Stewart Lee talks comedy, success and why stand-up is the only thing he ever wants to do
“I would like to carry on doing this into my mid to late-60s, minimum. I am not going to write a play or do a novel or host anything or do a film. I would like to do this”
Stewart Lee has returned for a fourth series of his acclaimed, complicated and bellyachingly funny BBC2 comedy series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle – and now he has to deal with that success.
For those who haven’t seen it, the show is a stand up routine in which Lee adopts the persona of Stewart Lee – a kind of more idealistic, angrier and pettier version of himself – and performs in front of an audience. The first episode (Wealth) was last week and episode two (Islamaphobia) is on tonight. They are brilliant.
The show offers a fascinating interplay between Lee and his live audience (“who are sort of trapped”), Lee and the audience at home (whom he frequently addresses by pointing his face at the camera) and, most importantly, between Lee and himself.
“He is mainly me but I have to create some distance to do it night after night,” Lee tells RadioTimes.com. “It’s like being in a double act but with yourself. He’s more of a bad drunk version of me. He’s more arrogant. He’s more given to emotional outbursts, he’s more petty-minded. But on the positive side he’s also a moral absolutist about what’s right and wrong. He’s like an exaggerated version of me. He’s able to live a different side of me.”
It’s finely crafted, deeply nuanced stuff and the character has developed from series one where he was a man on the outside, trying to get in, having been given a BBC TV series and berating people who couldn’t recognise his genius. With four series now under his belt, the outsider shtick won’t rub, as Lee himself admits.
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“I think a comedian has to be low status on some level, that gives you the right to do all sorts of jokes about all sorts of different kinds of people. But that idea was compromised because the series kept getting recommissioned which sort of lends me a degree of status.
“If you look at the first couple of series I am much more arrogant on stage. And I could afford to be because the series was still a new thing. Now it’s more established you have got to undercut yourself even more. So you have a right to do jokes. So now I am making myself look like I am on the edge of losing it.
“My character now hates himself because things are going well. In the first series he was convinced he was brilliant and the problem was entirely with the audience for not getting how good he was. Now it’s going well, he’s wracked with this terrible doubt about what he’s doing which of course, is from me. I have always been the sort of person who thought that popular things were rubbish. It’s a bit of a double bind.”
In reality too, Lee’s audiences – the real Lee’s audiences – have swelled since his TV show. But instead of killing off the concept (as he feared) that has actually made it funnier and more complex. His frustrations as he struggles with his success are the point now.
Truth and identity are elusive concepts in this universe, but Lee admits there are sections of his act where he deliberately tells good stand-up gags (despite having frequently taken apart more conventional comics like Lee Mack and Michael McIntyre) just to keep his hand in.
“I am not comparing myself to great artists but when you see conceptual artists at work, on some level it’s reassuring to know they can paint figuratively. Likewise when you listen to the 50s jazz people who do these vast solos you buy into it more if they open by playing a tune. The assumption [made of me] is you can’t do it so you do this weird shit. Still. It doesn’t make any difference. Critics still say I can’t do it.”
Another problem with his increased professional success, is that he has become more recognised and says that the night before we spoke, he went out with a friend and their evening was ruined by people who kept coming up and talking to him.
“It ruined my friend’s evening definitely and my night was sort of ruined,” he says.
“You get those little surges of things. The amount of people who wanted to talk to me was difficult, actually. I haven’t figured out how to work that in my life. In a way I would love to do another series but increasingly the downside of it, the way it affects your life and the life of your children, is being a recognised figure. Some people love it. But I don’t go to Jonathan Ross’ Halloween party, I go to see a band in a pub and it’s difficult to do that sometimes.”
The use of a persona allows him to talk about his wife and children and family life, creating a scenario where he is performing in order to help support them and pay his mortgage.
The reality is pretty close. In real life he and his wife, the award-winning comedian and writer Bridget Christie have two children. They talk about their stand up, of course, and obviously exchange ideas. But he’s been banned from seeing her last two shows.
“She says if I go I make the room weird. I understand she’s very good, she’s won loads of awards.”
Meanwhile, a fifth series of Comedy Vehicle for Lee is a possibility but he is relaxed about it.
“It depends on how long the BBC takes to tell me whether they want another one. A new tour could develop into a series or another long-term story tour.
“Weirdly, financially, I am better off not doing telly. Because you can tour the material for longer. But really telly means I can do long theatre runs in London working it out and not touring so much. And also there’s probably an argument to be had that doing the telly helps build the live audience. It’s creatively interesting trying to write six half-hour blocks and it’s also creatively interesting trying to write a story show which I haven’t done for four years, so we will see what happens next.”
One thing he is sure about is that he wouldn't want to do anything else.
“I would like to carry on doing this into my mid to late 60s minimum. I am not going to write a play or do a novel or host anything or do a film. I would like to do this.
“I’m 47 now. The end's in sight. I once interviewed [musician and writer] Julian Cope who was 55 at the time and he said ‘I am 60 in five years’ time and if I make it to 60 instead of becoming an embarrassment I become a legend’. And once you carry on after 60 you are a cult figure.”
He snorts with laughter at that, clearly too modest to put himself in that category. But he does muse that if he makes it to 60 “that’s only 20 hours of material, just 80 more jokes I’ve got to write...”
Personally, I think he’s got it in him…
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is on BBC2 tonight at 10pm