If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask for One - Stewart Lee interview
Brian Donaldson meets up with Stewart Lee to discuss decapitated celebrities, online petitions and his toughest gig to date: making Michael McIntyre sound funny
In his new show, Stewart Lee compares himself to a raft of personalities who appear to have let themselves go: Ray Liotta, Morrissey, KD Lang and Terry Christian among them. In the flesh, 41-year-old Lee might be barely recognisable from the comedic waif who, alongside stand-up mucka Richard Herring, snarled and sneered at life’s pomposities during the 1990s before getting up the cassocks of Christian Voice with his co-writing role in Jerry Springer: The Opera. But having reinvigorated his comedy career after this brief yet unforgettable foray into musical theatre, Stewart Lee is, in all senses of the word, the country’s finest heavyweight stand-up talent. Many younger comics have been grateful for the patronage he has bestowed upon them: Wil Hodgson, Josie Long and Daniel Kitson for three.
But none of the devotion he attracts from comics and critics (the public are slowly catching up), can prevent him being doorstepped by the likes of the Mail on Sunday when they got wind of his current routine concerning the self-inflicted near-death experience of Richard ‘Hamster’ Hammond. ‘I was going into The Stand when a bloke went “I’m from the Mail on Sunday; is it true that you say that you want Richard Hammond to be decapitated?” I asked him if he’d seen the show and of course he hadn’t, so I just said, “It’s a joke, just like on Top Gear when they do their jokes”. And they printed that at the end which, if you know the routine, makes their news story quite funny.’
At which point, Lee fills his Edinburgh hotel room with a gusto-heavy cackle. When the Hammond section reaches its surreally gruesome finale the night before at the Festival Theatre, it’s met with hearty laughter by an audience who are exactly on Lee’s wavelength, fully aware that when he wishes the presenter had died a slow, painful death, he is not simply being wilfully nasty. Instead, he is subtly swiping the culture of cruelty which pervades everything from the comedy bearpits across the land to motoring programmes in primetime slots. Similarly, when he expresses the hope that Jeremy Clarkson’s daughters all go blind, it’s merely a retort to the bubble-haired boor’s jokey comments about Gordon Brown’s one-eyed status.
What gave the Richard Hammond story extra spice, as though it needed any given the routine’s imagery of a severed head rolling into a puddle of blazing petrol, was that the pair attended Solihull School at the same time, ‘People who read things like that in the Mail on Sunday and who think Clarkson is funny aren’t going to come and see me, so it doesn’t matter. The only time it may have cost me ticket sales was in the Midlands when the Solihull Observer pursued it to an insane degree and made up this annoyed local man to whom they attributed all these quotes. And they then sent me this creepy letter saying, “Oh, we are such fans of yours, will you clarify your position?” When I said no, they set up a phone-in poll to demand that I was banned.’
When it came to securing a second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC2, there wasn’t a question of him being censored, exactly, but when news filtered out that the sketch and stand-up show, was to be denied a further outing, an online petition was set up to demand its recommissioning. When the series’ executive producer Armando Iannucci Twittered the good news with a resounding ‘huzzah!’ just as the campaign’s signatories had swelled to over 2000, this could surely be read as a victory for the people? Lee is not so sure. ‘I’m very grateful to everyone who signed it, but I don’t think it would have made much difference. Let’s not forget that during the 90s, there were about 4m people who signed a petition demanding the return of Doctor Who and the only thing that made it happen was Russell T Davies saying “I’ll write that” and the BBC saying “Oh, would you? OK”.’
In line with entertainment cuts across the BBC board, the budget is around a third less than he was handed for series one (‘We won’t be able to film massive David Jason figures falling down in fields again’) but it must be a source of some pleasure to him that has six more half-hour slots to offload his own particular comedy vision upon the nation, without any fear that he will ever end up being the new Michael McIntyre. During If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, he offers his own perspectives on the smart-suited populist (who beat both Lee and Frankie Boyle to the Best Stand-Up prize at last year’s British Comedy Awards) and in an intriguing twist is attempting to formulate a project which might help Lee begin to understand the mass appeal of those mundane observations. His idea is to perform an entire McIntyre set word for word to see if it can be given a different perspective.
‘I was thinking about when Sonic Youth did “Addicted to Love” and “Into the Groove”, it was only when you heard those songs moved that you can see what it is, so if you took Michael McIntyre out of Michael McIntyre’s act, I’d be interested to see what would be left. As a comedian, I want to understand its appeal because that appeal is baffling to me. Yet it’s what most people seem to like, so if I can’t get it, then there must be something wrong with me.’ And with another full-throated cackle, he’s done, soon to be back on the road and reaching the comedic parts that Top Gear-lovers and Michael McIntyre-worshippers will never get a grip on.
Stewart Lee: If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One has two performances at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Mon 15 Mar