Will Self meets Stewart Lee

Comedian Stewart Lee talks to Will Self about stage personas, social media, and comedic panel shows
I first saw Stewart Lee’s standup act in the early 2000s at the Hackney Empire, and have seen him several times since at venues in London and Edinburgh. Readers unfamiliar with the live Lee phenomenon may know of him through the hugely successful – and equally controversial – Jerry Springer – The Opera, which he co-wrote, or via the TV work he has done over the years, beginning with co-writing credits on Armando Iannucci’s On the Hour in the early 1990s. On Thursday the fourth series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle will begin on BBC2, and the new shows feature all of Lee’s trademark virtuosity – and his equally familiar self-evisceration. Shot as a live standup act at the Mildmay Club in Stoke Newington, where Lee plays to his home crowd (which he characterises as “politically correct, Guardian-reading terrorist sympathisers”), the shows consist of long, narrative-driven absurdist monologues, during which he deconstructs not just the warped problematic of contemporary Britain, but that of his own comic persona. On stage, Lee is apparently an embittered, envious, self-lacerating man, caught in a ferocious double-bind: if he’s unsuccessful it’s because his audience are stupid shits who don’t get his jokes; and if he’s successful it’s because he’s a stupid shit churning out jokes that confirm his audience in their prejudices. So convincing is this act – if indeed it is an act – that I became intrigued: was the “real” Lee quite as prickly as his performance persona? In order to find out I asked him over for a serious sit-down. Here are the results.

WS: At the live show I saw, you said, “Nobody is competent to review me.” Am I?

SL: It’s like lots of things: it’s true but it’s also a joke. When I stopped doing standup for a while about 14 years ago, it was partly because the stuff I was doing, that I thought was interesting, was being reviewed as if I was making mistakes. I remember a review in the Independent that said, “It’s awful; at one point he loses the whole room for about half an hour, but somehow miraculously manages to claw it back.” Of course, I was working half an hour ahead all the time trying to think, “If I put that in there then I can ruin that bit later on but I can bring it back via that person who would …” You know? I really noticed the scene changing in the 90s. The audience at the Bedford – a pub I used to work at in Balham – started to change. There were new people in with city jobs and they hadn’t come to see you, you were like their employee, and they had expectations and demands they thought should be met by the performer. I remember someone shouting out: “We’ve paid for jokes, there aren’t enough jokes.” I think this has happened across the arts and education generally, hasn’t it? It’s turned into a customer/client relationship. And so when you go on stage and say, “No one is equipped to review me,” you’re saying, “This is going to happen on my terms.”

WS: So, it’s a sort of psycho-social response to a changing economic situation … You want to stop the act being commoditised at that point.

SL: I keep thinking it will run out of mileage, but there always seems to be new ways to spin it. Even when the people are coming in ever greater numbers, my character feels there must be some problem with this.

WS: In a sense, the genius of the shtick lies in its endlessly regressive self-reflectivity, but from the audience’s point of view we’re sitting there thinking, “Is he really actually, ultimately embittered or not?”

SL: One of the reasons I always man the book stall afterwards is I find it very funny to do all that edgy stuff for two hours and then be all, “Hello, how are you? Would you like this signed, too?” As far as being embittered on stage is concerned, that becomes problematic when things happen in the room and you have to stay in the character. I was in Dublin and I did a long bit about thinking I’m being haunted by the ghosts of comedians who have killed themselves. It goes on for ages and people buy into it. I’ve had people in the front row going, “Can you see them? Are they around you?” Anyway, a woman in the front row got her camera out and took a photo. So I went, “Why would you do that? Why would you take a photo of someone remembering people they know who have taken their own lives?” Then she crept out. So she’s on Twitter, she’s a journalist for the Irish Times, or whatever, and she’s tweeted: “I’ve just seen Stewart Lee have a mental breakdown on stage thinking that ghosts are attacking him.” She bought into it to the point where she thought she’d got a scoop that I’d gone nuts. Again, at the Soho theatre a guy got really angry. He said it wasn’t the audience’s fault that they didn’t get what I was doing, and I should be better at my job. I thought there was going to be a fight − he came down to the stage and was hanging around in a menacing way. I had to come out of character and say, “Look this is a construct.” [Read the Full Interview]

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2 Comments

  1. Stew’s half of this dialogue is by far the more interesting; Will’s suffers from his chronic circumlocutionitis. Still, better than no new Stew interview at all! The “ghosts” thing is depressingly hilarious… the journalist with her little gotcha-cam. Perfect, really.

    Liked by 1 person

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