Stewart Lee Interviewed: "Why I Quit Stand-Up"

Perhaps our greatest living comedian, Stewart Lee talks about why he gave up stand-up, how he hates being told what to feel, the presentation of comedy and that, despite what some hecklers say, he's got more jokes than you can shake your fist at...
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Stewart Lee: Don't ask him for a knock knock joke...

Stewart Lee is perhaps one of the finest stand up comedians working in Britain today. His status can be measured not in terms of the size of the venues he plays or in the amount of biographical  ‘booky wooks’ he sells but rather on the integrity and insight that he brings to the form of stand- up comedy. In 2009 his television show Comedy Vehicle was cited in The Guardian as one of its top ten television highlights of the year commenting that it "was the kind of TV that makes you feel like you're not the only one wondering how we came to be surrounded by so much unquestioned mediocrity".

Lee is palpably different from other performers. He is not interested in the quick fix, the box set or any of the tropes associated with the carcinomic celebrity culture that has engulfed and emasculated much of modern stand up.

As a performer he is a restless figure. Comedy - developing it and honing it into his act - is his all.  His best selling and critically received book  “How I Escaped my Certain Fate” is not yet another Christmas shelf filler designed to be knocked out at Asda next to the one pound chickens. Rather it is a cogent and entertaining examination of what it is to be a comedy performer.  Lee is always questioning not only the world at large but also himself. What is comedy? Why do we laugh when we do?  What do audiences want? Are some of the issues that preoccupy Lee in his constant exploration of the comedic vibe.

I met Stewart Lee in London towards the end of his critically acclaimed “Vegetable Stew “ Tour. Which had played to critical acclaim in theatres across Britain before settling in for an extended residency at the Leicester Square Theatre in London’s West End…

On quitting the Stand-Up circuit

By about 2000 I had been doing stand up for about ten years and I found that I couldn’t make enough money to cover the basic running costs. A model seemed to have come into being for comedians whereby you did panel shows and guest slots on things and that is how you got better known. This didn’t suit me and also the circuit had become commercialized to the point where what I did was being seen as not doing comedy properly, but also it hadn’t become so big that there was a viable fringe circuit, so how I escaped my certain fate was firstly - how did I escape from that problem?  But also I guess it was trying to find a way to carry on doing the sort of comedy that I wanted to do make it cost effective and reach people who wanted to see it. Between 2000 and 2004 I wasn’t actually doing stand up. I couldn’t see a way of doing it.

I don’t like musical theatre type singing where the person emotes. I don’t like films where the sound track tells you how you are supposed to respond

On being told what to think, why Dan Brown is shit and ‘having no jokes.’

The annoyance of being told what to think…that annoys me across the board in all forms of art. Like I don’t like musical theatre type singing where the person emotes. I don’t like films where the sound track tells you how you are supposed to respond. A really good example of that is for example in ‘King Kong’, the original 1933 version, King Kong falls off the top of the Empire State building and he lands at the bottom and you are a bit taken by surprise as a kid when you first see that because you think ‘I felt sympathetic for that ape’ whereas in Peter Jackson’s remake, as he falls in slow motion, there is a string laden minor key sound track that tells you that you are to respond to this as a ‘sad thing’. Whereas the exciting thing about it in the original is that your emotional response took you by surprise, it wasn’t directed.

Likewise I think that, and you can do it you want, but I don’t think that you should laugh at your own jokes. Or flag them up. I think you should let the audience decide for themselves. I think good writing is like that in fiction. For example the reason that Dan Brown is bad writing is because Dan Brown says something like ‘the sad man felt depressed and then he left the room’. Whereas a good writer or any writer who is not shit would give you something like an example of the way he was doing something - the way he made pasta or how he moved things around in the room - that would allow you to interpret his emotional state and would involve you on an imaginative and intellectual level, and there doesn’t seem to be much other point in making art unless you are a government propagandist and isn’t that the point? To actually involve the consumer in an imaginative or emotional journey and I would argue that all those things that guide that response don’t do that, and that often they do turn out to be the most popular things. So a lot of all this stuff that you read about me where they say ‘well he hasn’t got any jokes’ - I’ve got loads of jokes, I mean where are the laughs coming from? But I think for years people actually thought that I didn’t know what I was doing and that it was all a mistake.

On slating Newman and Baddiel for playing Wembley, Kafka and Nick Drake

I slightly did that to be provocative. Because a lot of people say that Newman and Baddiel playing Wembley was the beginning of comedy as we understand it today so I thought that it would be funny as a sort of insider joke to say that it was actually the point when it finished. But in a way I sort of think it is. There is no turning back from that. I remember at the time their agent, who was also my agent at the time, said Newman and Baddiel had made £300,000 playing Wembley, compared to today when people are doing, not just one gig, but a tour of stadiums and people must be making millions. But I think it was hard to come back from that point because it set a precedent.

And it gave the impression that that was something that you should aim for. And it can be, and I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it if it appeared like it was doable but… if we look outside comedy for a moment there are all sorts of people who have, in their various fields, died without being recognized. Like Kafka didn’t even want his books published and yet now the word Kafkaesque is an adjective that everyone uses without even knowing where it is from. There is a word from what he did.

I remember there was some heckling on stage. “You are not doing enough jokes,” I said ‘well people are laughing aren’t they?’

Nick Drake is written about today as if he was a significant figure. But back in the eighties his records were not even in print and when he was alive he sold very little. People reverse engineer these things, we know that it is not the case that mass popularity equals artistic significance and yet people seem very reluctant to apply that to comedy. That logic. There is also that assumption in comedy that if that person is any good why haven’t I heard of them? Well because there are about five thousand working comics out there. When I started there was only about three hundred. There are so many that why would you assume that you have. There are all sorts of ways of doing it, and all sort of people doing it in different ways.  But these articles that are written about ‘turnover’ and audience size whatever I think actually obscure the critical study of it.

On defeating expectations and consumer led comedy

I do like to defeat expectations. In the book I do refer to one club - The Amused Moose - and they always play “Pumping on the Stereo” by Supergrass as you go on.  And the idea is that ‘here comes the rock and roll comedian and its Friday night! And Whoa! And then I kind of think that is one kind of comedy but what about just making a confused feeling in the room, and play music in the room which doesn’t really suggest anything, so that they are not pre disposed towards thinking –‘It’s going to be exciting’. That’s’ what it is about.

I think more than anything the way comedy is consumed these days the consumer is king. It is like someone once said to me at the ‘Cosmic Comedy club ‘ which is a club in Fulham  “You didn’t do enough jokes…we’ve paid for jokes and you didn’t do enough of them”. As if there is a number per minute. I remember there was some heckling on stage. “You are not doing enough jokes,” I said ‘well people are laughing aren’t they?’

One of the reasons that comedy took off perversely under Thatcher was that in an era of harsh cuts it was a very cost effective form of art

On other comics

Performers like Eddie Izzard are very good at making it feel spontaneous by giving the impression that things have just occurred to him. Billy Connolly and also Frank Skinner are good at being on stage in a huge place and giving you the impression that they arrived there by accident, that they were still ‘the fool’ who got invited to the film premiere and was telling you about it, or got to go to the Queen’s garden party and was telling you about it with a degree of ‘you won’t believe what this was about’.

On the presentation of comedy compared to other art forms

Well in theatre there are all sorts of people making a big deal about improvisation and performers talking directly to the audience and so on. People in theatre get excited about this but even the most down the line hack Jongleurs comedian does that every night. They go into a room read it, work out how to judge the performance, and talks directly to the people from what he has written himself. When playwrights do that people go ’give them an award’ but a comedian does that all the time. I also think that it can enable you to think of an idea during the day and implement it at night. One of the reasons that comedy took off perversely under Thatcher was that in an era of harsh cuts it was a very cost effective form of art and it was peopled by people who were largely refuges from left wing political theatre who suddenly were not getting their local funding grant anymore. I think you can find out a lot more about taste and judgment and what people are anxious about and what they care about from what they laugh at than you probably can do in anything in a play or a piece of music.

This is an excerpt from an interview that was originally conducted for 'Comedy Studies', published by Intellect Books. Click here to order a copy.

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