As stand-up comedian and writer Stewart Lee prepares to embark on his Vegetable Stew tour, we caught up with him to talk about Marvel comics, controversy, and his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, which is a typically wry and insightful look at comedy writing and performance.
I greatly enjoyed your book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, and I was really struck by the brutal honesty of it…
That’s very kind of you, but I didn’t put in anything I didn’t want to, and in some cases I’m overstating for comic effect. The book’s partly about how a stand-up is a character, but then, when you write, you’re in character as well, so it’s about that, too.
There are also a huge number of footnotes in the book, which reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s writing. Was he an influence or am I reading too much into it?
I haven’t read David Foster Wallace, but I did think that it would be a good way of getting across my stand-up style, where I go into too much detail about particular things. I also really like Dave Allen, and a few years ago I read a biography about him and realised what I wanted to know about him was how he wrote his routines. Why did he choose the words he chose? Why did he choose to sit down? All those sorts of things.
And the book – I forget who it was by – was just about what he had for dinner and who he met and who he was friends with. And I realised those things weren’t really of interest to me, and I wished there was a book about Dave Allen or Lenny Bruce with commentary on it, like you get on a poem or something.
The other reason why there are so many footnotes, and one of the reasons I went with Faber, was because when I was a kid I had a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and it had all the notes, that Ezra Pound and Eliot made while they were editing it, on the facing pages.
I thought it would be a funny concept to publish a book about stand-up comedy with Faber, the poetry publisher, and to apply to stand-up the same sort of weight of annotation that you would to a classic work of literature, an epic poem. I thought that would be funny.
And initially I wanted to make it look like one of those Faber books from the 70s with the logos on the front and the pencil drawing of the writer, and notes on the facing pages. But the more I wrote the notes on the stand-up, the more I thought, “This is quite interesting in its own right,” and I started to do it properly.
You talk a lot in the book about your early years in comedy. Do you think it’s tougher now to break into stand-up than it was in the late 80s or early 90s?
Well, when I started on the London circuit in 1989, nationwide there were about 150 to 200 people that were what you could call alternative comedians – that weren’t club comics. Now, last year when the Laughing Horse chain of clubs held a new acts competition, a thousand people entered. So, there are 800 people more. That’s five times as many people in a year now, trying to be stand-ups, than there were twenty years ago.
But on the other hand, twenty years ago there were thirty or forty clubs in London, and one in Manchester, and one in Birmingham. And now there are 120 or 150 in London alone. Every town has a Comedy Store or a Jongleurs or a Highlights in its dockland development, retail park area. And they’ve probably got 250 seat arts centres, and 5000 seat theatres.
So, there are loads more people trying to do [stand-up], but there’re also more places to do it. And also I think people are starting to understand there are different types of it. So, although it’s as hard as it ever was to be the most famous comedian, because of the Internet and niche clubs, and because people understand there are different types of stand-up, it is possible to work up a market.
And I think part of the book is about me realising that I had to position myself in the heart of a particular kind of comedy consumer in order to get the 5000 fans I needed in order to make a living. I think you can do that now, where you couldn’t have twenty years ago because it was all lumped in together.
Did you approach it with that kind of business mindset, then, that you needed 5000 fans?
It wasn’t so much business minded, it was just survival, really. When we did Jerry Springer: The Opera, we didn’t really see much from it, despite it being a big hit. And once I started sniffing around the circuit again in 2004, I saw people like Josie Long and Robin Ince, who were running particular kinds of nights, and I thought there is a scene here, and these kinds of people aren’t necessarily catered for. And they’re all people that like me, and they’re all in one place, whereas before it was like a minority audience that liked me.
And I thought, if I can get all the people that are normally a minority audience in a big lump, then that adds up to a lot of people, I just have to get them all together. Somebody said to me, “You have 5000 people who like you, and they all give you £10 a year, that’s a living.”
The Internet meant you could do that, which you couldn’t before. You used to shoot information and publicity out hopefully into the world, like a message in a bottle you chuck into the sea, hoping that someone will like you. Whereas the Internet now means you can direct market a bit. So, it suddenly seemed really achievable, as long as I stopped my bookers sending me to places where my material won’t work, and tried to get them to send me to places where it would work.
And also resisting the temptation to do the things you’re supposed to do as a stand-up, which, again, don’t work for me. I don’t work on panel shows, and I don’t work on Live At The Apollo andthat kind of thing, and I can’t do corporate gigs, I can’t compère. I can only do what I can do.
I read that your experiences with 8 Out Of 10 Cats was one of your most unpleasant experiences. Why was that, and how do you feel about those kinds of panel shows?
The people on it were all very helpful, and Jimmy Carr, particularly, I could see him trying to help me out. It was just, again, I realised that those programmes rely on a consensus, whereby one person says something and another person builds on it in the same direction. Very often the consensus is one of cynicism, of applying pressure downwards, and it’s quite difficult to do anything else on those shows.
And it doesn’t suit me. I haven’t got any quips, you know? But, at the time, the three that I did in a row, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You and 8 Out Of 10 Cats, I kept saying, “It won’t work,” but because, at the end of 2006, I hadn’t set up any gigs and I was getting married and the money was sort of useful… though it wasn’t that much, which is the other thing.
If you want to promote yourself, they’re probably worth doing, but, for me, they paid pretty badly and made me look rubbish in front of a potential audience. [laughs]
I saw you a few months ago on your If You Wanted A Milder Comedian tour, and while I loved it, certain members of the audience didn’t seem to approve of the Richard Hammond routine…
In a way, that was good, because it meant that every night there was a struggle with the audience. I’m forever reading on the Internet that I apparently cultivate this audience and never go badly. Yesterday, I was looking for reviews of my book and found all this stuff about me saying that it was all rubbish, this struggling with audiences, because only the people who like you will come and see you.
And then, only last night, in Bridport, I had a persistent heckler who just hated me. The thing is, people do come out to see some comedy and they think you’re a certain kind of comedian, and they can still find that you’re the last thing they want to see.
But the Richard Hammond bit did tend to split the room. I remember two gigs on the last tour, interestingly enough, both in Essex. It lost the majority of the room and they never came back. But then, weirdly, at the end of the tour I did a show at the National Theatre, and I did it to a textbook audience of London theatre-goers who, as soon as I did the Richard Hammond bit, immediately got it. They clapped and said, “We see where you’re going, we agree with you, now carry on.”
Actually, there was no tension. There was nothing to fight against, and so you realise that, to an extent, you have to build these contentious things in and risk losing the audience in order to make the thing exciting. And it becomes increasingly difficult to do that as people become more sympathetic towards you. Obviously, you don’t want the whole audience to turn against you, but it is nice if there’s an element that isn’t convinced, because that makes it more exciting.
But then, on the other hand, as a 42-year-old parent, I appreciate that it’s so difficult to organise the time and the money and the child cover to get out and see anything, and I also don’t take any pleasure in annoying people, and feel guilty about wasting an adult’s evening.
The Richard Hammond thing was a bit of luck, really, since I didn’t anticipate it causing as much offence as it did. But I think that, by the end of it, people who didn’t like it could see what I meant, even if they didn’t agree with it. It was the people who hadn’t seen it, and made up stories about it in the papers, who took it out of context.
I read in your book about your love of Marvel comics. What do you think about Mark Ruffalo taking over from Edward Norton as the Hulk?
Who’s taken over?
Mark Ruffalo. He was in Shutter Island, among other things.
Oh, he’s taken over for the Avengers film? Well, you know what? I couldn’t bear the Edward Norton film. I watched about 20 minutes of it and skipped over it. I thought it was terrible.
You preferred Ang Lee’s version?
I really liked the Ang Lee one. It had its faults, but there were some great little bits in it. I think it was a bit silly, the controversy behind it. I mean, they decided to get an art film director in to make Hulk, and they go, “Why have you given us this art film?”
They do mess up sometimes. They made a terrible mess of The Daredevil film, and the Elektra film was rubbish. The Ghost Rider film was quite funny, in a campy sort of way, and the Spider-Man films were great. Iron Man was too. I haven’t seen the second one yet.
And I think getting Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor is a fantastic idea, because all those early Stan Lee stories were based on Henry V anyway, so that should be really good.
I hadn’t thought of that! You wrote the novel The Perfect Fool in 2001…
That took me about five years. I must have started it in 1993. And that’s probably why… it explains some of its faults. If you take five or seven years writing something, you and the world around you changes so much over that period that it can make it uneven.
The whole premise, that it’s hard to track down your cult heroes, by the time it was published, wasn’t true at all. Because those forgotten rock stars of the 60s now have their own website where you can buy stuff directly off them. There isn’t anyone you can’t find really, now.
And also, the idea that someone that appeared in a porn film would be traumatised by their involvement in it, now seems like something from another age, now that we’re saturated with stuff like that.
There’s still some writing in there that’s alright, but the plot just died on the vine as it was coming out, almost. You know what I mean?
But would you consider writing more fiction? Is there an idea you have in mind for a novel?
I’ve written about 30,000 words for another novel. It’s set in, um, heaven, which isn’t as affected by cultural drifts [laughs]. So, that might be alright.
I’d quite like to write a book about comics, actually. But trying to write about comics as literature, which I don’t think anyone’s really done before. Sometimes they’re more like fan books, and I’d quite like to write one about the Marvel universe over the last 50 years. It’s an unprecedented achievement to create that length of continuity.
I think everyone at Faber is really surprised at how well the book’s doing, so there might be some opportunity there to do something different. That would be great.
Have you ever thought of writing a comic?
I’d love to, yeah. I tried to, actually. I sent proposals to Marvel, but they always got knocked back. I wanted to do one about the teenage years of Agatha Harkness, who you may remember, was the nanny of Franklin Richards. She was an old witch, and she was the nanny of the Fantastic Four‘s kid. She was meant to be in her 70s in the 60s, and I wanted to do something about her being a teenage girl in occult circles in decadent 1920s London, but they knocked it back.
Agatha Harkness, Princess Of Darkness. That would be pretty good, wouldn’t it?
They gave me a very good reason. Nick Lowe was the editor of Marvel Comics and he said they weren’t really looking for new titles. Everything now is about cross-platform across all the titles, and every year they try to run an event, like a civil war or whatever. It was a very diplomatic letter.
Your next tour is Vegetable Stew, and that’s leading up to the second Comedy Vehicle series next year…
Yeah. The reason it’s such a rubbish title is because it’s not really going to be – the last three shows on tour, they’ve got a narrative to them, they’re one piece over an hour and a half.
Whereas I’ve got to get six half-hour episodes together for January for the BBC2 series, so I’ll probably do three half-hour routines a night, and quite self-consciously split them up over the course of the tour. And by the London dates, I’ll have got six in my head for January.
Because last time I only had four, really. I had two that I had to write around news and legal issues and stuff. So, it should be better this time.
Has the BBC allowed you fairly free reign over what topics you can cover?
They did. There was only really two things they were bothered about last time. One was the episode about religion, which they moved back a week, and brought the last show forwards a week, because they were worried that if it went out the week after Easter, it would look like we’d done it deliberately to be annoying.
The only sad thing about that was the last show was written to come last, so it ended with the sketch with me asking what the point of being a comedian was. I really wanted that to be the last one, and the fifth one to be the fifth one, because in the last ten minutes I spoke about being able to do the material I wanted to do, and it just seemed right in that order. It’s in that order on the DVD.
The only other problem they had was about dogs being a cultural taboo in Islam, and there was a sketch that involved dogs, and we went back and forth for a few weeks. There’s nothing in the Koran that’s consistent about dogs, but there was a worry that if I had dogs in an Islamic school, I’d done it to annoy Muslims, like throwing bacon at a Jewish person.
Because there isn’t a central authority in Islam, it’s very difficult to ask anyone about the whole dog thing, but on the whole, it was very good.
Obviously, the thing is, I’ve got the live shows, where you do the forty-five minutes on Richard’s Hammond’s head coming off. I don’t need do that on TV anymore. I’ve got other outlets. So, I wouldn’t be fighting about content I can do somewhere else!
Stewart Lee, thank you very much!
Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate is published on 5 August, and you can see him live on tour with Vegetable Stew from 4 August.