Comedy for the Head: An Interview with Stewart Lee

Kevin Breathnach
Posted October 9, 2013 in Comedy

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Stewart Lee is not the kind of comedian to laugh at his own jokes, if he ever even makes one. His onstage persona is that of a dour and bitter middle-aged man who is rarely seen to take any joy in the events he is presiding over. And so it comes as a nice surprise to find that in interview, when he lets fall the usually well-fitted mask to speak with insight and sincerity about his work, Lee laughs and laughs, often and uproariously, at things he has said that do not seem particularly funny at all. This is a charge more often levelled at Lee’s audience by occasional critics who either don’t understand or appreciate that with Lee the fun parts take place beneath the often-barren comedic surface of his act (Lee writes of winning ‘laughs at the absence of a joke’). This interview was conducted over the telephone: what Lee was laughing at, only Lee knows. His new show, Much A-Stew About Nothing, is described as a ‘road test’ for television touching on issues as diverse as justifiable shoplifting, vasectomies and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry.

Stewart Lee plays Vicar Street on the 20 and 21 of October.

Tell me about the new show. Is it really as disorganized as the press release makes it out to be?

Every two years or so for the last six or seven years, I’ve done a TV series for BBC2 called Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. I need to write six half-hours of material for that, and I find it useful to run those in by touring them so that when I come to record, I really know the stuff, I can play around with it, I can improvise and change things in the moment, and I don’t have to work off an autocue like all these autocue-reading comedians. The idea is to try record the television series as close to actual stand-up as possible. The other tours I do, which are normally about 90 to 120 minutes long, they all have a sort of through-line to them. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, and something will be different about the character of me by the end of it. That doesn’t really work for the half-hours on the telly. Those are a bit like sitcom episodes in that you can’t break the character because you’d have to reset it for next week. The long-form shows tend to be where I develop ideas and discover things. I have to pull all that back a bit for the telly. In a theatre, the audience are trapped there. I mean, they can walk out, but normally they stay. With them, you can presuppose more, you can load much more onto them. But on telly it’s harder to hold onto an idea for half an hour without varying it because people can just turn over, or leave a room, or smash the television up in a rage.

So, this tour will be three or four half-hour bits. The audience probably won’t notice that there’ll be no through-line. I don’t know if they notice anyway, to be honest. I think maybe about a month later they go: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve just realised that whole show fitted together and it was actually about something’. Ideally in comedy, people are too busy laughing to be looking at things like subtext and character development, so it shouldn’t make much difference, but I will know as I’m doing it that I’m trying to bring each bit in to about 28 minutes and then start up on the next bit. It’ll be fine, though. I promise to do at least the same amount of time as anyone else would do.

That’s good to know.

The other thing is that it’ll often be a half different show every other night. But I suppose that won’t be true so much of the Ireland shows because there’s a couple of episodes I probably wouldn’t try since they’d probably be too parochial with regards to British politics. I know everyone likes to think they know everything, but I still think it’s slightly rude to go to another country and expect the audience to know very specific things about another country’s politics. That doesn’t seem to bother American stand-ups, though.

Do you think the character you develop in the long-form shows allows you to do certain jokes that you wouldn’t be able to do in the half-hour pieces? 

Oh, yeah. I mean, at the end of a two-hour live show, I’ve usually bought myself a lot of trust and a lot of time. I’ve described these things that have happened to me which in turn allow me to say certain other things. You earn the right to be horrible or sentimental. It’s much harder to do that in half an hour. You’re starting from scratch. That’s why it annoys me when things get taken out of context. Like, if I say a nasty thing about someone at the end of a two-hour show in which I’ve complained about my life, that’s different to me just saying it to you now, because I’ve established a precedent and a logic and a reason for the person onstage thinking that nasty thing. But these things still get taken out of context and quoted as if I’ve just rung somebody up and said I hope such-and-such a person dies. What I try do with the 30-minute shows is build little shapes into them, little arcs or stories, you know. It doesn’t always work. In the second series, I think it was starting to work really well. I don’t know if this one will be as good. At the moment, it doesn’t look like it. But I still have three months.

You have two books published by Faber, in the footnotes of which you explain the origins, the intentions and the mechanics of your last four tour shows. In a footnote to the first one, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, you talk about a too-tight pair of jeans you used to wear onstage so that you’d look like somebody who mistakenly thought they could get away with wearing them. What do you think is so appealing about this type of dramatic irony in stand-up?

It’s funny you should bring those up. I’ve actually just found another pair of jeans like them. I’ve been really missing them for years, but what’s great now is that I’m about a stone heavier than I was the last time I had a pair like them. I look even more like someone who shouldn’t be wearing them but still just enough that you’d be slightly embarrassed to mention it to me.

As far as dramatic irony goes – that is, you’re seeing one thing but another thing is happening – that’s what I think interesting stand-up is all about. Normally, a comedian says a joke and then that’s it. But for me the difference between jokes and actual stand-up is that a good joke, which lots of people write, like Tim Vine or Gary Delaney, a good joke can be put in an email and sent to someone, it can be told in a pub by someone else, it can be put in a Christmas cracker. A joke can work anywhere. But in actual stand-up, what the person says is changed by who they are. You try to build a character that changes the meaning of what you’re saying. The joke shouldn’t exist in isolation from the person.

Kevin McAleer, whom I love, is a master of this. Essentially, he tells very monotonous stories in such a way that it seems he doesn’t understand their implications. He speaks as if he is actually angry by the reaction of everyone around him, who are in fact behaving quite reasonably. He doesn’t seem to understand what they’re doing, and yet it’s obvious to us, the audience, that they’re trying to help, that they’re just doing their job to an extent. He doesn’t understand what they’re doing, he becomes increasingly frustrated with them, and talks to us as if all these reasonable people are idiots. Kevin McAleer the man knows what he’s doing, but the character onstage is a different thing. Whereas with a joke, that’s just what it is, a joke; for someone like Kevin McAleer the act is incredibly tightly wound up with the person speaking. I’m nowhere near his league in that respect. Some of the things I say would work anyway. But that’s what I’d aim for. I’d love to be at the level where the things you say are so tied up with your character, how you look and how you speak, that they’re not actually divisible. I’m not really interested in writing jokes that could be given to local radio DJs.

In the next book, The If You’d Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One EP, you write: ‘I was aware that wandering into the crowd was in danger of becoming a cliché in my work.’ Perhaps because the tone or cadence is so consistent throughout your work, I never really thought cliché would be something you’d worry about. But it actually is, is it?

Yeah, I worry about doing the same things again. In the two big tours before the last one, I left the stage and wandered around the room. I didn’t in the last one, and I won’t in this one. I understand that I didn’t invent walking around the room. Lots of people have come off stage and walked around the room. But I started to see a lot of people who I know like my stuff wandering around the room. There are kids doing five-minute open spots who somehow find time to wander around the room and come back onstage, like a condensed version of something I’d do. So I thought I’d better stop. I’ve also done a lot of stuff with splitting the audience up into groups and blaming different sections for things that happen. I’m trying to stop that now, too. I always try to do things in each new show that I’m not equipped to do. I like trying to improvise out of a trap that I don’t really know how to get out of. You know, I’m written about as always being the same, but I do try to do something different every time, something that’s hard for me. I don’t know what it is in this show yet. I suppose I’ll know when it turns up because I won’t know how to do it, and that’ll be it.

To what extent has writing the footnotes for those two Faber books clarified your thoughts on your work, or indeed changed the way you think about it?

It’s really clarified it, and it gave me loads of ideas. It made me realise what I was doing and how I was doing it. And it helped me to stop doing certain things. Al Murray the Pub Landlord told me it was a terrible mistake to explain all my tricks, but actually I think that by explaining them, I’ve put them out there and so it might force me to find something else. Tragically, it hasn’t, but you know.

In those books, I think there are three voices. There’s the stand-up voice, there’s the person writing the introductions to each section, which is probably the closest to me, and then there’s the guy writing the footnotes, who seems to hate the other two guys a little bit. It’s funny: publishers are very keen on apps these days, and they wanted there to be an app of the book, a version of the book for iPad. And so I asked Faber: ‘then who’s made the app?’ Has another version of me made the app? And is he trying to undermine the other three versions of me with whatever information he puts onto the app, the clips he puts in and so on. They didn’t know what I was talking about, but to me that seems to be the big problem. The books work quite well in their own way as triangulated dialogues, but if it were to become an app, what layer does it being an app then bring to it? I quite like the idea of such an app being put together by someone who absolutely hates me, whose supporting material is just really terrible clips of me and people criticising me.

Your work is notable for often running counter to the conventional wisdom of stand-up. You talk about not starting a show with a strong gag, for example. Are there any received ideas about stand-up that you do in fact hold quite dear?

Things that work, I suppose. It’s very hard to get away from certain rhythmical things. Lists of three feel right, for instance, two doesn’t feel enough and four feels too many. But then lots of people seem to do very well without doing the things that I think you need to do. As I said, I think that you need to know who the person is who’s saying the jokes. I think you need to have a clear, consistent point-of-view. But now that we see stand-ups in tiny little five-minute fragments on all these programmes, it doesn’t seem to matter. I think there are a lot of rules that you really need when you start out. I mean, when you start doing circuits gigs, you actually do need a strong opening line, or you at least need to make an impression. To come back to Kevin McAleer, he would come on and not say anything for five minutes, which in itself is quite a bold opening move. You need to have a line near the start that says who you are and who you aren’t. All those kind of things are true. But the weird thing for me is that I have this sort of luxury now: it’s all very well for me to say I won’t open with a real strong gag, but then people have already made an investment to come and see me. They cut me a bit more slack. I’m probably given a bit of leeway by my peers as well, because they know that before I made my way into the cossetted world of art centres and theatres I did 200-nights a year for ten years on the proper comedy circuit. But these days a lot of people who aren’t really stand-ups do something on the telly, someone assembles a stand-up show for them and then they go straight into theatres.

Do you have any intellectual insecurities? 

Yeah. Since having kids, I think I’ve also got increasingly narrow in my focus. I don’t really have time to read anymore, or find out about much new stuff. I’m really only concentrating on stand-up now. I know very little about what’s going on.

As well as that, I think imminently there’s going to be a move against me in British comedy.  See, I wrote those books about the mechanics of stand-up in a way that people probably haven’t done before, and a lot of people read them and liked them and wrote about them. And I think because of that, there’s a feeling in the world of British comedy that I’m given too much credit for being this technician of stand-up. Recently there’s been a lot of people writing, or doing jokes about, or using their cash-in autobiographies to say things like: ‘Don’t forget, it’s all very well for him to say all those things, but comedy is also about just being really funny. You shouldn’t necessarily applaud people for shifts of tone or structural ingenuity or whatever: in the end, it’s just about making people laugh for an hour.’ A backlash is coming, and I haven’t got the tools to deal with it. There’s a feeling I’ve made stand-up too much about the head and not enough about the heart, and I think we’re going to see that increasingly. To be fair, if I were to try and score some points by giving Stewart Lee a one-star review, that’s what I would say.


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