of its content. Had Twitter existed then, that would have been over in a week because people who had actually seen it would have been able to get control of the story through social media.
Personally, I don’t have a Twitter account. I like to be in control of the way the stand up of Stewart Lee is perceived, I don’t want to have to engage with individual people. Also, when I do look at it, loads of factually inaccurate things about me are written. If I was on Twitter, I’d want to engage with them, and correct them, and it would take up a lot of time.
I also don’t want to be a part of it because I hate the feeling of being spied on and trapped all the time, and when I look at it, I can see where I’ve been, where I’ve been with my kids, what I’ve been doing, and I don’t like that and I don’t think people should do that.
I just think there’s a cut-off point. If someone wants to get in touch with me, I’ve got a website and there’s a contract address on it, but to do it in this public forum, I think it’s really bad. Also, when I look on it, there’s people I know, like, pissed at half-past-two in the morning slagging me off who probably wouldn’t if they were sober, and I think it’s like a car: you probably shouldn’t be able to get in it drunk and just range around. We’ve lost all sense of privacy and appropriate spaces for comments and I don’t want anything to do with it.
But Twitter’s been helpful to me, because one of the things panicked TV execs will do now is when they’ve commissioned something and it’s being broadcast, they switch Twitter on and look at people chattering about it, and when the last series came out lots of people were saying how much they liked it and I know that makes a difference. I also know that even though I don’t have a Twitter account, when I’ve got live dates and stuff, people will promote it off their own backs through Twitter, so I can see the good things about it. It’s just that, you know, I’m nearly 50, and I don’t want to have to spend the last 30 years of my life from this point having to deal with stuff like that.
I’m kind of fed up with new things. I wish I’d never got any CDs and kept vinyl, and then waited for MP3s to come out…the sort of intermediary phase seems pointless. I’ll miss out on Twitter and wait until the thoughts of every single person in the world are directly broadcast into our brains through some kind of chip, and you can choose to filter them as you wish.
Stewart Lee on stage in 2006. Photo: Jo Hale/Getty
You make your audience feel uncomfortable. How did that become part of your shows?
It just sort of came about. It was accelerated by being involved with Jerry Springer: The Opera. That would have ticked over fine for years if no loonies had found out about it. If it had been just ticking over at the National Theatre or Battersea Arts Centre, or if it had been made on a small enough budget to play little arts centres and stuff, it would have been alright, but it sort of got into a mainstream space where it was written about by tabloid newspapers, and then people who half understood it heard about it without seeing it and got really angry about it. After that I thought with stand up, if I could do it cheaply enough, and that meant leaving a big management company as well, then there was no need for to have very big audiences, and, in fact, it would be a positive to sort of take control of the situation. So this was all happening on my terms and it wasn’t happening for the audience, and if you want to dislike, that’s up to you and nothing to do with me.
So it was really about trying to think about what could be a way forward having been involved in this massive success but seen nothing of it, really, and then have it effectively closed down, I wondered whether it was possible to more deliberately build an audience that would get what you were doing and also they would understand that if they didn’t like it they had no recourse, and to do that in a cost-effective way.
That’s why to this day I always make sure I put quotes on the posters or in the promotional literature of people who actively don’t like it, like the Telegraph saying it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen, or the woman from Ukip saying I should be banned. I put those on posters and things so that people can’t come in and go: “I didn’t like it,” because I can go: “well, lots of people don’t, look, it’s on the poster that they do” [laughs].
It’s been nice because I do have quite nice audiences, and they sort of pretend to be people you wouldn’t mind meeting. Obviously you can’t, it’d be awful, but when you’re flogging stuff to them afterwards, I see the same faces every year, and they’re alright, yeah. It’s quite a mix now, as well, of types of people, much more than they were. In fact, if I keep saying: “this show is aimed at middle-class, white, liberal Guardian readers,” then people who aren’t that think: “I’ll go to that, I’m not having him telling me it’s not for me” [laughs]. And you get really diverse groups of people.
There seems to be so much eagerness to please everyone. Nothing else has worked out for me, and in the last five years this has worked out very well, and I want to keep it going, and I’m interested now in what it would be like being 80 and doing this. You’re not gonna get to that by appearing to want to appease people, they’ve got to come to you on your terms.
The other thing is, because I have fairly low overheads and a small team around me, I can keep ticket prices cheaper than other people who are as acclaimed as me. So if my show’s not what people are expecting, or I do something that doesn’t work or whatever, then it’s not like it’s cost them a hundred quid. They’ll probably come along to the next one and see what happens next time.
The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis talks a lot at the moment about what he calls “static culture,” which is this idea that artists – particularly musicians – are simply regurgitating things from the past. He thinks we’re all too self-aware and struggling to create anything truly original. Do you agree with him?
I don’t know in comedy. I’m a big music fan and an interesting problem and advantage that’s been created by the internet with music is that young people making it can experience all eras of music simultaneously, whereas with us, apart from a few famous names, when something was out it disappeared, and you had to go to a record fair or a secondhand shop if you wanted to find even a Byrds album in the Eighties. You couldn’t hear some of the bigger names of the Sixties simultaneously, whereas now you’re influenced by all things simultaneously.
As for comedy, I don’t know. I think I was lucky that I got into comedy and started doing stand up in an interesting period. There was still that, sort of, afterburn of the Sixties Oxbridge satire movement, but there was also the post-punk thing of alternative comedy, which in the Eighties when we began was incredibly diverse. It could mean all sorts of different things. It wasn’t just men wandering round talking about stuff, there were crazy double acts and all sorts of things, so it was a really good era to get into comedy.
But I know what he means, Adam Curtis. That bloke Simon Reynolds wrote a book about post-punk a few years ago, and he said that popular culture used to be like a rocket ship, moving forward and jettisoning separate sections that were left behind it, but it isn’t like that anymore because all the sections from the cultural rocket ship are available to us simultaneously. One of the reasons I don’t listen to much new music anymore is partly because what’s available from the past keeps expanding at such a rate that you find more and more things from 30, 40, 50 years ago that are more like what you like than things happening now. So, yeah, I know what Adam Curtis means.
I’ve heard you talk about the alternative comedy movement in the Eighties, and how it was a rejection of the kind of comedy that mocked ethnic minorities and other such nonsense, and it was supposed to be a little more intelligent with a political agenda to it. Is that movement still the blueprint for your work today?
It’s interesting. In the Nineties and the Noughties, there was a feeling prejudice was dealt with and it was over, and that society was fair and we didn’t need to have government units that encouraged equality anymore, and so it was alright for people to do ironic gay characters and do a bit of blacking up, or whatever, but I wonder if now, when we’ve got 25 per cent of the population saying they would vote for a party that has done deals in Europe with people who aren’t entirely convinced the Holocaust happened, can you still do that in this climate? And I don’t know what the answer is, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the rise of a pipe-and-slippers version of the far right in Britain means people become more anxious about being misunderstood if they’re doing something that’s to do with race, for example.
In the Eighties, in lots of areas of popular culture – and, again, Simon Reynolds is very good on this – there were sort of ideological battles being fought about the simplest things and the feeling was those battles had been won, so people could stop worrying about all these troublesome things. But I think what’s happening now shows they haven’t. If the Ukips think they can have Mike Read singing a Calypso in a funny Jamaican accent, and have people talking about bongo bongo land, and saying that gays have caused flooding, then it’s probably not the case, is it?
There is a clear anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim sentiment that permeates much of the British media and British culture. Why does it exist and how can it be defeated?
It exists because of the burka and religious separation in schools and a fear of the unknown, and in recent months it exists because of Islamic State and people going abroad to fight against British troops, and because there’s a perception that these sex abuse rings in various northern towns, as well as being the result of a failure by the police to take the concerns of white working class girls seriously, are about a politically correct anxiety to talk about race or culture as a factor. But we’ve been through this sort of thing with different communities in British society before where the actions of a minority of certain outposts of a culture becomes a reason to demonise them in their entirety, and I think we can get through it. And the other thing that’s not been factored in is that second or third generations of any immigrant groups in the UK normally tend to soften the more pronounced aspects of their culture.
Going back to your early life when you were adopted at a young age, I think you have achieved more than maybe would have been expected from someone in your position, and certainly more than someone born into your position today. How problematic is the lack of social mobility in society?
I can only understand the world through comedy and arts, that’s all I’ve ever had immediate experience of, but I think you’ll see a much narrower social pool of people making art, whether it’s comedy or music or theatre or whatever, because you simply can’t afford it. When we came to London in the Eighties, you could have been in the squat or you could have got cheap rent and a temping job. I mean, the sort of jobs I had that bought me 10 years to try and get good at comedy were things like…I had a research job for a publisher for about 18 months, just going round fact checking. Nowadays that would be an internship which you wouldn’t even get paid for, so that little space has fallen apart.
Stewart Lee on university funding
The, sort of, dole culture which, rightly or wrongly, bought breathing space for loads of artists who went on to make a lot of money for the country in the nineties and noughties has disappeared. Who’s going to take on the study of an art subject which doesn’t have an obvious vocational application for a £30,000 debt? I think you’re going to see whole areas of knowledge disappear, and knowledge culturally informs and colours the country. I think it’s really bad. In the eighties, when the National Front were on the move, there was Rock Against Racism and lots of people in comedy did stuff about it, and I wonder why partly there isn’t a kind of more obvious cultural response to Ukip is because the sort of young people who might have had something to say about it don’t really have any access anymore to the channels of communication.
I remember listening to something on Radio 4 where you absolutely schooled a live audience on the virtues of political correctness. It really was a remarkable moment. What are your memories of that?
I lost my rag, ya know? The programme was supposed to be about sacred cows, and, of course, the perception is that political correctness is a sacred cow, but, actually, what is a sacred cow is to defend it. And this random selection of Radio 4 listeners were just happy to sit there and say: “political correctness has gone mad”, and when asked to say why they thought that was or what exactly was wrong with it, they couldn’t, really.
Interestingly, I said in that I remembered as a child there being an election campaign fought in Birmingham that said: “If you want a n***a for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour,” and first of all people were saying that never happened, no one would do that, but they did in Smethwick 1965. And then people say: “well, how do you remember it, you were born in 1968?” and the reason I remember it is because people talked about it and that sort of language was not frowned upon, it was part of common currency in the culture I grew up in, and that phrase was often quoted because it had been legitimised by being used by a major party. And I’m sure Ukip would use it if they could! [laughs]. I ended up writing a routine that was just inspired by that moment. Just the cliche of people saying “political correctness gone mad”.
Stewart Lee on political correctness
It was slightly incoherent, the rant on Radio 4, but it wasn’t planned and I just didn’t want to sit there in front of all those people and have to listen to something that just isn’t true being put forward as gospel. But that’s why I don’t do programmes like that, or panel shows, because I don’t really know how to work them. Jimmy Carr very kindly got me on 8 Out Of 10 Cats once and they were all making fun of Big Brother, and I said something like: “Isn’t it funny how this programme and Big Brother are both made by the same company, Endemol”. And it was as if Endemol creates a product which it knows is ridiculous and exploitative, but it also creates a programme which satirises it and it makes money out of both of them. And the people in the audience, started booing – I don’t know why – and then Jimmy Carr said to me: “I can honestly say of everything that’s ever been said on this programme, that’s the least likely to make the edit.” I sort of thought it was funny; I wasn’t trying to be obstructive. I just thought it was funny how people can sit there and not realise the irony of that.
Finally…do we have a serious party representing the left anymore?
It’s hard to know. Lots of what Labour does is reactive rather than proactive at the moment. The Greens are an unknown quantity in terms of how they put social policy into practice and, who knows, if Ukip can suddenly make that kind of surge, maybe there’s another alternative.
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (Series 3) DVD is out now and 2015 touring dates now on sale at www.stewartlee.co.uk