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Waterfront Festival

Interview: Stewart Lee

17 October 10 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Gavin Evans

"I really like Nottingham, but because of what was going on in the media it seemed like a good thing to do an opera about."

Stewart Lee first came to public attention as the Morrisey lookalike half of 90’s comedy duo Lee and Herring, making TV shows such as Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy. Since then he’s quit stand-up and then started back up again, writing operas about Jerry Springer and Nottingham binge-drinking, as well as a bloody good book about being funny, along the way…

What first inspired you to write your book How I Escaped My Certain Fate?
When you get on television you get approached by publishers who want you do some kind of trashy cash in thing to be sold in supermarkets. I knew I couldn’t do that as it’s just not my style.
But then Faber & Faber, the poetry publisher, asked me if there was anything I wanted to do. It occurred to me that there were a lot of books about comedians and their lives, how funny they were at school and all their celebrity friends. But there weren’t many about the actual process of putting an act together.
Initially I wanted to do a book of transcripts of stand-up with notes on the facing page all the way through, like Faber had done when they put out a version of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland with Ezra Pound’s notes. It’s been filed under biography in some bookshops, but it isn’t really a biography. I’ve tried to keep the personal details out of it, apart from where they are relevant to the three stand-up sets that I write about in there.

It has had really good reviews. Did you expect that? Do you care?
I didn’t expect it to be honest and I don’t think the publisher did either. As the book explains, usually when I get bad reviews for my work or get dismissed by people, it’s because of things that I choose to do. It’s not that I can’t do the usual routines, but I wanted to do it a certain way. So I’m really pleased that people seem to have got it as I went out on a bit of a limb for it. It’s the first thing like that which both the publisher and I have done and the Editor Andy Miller worked really hard on it, so I’m really glad it’s got good reviews. Plus, if it sells well, it means that we might actually get some money out of it – which will be nice.

You talk about finances a bit in the book too. Because we see comedians on telly people think you’re minted. But that’s not always the case is it..?
It’s much better for me now. That book was written before I’d done the recent TV gigs and by the time of the third transcript I had left my old agent. I’ve got much more of a grip of how to tour in a cost-effective way now. But during that period I’d spent a lot of time working on Jerry Springer The Opera and that didn’t really pay me anything in the end. Also, I can’t really do the corporate gigs like Jongleurs, because I don’t have that kind of act. But if I was to write a book about the three acts I’ve done since then I’d have to talk about the difference having gone into profit makes and also what difference the perception of you as a success makes. I’m back on television now and so I’m part of the establishment again – and that does change the way that you relate to a comedy audience.

The last few years have been a second resurgence for you though. I’m from the generation that remembers Fist of Fun
That series was on TV just before comedy touring had really taken off and before everything got put onto DVD – which it’s still not been out on. It was never repeated and it was before channels like Dave, where you can watch everything again. Ultimately it got cancelled because not enough people seemed to like it...
But both Richard and I have found a decade or more later that journalists like yourself, promoters and people that run venues and labels often remember us. They were teenagers back then, but now they’re able to support us in a more obvious way. So it’s kind of weird, but it took us a long time to realise that we’d ever been popular.

How did you ever get away with the follow-up This Morning with Richard Not Judy going out in a Sunday afternoon terrestrial TV slot – with satirical Jesus and all?
It wouldn’t happen now – but it just sort of went in under the radar. Both Richard and I have been lucky like that, because of circumstances we’ve been able to get on with our work with a minimum of fuss. The person that commissioned it had left and the new head of BBC2 just didn’t like us and had never watched our show. Also it was before real dawn of the internet and it was much harder for people to complain about things.

Tell us about the binge-drinking opera you wrote about Nottingham.
Richard Thomas was the composer of Jerry Springer The Opera and he got a commission to do a series of six short operas for BBC television. I was supposed to write some of them, but I dropped out early on as I left Avalon, the management company that were making it.  But before I left I wrote the words for one that was set in Nottingham. I wasn’t involved at all with the staging or filming of it, but the words are mine. It’s based on an episode of Panorama, which was about the alcohol crime in the city. There was a load of other stuff at the end that they had to cut, like I had Robin Hood coming out of the River Trent to save the town. I’ve gigged Nottingham a few times I actually really like the place, but because of what was going on in the media at the time it seemed like a good thing to do an opera about.

When you do stand-up, you like to alienate a crowd and then draw them back in. What is it that makes you want to do that?
Well, it’s like juggling. It’s not very exciting to watch unless he drops a plate near the beginning. At that point you’re reminded that you are actually watching something live and that there is something at stake. You need a reminder that there is jeopardy in the room… that something could go wrong.

Around the time of Stewart Lee’s Comedy vehicle, some critics started to call you “A British Bill Hicks.” Did he have any influence on your recent work?
No. Most of us comedians pre-date him. No-one was really aware of him in the UK until about 1993. I think the first two of his stand-up albums have dated badly, but there is one routine he has that I still think is great. It’s the one where he talks about America arming the world with weapons and then compares it to Jack Palance in Shane. That routine did influence me, because it’s quite dramatic and there’s lots of space in it. It didn’t occur to me to mention him in the book, he’s the kind of person people know about and I think he’s really good. But what I do isn’t really like him. He didn’t do anything silly like I do; his stuff was almost exclusively political and social. The people that I would be happy to say I’ve been influenced by are Simon Munnery, Ted Chippington, Kevin McAleer and Johnny Vegas.

When you satirise people like Jerry Springer or Richard and Judy, do you ever get any feedback from them?
I’ve met Richard and Judy twice. I met them once before we did that programme and they weren’t very nice. Then I met them after and Judy Finnegan said our work was stupid and that I was comedy about nothing. We thought that was really funny, so we used that quote on the posters. I went on their show about ten years after the series and Richard told me a story about how he’d gone on holiday and watched a man having sex with a horse. We met Jerry Springer before he’d seen Jerry Springer The Opera and he said he’d heard it was great and that he wasn’t going to sue us. Then we saw him again after he’d seen it in Edinburgh and he really liked it and everyone in the room gave him a standing ovation. Then he saw it again in London and I think he understood it for the first time and realised it was critical of him and what he stood for. That time he told me that I was a bad person and that I was the same as an apologist for the holocaust. I don’t really know what he meant by that.

Do you think you’ll ever work with Richard Herring again?
In about 25 years time. We’ve decided that it will be best left until our sixties or seventies – that it will be much funnier then. Although I did do a few minutes with him in Edinburgh on stage this year, where he came up and ripped a copy of my book up. I think there’s a clip of that on YouTube somewhere.

How has being a father changed your outlook on life and your career?
You have to be more positive about things. You’re more tired. You can’t afford to entertain such a degree of cynicism because you hope the world will improve for your own child. It also makes you more squeamish about bad taste humour because you have a connection with the world and you imagine things happening to someone you love – which you never really think about before. It means you write quite differently, because you have less time and so I work things out on stage more. But on the whole it’s been really good and it’s been good for the work because it gives you a slightly different outlook on the world.

How does it feel when you see Bridget performing material about your family on stage?
I really like it. I met Bridget before I’d seen her act and I was really pleased that I thought it was funny when I finally did. We’ve got an idea about doing a show together actually, where we both describe the same events from our own individual points of view. I think that could be quite funny because one of the things about being married to another comic is that you have to decide who get’s to talk about events that happen to you both. Our honeymoon was quite stupid and Bridget got that, whereas I got to talk about the rats in the apartment where we once lived.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a book called The Tain, which is an old Irish folk tale about some people trying to catch a bull. I recently went to Ireland and I bought it to read there.

What was the last thing that made you laugh?
It was this comic called Lobster Johnson by Mike Mignola who wrote Hellboy. It’s about a guy in the 1930’s who has the powers of a lobster.

What was the last thing that made you cry?
It was on Saturday night in Galway, watching this little Irish folk trio in a pub there.

Tell us about Darrell from Just The Tonic…
This is the kind of man he is: My dad used to be obsessed by boiled sweets and he died recently and I picked up all this stuff that was his from his brothers. There were loads and loads of packets of sweets and I put them in the glove compartment of the car and thought “as I eat those I’ll think of my dad”.
I gave Darrell a lift up to Nottingham from London. In the glove compartment of my mini were a load of boiled sweets. At one point I got out to get petrol. Then a few days later I noticed that all the packets of sweets had gone except for one. I asked Darrell about it and he said it wasn’t anything to do with him. Then that guy he works with said that Darrell had stolen them all and they were all in his office and that he used to sit and laugh about how he’d got all these sweets off me.

Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?
It’s always great to do Nottingham. I think Darrell does a really good thing there by running a comedy club that is an alternative. All the major cities in England now have a Jongleurs, but they all need something else too, so that new talent is developed. I think with the Just The Tonic venues in London and Edinburgh as well, Darrell is a really valuable part of the UK comedy scene. So I’m looking forward to the gig…

Stewart Lee plays Just The Tonic on Monday 18 October. Tickets are £16. His book How I Escaped My Certain Fate is available from bookshops now.

Stewart Lee website



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