Interview: TV comic Stewart Lee discusses the evolution of his Comedy Vehicle
'When I look at the first series, it feels like a different person; the character has changed by circumstances and ageing'
This article is from 2014.
As his Comedy Vehicle keeps on moving, Stewart Lee tells Brian Donaldson why he loves being ripped to shreds by Chris Morris and why there only seems to be room for one clever TV comic at a time
Whenever you read below-the-line comments on an internet article which discusses Stewart Lee, one thing is guaranteed. Someone somewhere will describe him as smug and self-satisfied. Yet, at almost every step of the way on Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, the nuanced character that he is portraying in front of the live studio crowd and the extended one at home, does just about everything he can to undermine the real Stewart Lee.
There’s the passive-aggressive attitudes he displays towards his audience, the over-repetitive annunciation of a certain idea or image, designed to annoy and alienate, and most memorably of all, there are the cut-aways to him being interviewed backstage by a ‘hostile interrogator’. Previously, it was Armando Iannucci, now it’s another long-term Lee collaborator, Chris Morris. As the former Day Today co-creator witheringly lays into Lee’s confidence with close analyses of the ways in which the comic is getting this all wrong, it becomes pretty obvious that someone of a smug nature would surely be making themselves look much better to their public, employers and family.
‘I think Armando worked out questions in advance but Chris looked at all the scripts and came in and just asked stuff,’ insists Lee. ‘Although it’s totally improvised, there was one line I went in wanting to say about bumping into my wife in the street. I knew that if I could get that in, then it would act as a set-up for the start of episode six. Armando realised he couldn’t do it this time around, because he had to be in Baltimore to work on Veep. I went into a panic but Chris was there and we just got on with it.’
As well as recalling some of the interviews he conducted in Brass Eye, where Morris made famous people look rather silly, these interrogations work in re-establishing Lee’s persona as a loser. With the increasing success (both critical and audience) that he has received in the last decade since returning to stand-up after a hiatus during which he co-wrote Jerry Springer The Musical, it has somewhat pulled the rug from under the feet of his live act which operates from the perspective of a perpetual failure trying to punch above their weight. Morris’ role is to hammer away at that vulnerability until it bleeds.
‘When I look at the first series, it feels like a different person; the character has changed by circumstances and by ageing, so Chris was the right person for this now, because he just undermined me in a really subtle way whereas Armando was more immediately confrontational.’
Although in the Morris-led extras for the DVD Lee reveals his ‘gratitude’ towards the BBC for not ‘doing a Sky’ and barely lifting a finger to promote the show, he does seem genuinely happy to be back in the Beeb family after being away for so long since the early-90s work with Richard Herring on Fist of Fun.
‘When I first went there in 2005 to talk about a show with a guy who is now about three controllers down the line, I wasn’t looking for a quick fix,’ recalls Lee. ‘I wanted to be like Dave Allen where you did something every three years or something rather than be like Russell Howard and keep turning over a huge amount of stuff every year. The thing that’s unfair is that there only seems to be room for one kind of a thing: Stephen K Amos used to joke that they only had room for one black male comedian and they now only seem to have room for one thinky comedian. That means that I’m blocking it up for all the others.’
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle season three is out now.