Stewart Lee interview: The Fringe, Comedy Gods and Fist Of Fun

Barry met comedian Stewart Lee for a timely chat about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Comedy Gods and Fist Of Fun...

It seems right that I start my interview with Stewart Lee by asking about an e-mail he had sent to promoters of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, criticising a poll they had created to find the public’s Comedy God. He’d suggested that no one would vote for 1981 winners Frank Chickens. The e-mail then became public and was picked up by Twitter users who, en masse, began voting for them.

Who is your comedy god? Is it the Frank Chickens?

Well, that was a complete accident in that I sent this e-mail at 12:15 at night having had three pints. If I’d had two I wouldn’t have been bold enough to send it and if I’d had four I would’ve been asleep.

I only mentioned them as an example off the top of my head as something that’s sort of like art from the past when the awards were a bit more arty, a bit more cabaret based and if you have a poll like that, they’re exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t get mentioned because no one knows who they are.

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Funnily enough, if it meant that the corporate funding thing ended up trickling down to them it’d be really funny, because it would’ve done what corporate sponsorship was supposed to, rather than going to somebody who’s already a multi-millionaire.

Richard Herring and Robin Ince have kind of taken the baton in trying to get votes for the Frank Chickens.

I think that’s really great. The Fringe is supposed to be about things like that. It’s not supposed to be about consolidating the reputation of hugely successful established people.

In light of this not being in the spirit of The Fringe, are you any less looking forward to Edinburgh?

Nica Burns said she thought this vote was going to be a bit of summer fun, to give people the opportunity of voting for Michael McIntyre or Russell Howard to be Comedy God of All Time, because the only people who vote are the sort of people who vote for things that happen in the last six months, but it will be fun now because this is going to create a dialogue about what the point of the festival is.

I always look forward to The Fringe enormously. I’m so excited by it every year, going through the programme and seeing what’s on… When that thing was first announced, I was thinking it was going to ruin it, but now it could be anyone, which is really good fun.

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You’re playing at The Stand, which is quite a small venue. Surely you could fill a bigger room?

The good thing about The Stand is the infrastructure in place and they’re really fair so you earn as much there as you would doing a 400-seater in the comedy festival. By the ‘comedy festival’ I mean the big four venues, because the overheads are lower.

Now when I tour, I do slightly bigger rooms, 500-seaters, whatever, and I think the best space for a comedy gig is 150-160-seater room. So, at least I know I ram the gig in in that room and I know where the laughs fall and what the timing is.

When I do a vast echoey room that should never have comedy in it, like Reading Town Hall, instead of actually playing that room, I’m playing the memory of the Stand.

The Stand is a great place to work out the show every year because it’s the perfect comedy room. What you try and do is hang onto that feeling, ‘cos a lot of these big rooms you can’t hear anything, the acoustics are really bad and you can’t see anyone. You have to have at the back of your mind what a proper gig is, and impose that timing over those big rooms.

You don’t feel contaminated by being there, by all the shit of the world. It’s just really nice. There seems to be a perfectly good reason why everyone there is on.

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So, it’s not part of some Kitson-esque desire not to be too popular?

No, but there is a desire not to disappoint people on a Friday night. If I was in a big venue at one of the big four, people would come out for a Friday or Saturday night, decent, ordinary people who’ve hired a babysitter, and they don’t actually want to see me, some of them. They go to a comedian who’s got good reviews – and that’s me – and actually they wanna have more fun than I can give them, and at The Stand the chance of disappointing an average punter is less.

I really noticed that when I did Underbelly’s big tent. On Friday and Saturday nights, people in good faith had spent a lot of money coming out and they weren’t expecting to be bored by a borderline avant-garde monologue. [laughs]

Because you’re doing material in preparation for the second series of Comedy Vehicle is there an element of you don’t want too many people to have seen it already?

The BBC have cut all their budgets by about a third, so, in my mind, I’m quite keen to make up the money a bit.

I’d like to have got paid as much for this material as I did for the last stuff. I am doing a tour for a month in October of 500-seater rooms, where I’ll be doing this stuff. I don’t think people can really complain if you do something on television that you’ve only done live.

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You’ve got your book coming out in August, which has been described as a commentary on three of your previous shows. Can you elaborate on that at all?

It’s about 365 pages long of which about 120 pages is text of the last three stand-up shows. They’re heavily annotated. The footnotes outweigh the shows by a ratio of about two to one. In between each one there’s a chapter about what happened professionally to me in between those shows.

It’s about the processes of doing stand-up. It’s focused on a very narrow area from 2004 to 2008 and getting those shows together.

I really like Dave Allen, but the only book about Dave Allen is a biography about what he had to eat and who he was friends with and there isn’t anything in it about how he wrote the material. Every time I watch him I think, “Who are you, and what are you trying to do here?” and “Were you aware of how timings work?” and stuff like that, so it’s kind of a book about the method.

It’s really written for people that really like comedy. It’s not like a fun book to read on the beach.

So, I guess some of it might go into detail about how the show 41st Best Stand-Up evolved from its previous incarnation of March Of The Mallards.

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Yeah, yeah.

I think it might have been a preview of that I saw where there was a ridiculously drunk woman completely heckling you. You often have these intricately choreographed monologues that command a certain level of…


Yeah, a level of intelligence and patience from the audience. I think she was arrested at the end as well?

Where was it?

At the Soho Theatre.

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Oh God, yeah, that’s right. They were squatter anarchists from Stoke Newington. I think they were high on drugs, and I think they liked me but were just incapable of concentrating.

It’s happened about four times to me in the last five years where someone’s been in the room and I think, “If you’re out of your mind on something you just can’t get a grip on what I’m doing at all.”

They were arrested by the police and taken away because they started fighting the audience.

I can imagine heckles can interrupt the flow quite significantly.

It doesn’t matter, really but with heckles like that… a normal heckler you kind of deal with and it’s finished. With someone who’s chemically altered, they’re unaware of how they fit into their surroundings. So, they don’t know when they’ve lost or when it’s over or when it’s finished. It wasn’t really their fault. They just misjudged the amount of LSD they took.

Many people think, “Ah, it’ll be really funny. Let’s get pissed or get on acid and it’ll be great,” and actually it doesn’t really work for me, that.

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There’s a video on YouTube where someone at Edinburgh walks across your stage.

Yeah, what a prat. He was called Chris. It was really frightening that, because that was around the time of all the Christian Voice threats and I was aware of something happening and I didn’t know what it was going to be. I thought he might be coming for me and it was really weird and his friends were filming it.

I thought what was sad about it was I don’t mind being upstaged or humiliated, but he did it again a second time in the closing two minutes of the show, which was the point where I talk quite seriously about what I felt about my son and put a woolly giraffe on my head and he just blew that bit. There were 75 minutes leading up to that and you could never get that back.

I met him, actually, weirdly about a year ago. I was in a pub round here, The Cross Kings, and there was a girl standing next to this bloke going, “Tell him, tell him it was you,” and he went “It was me, I walked across your stage.” I totally lost my temper with him and people were wondering what was going on, but I was so angry because, first of all, it wasn’t like a heckle, it was really frightening and threatening and also there were 400 people in there and he’d wrecked the end of it. He’d wrecked the emotional payoff to the show.

The pretentious artist part of you thinks, “I was taking people on an ‘emotional journey,” and it didn’t have an end to it and he fucked it and he’s a prick. And I really hated him.

Someone sent me an e-mail saying “Our friend Chris walked across your show, ah,” and I went, “Well, just don’t ever come and see me again because you obviously misjudged it because you ruined the story of it,” and they went, “I thought you were all right. I’m going to tell everyone I know to never see you again,” and I thought, “Good, don’t care, don’t come.”

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It also made me think about venues. The problem with that venue is that the raked seating went down to the floor like an amphitheatre space and I try not to do that for big shows now. The public can’t be trusted not to do something like that and you have to put a pit between them and you like animals in a zoo.

Do you look back at earlier work at all?

No, because it’s in the past. It was interesting going over the last three shows for the book. The one from 2004, about half of it I don’t like. I wouldn’t write that now and I don’t identify with it.

I kind of think I should be moving on, really. Sometimes I look at things to check I haven’t accidentally ripped off something I’ve already done. [laughs]

Talking about that, do you think you’ve perfected your voice now?

I think I know what it is now, but when I do look at stuff from the mid-nineties I can tell exactly who I’ve been listening to.

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In 1989, I’ve got a tape of me and I sound like a cross between Ted Chippington, Arnold Brown and Norman Lovett, and I basically was. There’s no more to it than that.

So, when people see Jack Whitehall and go “that bit’s like Michael McIntyre, that bit’s like Ricky Gervais”, he’s really making the same immature mistakes that all comics make. It’s just that he’s unfortunate enough to be 20 and doing it on television. Most people work that out in private.

You did feature him on your website in a section titled ‘Plagiarists’ Corner’, which caused a bit of a stir.

Plagiarists’ Corner was rather misrepresented by the Internet media. What happened was loads of journalists kept saying that Jack Whitehall had this bit that was like me and so I tried to contact his management about it and ask what was going on and no-one would tell me anything.

So, I said to the guy who does the website, “Put this clip up of me doing that bit and the clip of him. But also put the bit of Ricky Gervais that people say is like me, put the clip of me doing something that’s the same as something Paddy Kielty did,” and Paddy Kielty’s thing predates me. And I didn’t know about it.

If you looked at what I actually put on the website, I had them in chronological order. I wasn’t saying Paddy Kielty had copied me, I was saying I did the same as him after he’d done it. And then I did a thing of Mark E Smith from The Fall slagging me off in a song saying that I’d copied one of his lyrics or something for a routine.

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I put them all on there with no comment, the idea being you had to decide for yourself about how this works. But, what it did mean, was that all the clips of Jack Whitehall doing this bit that he supposedly copied off me, which I’ve still never seen, were all taken down by his management, so who knows?

With a young kid you do police it a bit because you don’t want people coming up to you going “You’ve copied Jack Whitehall and you’re 43 years old.” [laughs]

You’re doing previews for the second series of Comedy Vehicle and, as you mentioned, a tour later in the year. So, it’ll be out sometime next year?

It has to go out before April. Maybe March sometime?

Even though it was well received, I don’t think you were expecting a second series?

When it was going out, I expected a second series because it got such good press and the viewing figures were pretty good. The BBC, the people who were in charge at the time, were playing clips of it in conferences and going, “This is the sort of thing we should be doing,” but then all the people who commissioned it left and the deadline by which they told me they were going to renew it lapsed and I just assumed they wouldn’t recommission it.

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About nine months later, I go into this meeting with the new head of BBC2, which I thought was going to be an encouraging turndown where they go, “We don’t want another one, but if you have any ideas bring them to us.” and then by the end of the meeting she wanted me to do another one on a reduced budget later at night.

I think they may’ve discovered a load of viewers for it that they didn’t know about, by factoring in iPlayer and Internet hits. Also, I think The Persuasionists did so badly in that slot that my figures suddenly looked quite respectable.

Will the second series allow you any more creative freedom?

There was only one thing they stopped me doing last time. A quibble about whether dogs were a cultural taboo in Islam, so I couldn’t have dogs flying planes dressed up like terrorists.

The thing is I don’t swear, really, so the sorts of things people complain about aren’t really in my shows. And the sort of people that watch a programme to complain about it would find my show so boring that they wouldn’t be able to watch it. They wouldn’t even recognise it as comedy.

In the week when  I did religion a few people rang in to say, “I noticed you didn’t do any jokes about Islam,” but I did. I did them at the end of the show. The BNP, the Christians were already ringing in without watching the programme. And then someone else rang in to complain about me making fun of Stephen Hawking in a week in which I mentioned Richard Dawkins. so I think they’d misheard it.

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Is series two going to follow the same format of stand-up interspersed with sketches?

Because of the budget cuts that are applicable to comedy across the BBC, which I think are in the fallout of Sachsgate, but also in anticipation of the Conservatives trying to dismantle it, there isn’t the money to spend on this show as there was the last one.

So, there probably won’t be any film of like a 40-foot Del Boy falling down or a massive river of sick shooting out of the television. The stand-up will be the same, but I’ll have to find something more economic to do in the spaces.

If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One DVD is released in October, but do you have anything else in the pipeline for the independent label GoFasterStripe to release?

I found a recording of me doing stand-up in 1988 which is awful. I’m going to give them that. I found another of me doing stand-up in 1995, which isn’t particularly good either. I’m going to give them that. I’ve got one I think is from 1998, but I’m not sure. The first stand-up gig that I did that is more than five minutes is the first one and the other one is the first Edinburgh show I did.

The theatre shows you’ve done, like Pea Green Boat and What Would Judas Do?, you didn’t really tour, so do you have any desire to do shows like those again?

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Other people are touring What Would Judas Do? now. There’s a company based in Bath that have done it in Bath and Newcastle from my notes with different actors improvising the story, so I’m really pleased about that.

About four years ago, I started to make a profit touring, which I’d never done before and I’ve got a little kid so I think I should do the stand-up while the interest is there. I think pretty soon the interest will wane and I’ll go back down again and less people will come. Or I’ll not be able to think of anything and then I’ll write some theatre again, but at the moment it keeps coming so I’m going to keep doing it.

And how about a DVD release of Fist Of Fun or This Morning With Richard Not Judy?

Well, funnily enough, we’ve just had an e-mail from the commercial arm of the BBC wanting to do it. A guy said, “I can’t believe this hasn’t come out.”

Rich is really excited about it. He said there was a note attached to the tapes that they’ve found saying we had blocked the release. I don’t know what that’s about, because we haven’t. All the outtakes tapes are in a warehouse where they are within a few weeks of being destroyed. They’re about to hit their dump-by date, so he’s trying to claw them all back.

Finally, let’s have your Edinburgh recommendations.

I recommend seeing: Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan, the folk singer Bert Jansch, the English folk singer Eliza Carthy, the band Beirut, the German progressive rock band Harmonia who are doing something with the drummer from Sonic Youth, and the comedians Hans Teeuwen, Carl Barron, Kevin Eldon, Simon Munnery, Bridget Christie, who is also my wife, Daniel Kitson doing a play, and Josie Long.

I’m going to see Neil Hamburger. I don’t know what he’ll be like and I’m going to see Tommy Tiernan. don’t know what that’ll be like. Phil Kay as well, that’ll be good.

In theatre, Derevo have got a new show called Harlekin. They’re a really great Russian clown group. Grid Iron, who are a great theatre company, have got a show called Decky Does a Bronco. I’m going to go and see that. Then there’s loads of other good stuff that’s on that I don’t think I’ll have to book for.

Thank you, Stewart!

Thank you! That was really good fun.

Stewart Lee: Vegetable Stew runs at The Stand in Edinburgh from 4th-30th August. A one-off show, Silver Stewbilee, promoting the publication of his book, is on at the Festival Theatre on the 18th August.

Stew’s book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life And Deaths Of A Stand-Up Comedian is out on the 5th August from Faber & Faber.

Thanks to the Cook’d and Bomb’d forum for some question suggestions.