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.