The comedian Stewart Lee arrives at Pizza Express on Upper Street in north London looking more like a wary gnome than the confident figure he cuts in his stand-up shows.
The restaurant holds fond memories for Lee. He used to eat here with other comedians in the early 1990s after performing at the nearby Market Tavern, “a grotty pub, now a swanky bar” called the Winchester. “There used to be marble tables here,” he recalls. “I knocked one of them when I was trying to straighten it, and a big slab of marble fell on the floor and smashed in half.” Luckily, one of the comedians in his party was Jo Brand, “who might have done a bit of telly by then”, and she managed to smooth things over.
These days, Lee has a television series of his own. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, the second series of which was shown late at night on BBC2 earlier this year, combines politically freighted, often cerebral stand-up routines of the kind you almost never see on TV in these days of comedy roadshows and panel games. He also has a new full-length touring show, Carpet Remnant World, which has just begun a three-month run at the Leicester Square Theatre. It is, he says, “all about the idea of utopias”.
“I grew up in Solihull,” he says, “on the edge of what was then the Birmingham conurbation. It was a good place to write comedy from. I didn’t feel allegiance to anything. I didn’t have working-class pride or upper-class superiority.” He used to have a mild Birmingham accent but he shook it off “fairly deliberately”. Solihull was also a good place to grow up, he says, because it’s “the kind of place that you want to leave. If you want to do something, it’s good to come from the kind of place you would want to be driven out of.” Here he chuckles, as he does often, in what seems like a mixture of exasperation, disbelief and joy.
“Otherwise, you just stay – you don’t do anything. If I had grown up in London, I wouldn’t have been as keen to become a comedian or a writer. I’d have been able to see a lot of good films and music and comedy. I’d have been distracted. As it was, I had to make it.” Another chuckle.
Despite increasing popularity and visibility, Lee has somehow remained, or persuasively presented himself as, a cult figure, an outsider, an upstart even. This is due in part to his willingness to make jokes about other comedians, most of them younger and better-known than him – among them Russell Brand, Russell Howard, Mark Watson, Michael McIntyre, Frankie Boyle. He is also both wary and critical of such prevailing modes of stand-up as routines based on everyday observations and jokes that are in aggressive bad taste.
Instead, he offers an ironic approach, in which he dissects what he is saying while in the middle of saying it, and speculates how his comments are coming across to, or going down with, the audience. As things stand, he is the British comedian most widely admired both by broadsheet newspapers and by fellow comedians – some of whom, such as Ricky Gervais, owe a great deal to Lee in terms of tone, subject matter, and delivery, and have confessed as much.
A waiter appears and Lee orders a Diet Coke, a green salad, and, without a wink of irony, the “Christmas pizza”, which features a mix of spiced bolognese sauce, beef meatballs and fiery peppers. His green salad arrives first and has to be guarded from the hands of passing waiters – he is saving it for when his main course arrives. I go for the meatballs and Contadina pizza, with chicken, spinach and peppers.
“Protecting the Stewart Lee stand-up brand” is, he explains, his main concern. When it was announced that he had a TV series on its way, he was approached by people from “terrible publishers that have meetings with Tesco’s about what the covers of books should be”. Instead, the distinctively subtle and intelligent book he ended up writing, and publishing with Faber last year, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian, and the forthcoming follow-up, based on his recent show, If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, are mostly comprised of verbatim transcripts of stand-up performances with footnotes either elaborating on what he’s saying, explaining the provenance of the material, or illuminating some aspect of technique. They are a world away from books by comedians “about what they did at school or university, or something their wife did, or their alcoholism and how they recovered, or their sex-aholism.”
It is especially important that the book enhances the “stand-up brand”, he says. By way of explanation, he adds, “Things that I do tend not to work out, commercially.” For example, Lee’s most famous endeavour, Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote with composer Richard Thomas in 2001, and also directed, looks to the outside world like a success story – a piece of intellectual fringe comedy that played at the National Theatre and in the West End. “But over the five-year period, the producer’s chauffeur – who was being paid out of the production budget – made more money than I did.” This is partly because Lee didn’t receive a salary until the production started at the National, and partly because he waived it soon after to cover legal fees in a libel battle against the Daily Mail over the newspaper’s allegation that the show, which was accused of “blasphemy” by organisations such as Christian Voice and which provoked 55,000 complaints after it was aired on the BBC in January 2005, was losing money. “The only thing that has started to pay for itself is the stand-up,” he says – which is why he doesn’t want to jeopardise it by appearing in adverts or panel shows or doing things that will earn him quick money or fame while alienating a long-term audience. (Though he thinks appearing in an advert isn’t really held against you the way it used to be – “because no one has any values any more”, he says more than half-seriously – he still wouldn’t do it. No amount of money could justify becoming “the guy off that advert”.)
It took Lee, now 43, a long time to achieve the odd, enviable reputation he now has – as a famous stand-up comedian rarely invoked as a famous stand-up comedian. In the early 1990s, he emerged as a startlingly handsome young comedian, appearing on radio and TV alongside Richard Herring, whom he met at Oxford University, in the double act Lee and Herring. But, as the decade wore on, he became increasingly irritated with his career, and with TV executives. In 2001, fed-up of losing money on tour and feeling out of touch with comedy audiences, Lee gave up stand-up and wrote a novel, The Perfect Fool, and Jerry Springer.
Three years later, he decided to return to comedy. Part of the reason was the success of Ricky Gervais. “Ricky had the calmness, and the way of offering up contentious ideas as if they meant nothing and were merely idle thoughts, that I felt was a hallmark of my work, and [which had] made it such a difficult fit for mainstream audiences at populist clubs,” he wrote in How I Escaped My Certain Fate. The experience of watching Gervais at the Bloomsbury Theatre in 2004 reminded Lee of how much he cared about his stand-up career. And it also suggested that comedy audiences, having taken to a diluted version of his formula, might be ready for the real thing.
On his return to stand-up, Lee decided that in order to avoid the rise-and-fall arc of his 1990s path, he would nurture a small but loyal audience. In order to do something valuable, he tells me, you’ve got to be “something that nine out of 10 people will hate”. And he doesn’t mind being hated – indeed, it has its uses when it comes to attracting the one out of 10. His promotional material carries a quotation from the journalist Toby Young – “I’ve always thought of Stewart Lee’s comedy as doing the opposite of what really good comedy should do.” Lee explains: “I thought, ‘That’s a good quote actually.’ Because wrongly or rightly, a lot of people hate Toby Young, and they’re the kind of people you want to come to see you. In Edinburgh, a lot of people would say to me, ‘I didn’t know who you were but I hate Toby Young.’ I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I saw him at a motorway service station once. Bad quotes from disliked people are quite a good way of trying to galvanise an audience.”
This year, Lee picked up another useful enemy, Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, who identified him as one of a “cabal” of leftwing comedians – another being foul-mouthed Scottish stand-up Frankie Boyle – who were unkind to the popular comedian Michael McIntyre at an awards ceremony. “I wasn’t even at this thing where his wife was crying,” Lee says. (When I suggest that Moir was wrong to characterise Boyle as leftwing, he corrects me: “He comes from that branch of the left who hate the disabled – a radical splinter group.”)
Part of the difficulty with levelling charges at Lee, even when they have a basis in reality, is that his routines contain a great deal of artifice. As he puts it in How I Escaped My Certain Fate, “The me you see on stage is largely a construct, based on me at my worst, my most annoying, my most petty and my most patronising.” But “when there are taste issues or ethical things involved,” he tells me, “I try not to be too ironic.”
When I say, in a spirit of sympathy, that he tends to pick on people for picking on people, he agrees. “Luckily, there are loads of them.” One of his core beliefs is that you shouldn’t demean or humiliate people on the grounds of race, class, or physical or mental handicap. He seems worried about developments in the work of Ricky Gervais, whose recent use of the word “mong” provoked a row over whether the term was offensive to those with Down’s syndrome. Gervais initially insisted it no longer had that meaning before apologising. Lee says he hopes that Gervais “doesn’t do something so awful that it undoes The Office”. He says comedians who complain that political correctness has gone mad are either using this argument as a quasi-intellectual licence to make offensive jokes, or else deploying it as part of their act – in the teeth of contrary evidence. “Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown is so oppressed by the politically correct brigade that he’s able to tour massive theatres all year and sell millions of DVDs,” he says alluding to one particularly successful blue British comedian.
After two hours, Lee is on his second Diet Coke, having declined both dessert and coffee. The restaurant is filling up. There seem to be large groups of talkative women, operating the lunchtime equivalent of a hen-night. Fortunately, seated on the table next to ours, a mother and daughter sit in silence, as Lee talks fluently, only breaking stride to let out another apparently irrepressible, often inexplicable, chuckle.
Towards the end of lunch, though, he becomes quite angry about present conditions. There’s no way he would have made it to Oxford today, he says. “For a start, I was adopted. In the 1960s, the process took three months, now it can take three years. That’s going to affect people differently. I might have been damaged by longer in care. And I wouldn’t have gone anyway because of the debts. There’s no way I would take that on. Thirdly, a whole generation of people are being made to feel that they shouldn’t be studying the arts. They’re being told that their degree has got to be cost-effective.”
He especially regrets the disappearance of the old “support networks”, such as the unemployment and housing benefits, that enabled artists to live cheaply and find their way. “It’s all over. There’ll come a point when somebody will suddenly realise – there’s loads and loads of Coldplay but there isn’t a Radiohead, there’s loads and loads of ITV1 sitcoms, and things with Robert Lindsay in a house, but there isn’t a League of Gentlemen. Someone will be reading an embossed novel about a missing artefact, and they will suddenly think, ‘Didn’t there use to be books that were not just a list of events?’ ” (Lee’s well-known parody of a typical Dan Brown sentence goes: “The famous man looked at the red cup.”) In 40 years, he reckons, people will be saying, “Where’s all that stuff gone that was … good?”
Lee’s conversation, never less than engaging and precise, frequently verges on rant. More than an hour after polishing off his pizza, he has finally indulged in a good one. Then he stands up. It’s time, he says, for “school pick-ups and things”. “Is that OK?” I say it’s OK. And off he shuffles.
Stewart Lee is at the Leicester Square Theatre until February 10
Leo Robson’s ‘Small Screen’ column
335 Upper Street, London N1
Mixed Side Salad £3.50
Contadina pizza £9.75
Christmas pizza on a romana base £11.95
Sparkling water £3.95
Diet Coke x2 £4.50
Total (including service) £45.00
Laugh track: Ben Thompson’s brief history of modern British comedy
1960s Beyond the Fringe’s Oxbridge quartet of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller set about dismantling British ideas of deference from the top down (a project previously begun by the Goons, who pursued the same goal with more subtlety and from the bottom up, so never got quite as much credit for it). Cook’s wryly-named club, the Establishment, operational in Greek Street, Soho, from 1961-1964, was the epicentre of the ensuing satire earthquake.
1970s Perhaps overly identified with the unreconstructed attitudes to race and gender paraded by the hard-bitten working-men’s club acts of ITV’s The Comedians, the 1970s was also the decade when the gentle “one nation” TV comedy of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies united its largest ever audiences. While the opening of the Comedy Store above a Soho strip club in 1979 was rightly seen as the dawn of a new era, it’s also true that few of the anti-Tory iconoclasts who passed through its doors could match the earlier taboo-busting exploits of daring Irish anecdotalist Dave Allen, the deceptively soft-edged whimsy of Victoria Wood, or the free-wheeling Rabelaisian wit of Billy Connolly (whose endless runs at the Hammersmith Apollo were the closest UK equivalents to the arena comedy being pioneered by the likes of Steve Martin in America).
1980s If Margaret Thatcher was the mother-in-law of alternative comedy, punk was the cooler cousin it always looked up to. A generation of performers brought to a mass TV audience by ITV’s Saturday Live and Channel 4‘s The Comic Strip – Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and French and Saunders among them – coalesced into a new showbiz aristocracy with alarming speed. At the same time an ad hoc network of small stand-up comedy clubs, independent music venues and student comedy nights provided a home to less easily co-optable talents, Nietzschean wildcard Simon Munnery and deadpan provocateur Ted Chippington being two of Stewart Lee’s favourites.
1990s The youthful audiences and unfettered adulation attracted by wilfully apolitical “post-alternative” mainstays Reeves and Mortimer and Newman and Baddiel inspired the ubiquitous coinage, “Comedy is the new rock and roll.” While an increasingly weighty infrastructure of management companies, tour promoters, comedy club franchises and stand-up courses turned live comedy into a career option, a golden generation of TV shows (among them Father Ted, The Day Today, The Royle Family, The League of Gentleman and The Fast Show) flew the flag for creative daring.
2000s Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand made it in Hollywood on a scale no British performers have managed since Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and the Pythons. At home, developments in digital sound overcame the technical problems that had dogged large-scale comedy shows to usher in a new era of stadium laughter-making. Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre, and Lee Evans vied to break attendance and DVD sale records, while the tyranny of the TV panel game was Orwell’s dystopian vision made flesh – Stephen Fry’s boot stamping on a human face for ever.
Ben Thompson is the author of ‘Sunshine on Putty: The Golden Age of British Comedy’