The passion of Stewart Lee

No matter what medium he has chosen to work in, Stewart Lee has been dogged by controversy. In 1998 he and Richard Herring found a cult audience with ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’, but the show was cancelled after falling out of favour with the BBC hierarchy. Seven years later, the BBC had forgiven him enough to televise the musical that he had written with the composer Richard Thomas, ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. They received 55,000 complaints prior to the show even being broadcast, due to claims of blasphemy and ridiculing Jesus, not to mention profanity due to its reported 8,000 obscenities. Stand-up comedy is perhaps his most natural habitat, and his latest work combines this with his new-found love of theatre. “It’s called ‘What Would Judas Do?’ and it’s sort of me being Judas for an hour talking about the last week of his life and why he did what he did.”

Before the show, he plays down the comedy aspect “I wanted to do it in character and I wanted the jokes to be incidental to it, rather than being the bits where you ‘tick’ whether it’s worked or not.” In fact, the show is as funny as you’d expect from a winner of the prestigious ‘Tap Water’ Award, the anti-Nestle version of the Perrier. Despite the furore that surrounded ‘Jerry Springer’, it might seem that Lee has no qualms about making a joke out of Christianity, but he denies that he has explicitly set out to mock the faithful. “It’s not really about religion. It’s about hero worship, about being let down by someone you’ve idolised. This is a really good way of telling that story. I don’t set out to prove or disprove the existence of the characters involved. I thought that about ‘Jerry Springer’, which wasn’t in any way a criticism of religion, it was just the use of a story that’s very familiar in the Christian West to look at some different ideas. They don’t own the story. It’s in the public domain, so I think you should be allowed to do what you want with it.”

It is not, however, merely a story amongst others. Surely he must have expected to cause some controversy? “Well ‘Jerry Springer’ played for four years in theatre without a problem, it was only when it was on the telly and it was seized upon by a succession of right-wing gay-hate groups as a platform to get their own stuff into the marketplace that anyone gave it any thought. Before that it had got good reviews in the Church Times. The difference between its content and its supposed content was vast, really.” It is perhaps worth noting that despite the 55,000 complaints it received before going on air, it received only 8,000 afterwards.

Clearly well versed in Scripture, and a talented wordsmith, the role of preacher would seem to come naturally to Stewart Lee. Has he considered going into the Church? “I don’t even like going into the actual buildings anymore. I think the Church of England would probably be able to accommodate an atheist priest though – they seem very broad-minded. The good thing about doing a show here [The Bush Theatre] is that it’s an eighty-seater room, I’m on equity minimum every week, it’ll sell out before the loonies even find out about it. It’s on a safe level – I wouldn’t want to do anything particularly high profile again, all that happened is that I was kind of randomly picked on by mad people. You don’t make any money off it. What is the point? There is actually no point. I suppose when you start writing and you have a little idea you think, “It would be great to communicate with the masses”, they can fuck off. They can have all the shit that they want. It’s not my problem. The masses are idiots if they allow themselves to be dictated to by the Christian right, so they’re welcome to it.” Spleen vented, he smiles, “Much better to be here, in this ‘elite’ theatre, limited so that only eighty people a night can come.”

Like Lou Reed releasing ‘Metal Machine Music’, Stewart Lee has actively engaged in culling his audience. “Daniel Kitson said after the Perrier awards that he felt he had to shake off a lot of his new audience, they had sort of expectations of what he would do. I’ve largely managed to drive those sort of people away I think. You think “This’ll shake a few people off.” Also, where you perform, how you promote it, which magazines you go in. My DVD got reviewed in Nuts and Zoo magazine, but I refused to do any interviews with them, because you don’t really want those sorts of people coming to see you. I might have done ten years ago, before I was bitter, but now I just think it’ll make for a miserable night. A room of thick people, you couldn’t use irony, I’m too old to struggle.”

In his younger days, however, Lee and Herring were lauded as the comedic kings of the emerging ‘Lad’ culture. “Well we didn’t pull in much of a crowd. I think that was probably because a lot of the two million people who watched the TV show were about twelve years old and couldn’t really go out. Ironically now fifteen years later they’re journalists and promoters and things like that so there’s been a sort of weird second wave. ‘Loaded’ was different in ‘95 anyway. It used to have decent articles.”

Youth culture has certainly shifted, and student life is very different to the mid-90s. “It’s harder for students nowadays, I got a grant. I don’t think I’d become a student now. I think people were more politically active, or more visibly politically active I suppose, 20 years ago. Every day you were faced with a new challenge about what was the correct way to address a woman. Those things have just sort of settled down now. I enjoyed being a student though, I wrote for the Oxford Revue, and directed. That was amazing. There was money for student arts then. You could go to Edinburgh Festival. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but one of the best things was the opportunity to have educated, clever adults who were obliged to speak to you about things that you were supposed to be interested in. To treat that as a chore was really disgusting. Looking back, I really wish I’d done more work! The last few years, a lot of things that I’ve written have used things that I studied. ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, the framework of it was very Blakeian, with a sort of Miltonic quality, so it was nice to find an outlet for all that, fifteen years later.”

Lee’s current work is eclectic to say the least. “I’m writing a sitcom about the Norse myths, about Odin and Thor, and I’m working on a sort of folk-music musical about William Blake at the National. And I’m doing a site-specific theatre piece about DIY – someone walking you around their house, explaining why they want to sell it because they’ve done it all wrong. And then I’ll do another stand-up show in August.”

With all his work, however, he is defiantly steering away from the mainstream. “Critically, ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, was a big hit, but because of all the problems we didn’t really make anything out of it. So that’s kind of put me off commercial theatre. But ‘What Would Judas Do?’ is great – it’s cost effective and I might get a little radio drama out of it. I can’t keep doing things for nothing. Supporting the things that you want to do even if they aren’t viable. Working away at stuff that you think will make a difference.”

Music is one of Lee’s great passions. Offering him the opportunity to drive a tank, he says “I’d drive over all those Foxtons Estate Agents Minis that are made out in a kind of punk-rock livery, as if Foxtons Estate Agents had anything to do with the spirit of ‘76.” But in his new-found spirit of pragmatism, Lee finds himself accepting Murdoch’s greasy buck. “I write record reviews for The Sunday Times every week, and I do about one feature a month, and you know what? Between 2001 and 2004 that was the only money I earned, I earned about £12,000 a year, and it was exclusively from writing about music in the papers. Jerry Springer was being written, I was kind of doing that full time, and that’s really what this show is about. About being an idealist and about where you draw the line in the sand. I’m really glad to have that job. They let me write about whatever I want, and yeah…I hate Fox News, I hate Murdoch as a person, but it buys me the time to do other things. I’d have been in a lot of trouble without it.”

“I have a much more straight-forward relationship with my editor at the Sunday Times culture section than I’ve ever had with anyone at the BBC, who are the most duplicitous, lying, dishonest people. I feel much happier, much more ethically comfortable writing for a Murdoch newspaper than I would doing anything for BBC2, which to me is just so mad and chaotic and dishonest and panicky. I’ve wasted so much of my time there. There are things I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t write for the BNP paper, but no-ones ever censored anything I’ve done for The Sunday Times on the grounds of politics or taste. Whereas you run into that sort of thing all the time in the BBC. You never know where you are, or what they want. It’s not even political correctness; it’s more nonsensical than that. When people say that there’s too much political correctness I think they forget that there was a black bloke beaten to death in Liverpool last year by racists, and that the next week there were MPs standing up in Parliament trying to deny gay people the same rights to goods and services that straight people enjoy. There are still people trying to prevent the exercising of basic human rights, and using the media and the courts to do it. It’s a bit of a red herring to blame political correctness.”

Speaking of Herrings, how does Lee view his long time partnership with Richard, forged in the writing of ‘On The Hour’ and growing to fruition with ‘Fist of Fun’ and ‘Lee and Herring’, “We were diet coke visionaries, we were like the romantic poets with laudanum, except we were on diet coke. We wrote about a hundred hours of radio on diet cokes and crisps between 1994 and 1997. We were caffeine visionaries.”

“Armando Iannucci got us in to write ‘On the Hour’. It was a satire of what radio sounded like. Satire had traditionally been about personalities, but he made it about the delivery mechanism, rather than the information itself. It was something new, compared to the very retrograde world of Dead Ringers. We wrote two series of that, and loads of things that went on to become comedy staples of the nineties, but we dropped out when it went to TV as ‘The Day Today’. Patrick Marber managed to get a share of the credits for the creation of Alan Partridge, even though he hadn’t been on original creating team, and we had. We felt me should have some sort of recognition for that, which seemed fair at the time. It could probably have been handled better. Sometimes I think dropping out of that was a major career mistake, but then on the other hand, it did mean that at least we were still, throughout our twenties when you’ve got a lot of energy, we were still coming up with our own ideas, rather than becoming writers for hire. Both individually and together me and Rich sort of developed our own voice. I can’t really write for other people, and I’m quite proud of that – it means that what you do is more distinctive. Although, if I had a percentage share of Partridge like Marber does, I wouldn’t be sitting here now with this on. Swings and roundabouts.”

“I learnt that I’m in this for the long haul. Doing a show at Edinburgh, touring it. That’s the only thing that I’ve got which is a certainty. There’s no interface between me and an audience. It doesn’t have to go through the filter of people commissioning it or funding it or whatever, and it also doesn’t have to go through the filter of someone deciding whether it worked or not. It’s pretty obvious if it worked. It went well. More people come next time. So that’s really really simple. I’m not managed by anyone at the moment, because I was very reluctant to go with anyone who wanted a cut of my work, because at the end of the day, it’s kind of all I’ve got. That and writing reviews of leftfield free jazz for a neo-Nazi newspaper, is all I’ve got.”

“I’d love to do a radio show, but the breadth of things I’d want to play wouldn’t really fit in anywhere. Which, again, is their problem. It’s a problem of broadcasters and formats and producers – it’s what you call narrowcasting. I got sent a letter asking if I wanted to write for a new comedy, and it explained how it had to be a little bit risqué and blue, but be targeted at 25-35 year old women with a sense of independence but also a degree of responsibility. I just screwed it up and threw it in the bin. Only an idiot, or a person with no heart whatsoever, would write to that brief. I mean, my Odin sitcom is going to be targeted at people who believe literally in the existence of Norse Gods.”

The internet is changing the way that comics work, and, thankfully for us, the audience, reducing the importance of agents, PR and management. “I’ve just put out a DVD through a website [] because no-one wanted to put out my new DVD after the controversy that surrounded ‘Standup Comedian’. They’ve covered their costs so now they’re doing loads of stuff with people who can’t get deals. Its sort of an indie label for comedy DVDs.”

“I’m not at the stage where I’m thinking about developing content specifically for the web, but to sell DVDs just through a website, with no advertising, is entirely cost effective. About 2,000 people come to my website, and there’s another 1,000 or so on a MySpace page I have, so if I alert all those people to new shows and stuff I can sell out venues with no advertising costs. I was invited to go on ‘Derren Brown’, and I like ‘Derren Brown’ but they don’t pay you anything. Three million people watch it. It’s not worth being recognised by three million people in the street, for no money. It’s not really worth being recognised by eight million people for the amount of money you get for going on ‘Have I Got News For You’. It’s quite disconcerting.”

On the other hand, there’s still people who recognise him from ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’ “It’s tailing off, but it’s astonishing and very gratifying the amount of very nice people who do come up and say Hi.”

At least some of the sacrifices of celebrity are worthwhile then. Stewart Lee may not be the messiah, but he’s a very funny man.

Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 23 January 2007.