Stewart Lee: 'I've laughed more at Kevin McAleer live than anyone else ever'
The inimitable comic talks about his new tour, how he might've courted the Ricky Gervais controversy in Belfast and has advice for local newcomers to stand-up
How are you Stewart?
Stewart Lee: I’m OK, but I got bitten by a spider during the previews of this new show and ended up in hospital for a week. They knew what it was at A&E immediately – a false widow. They came to the south of England about a hundred years ago but the winters normally kill them off. Because of climate change there is a population explosion and a lot of people are getting bitten. Donald Trump and Paul Nuttalls need to tell the spiders there is no climate change and then maybe they’ll stop biting everyone.
You’ve been doing stand-up for 28 years now, and you’ve won every award going. How do you find the will to keep going?
Well, duty to the kids drives me forward. And it’s all I can do. I write more material than any other comparable stand-up, and I cover a lot of ground on the tours every year, but I am getting worn out. I started writing the new show in June and then the Brexit happened and obviously you can’t not mention it but I found myself staying awake for about a week trying to work out what was going on so I could work it into the set. In the end I realised nothing was going to change that fast and backed off a bit. Brexit and Trump have made comics’ lives hard though. How people are behaving is beyond satire, so what do you satirise?
Your new live show is called Content Provider. What can people expect? And how will it differ from your BBC Two series Comedy Vehicle?
It’s very different. Comedy Vehicle was four series of six 30 minute, self-contained sets. This is one two hour through-line, although I’ve had to keep the ideas and structure a little less rigid than usual to cope with the sudden surges in news events. There is also an apparently meaningless set which is actually very subtle and cleverly linked to the themes of the show in a way which becomes clear over the evening. It is made entirely from the second hand DVDs of other stand-up comedians, none of which I paid more than 10p for. Other comedians’ DVDs are currently the cheapest building material in the world.
If people end up using lots of different writers to meet a growing demand the individuality of their voice and the consistency of their character inevitably suffers. I don't have any online presence or social media, just a website. But it's easy for me. I was going in the late '80s before people were required to pimp themselves out on-ine for nothing to get noticed. If I was 20-something maybe I'd be tweeting photos of my own poo out in the hope of getting some web traffic.
Many comedians from Northern Ireland recently performed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the hope of it launching them to greater success. Is it the essential gateway to discovery it’s perhaps thought to be?
There are 3,000 shows on in the Fringe every day. It cannot logically be assumed to be a launchpad any more, if it ever was. If you go there hoping to be 'discovered' you will probably be disappointed. But if you go there to learn and live you will have a fun time. It costs much more to do it than in the '80s of course, and it is harder to find the fringe of the Fringe than it was, but the Free Fringe has freshened it up in a smelly kind of a way.
What advice do you have for young people trying to be comedians?
Well, it’s the same as with acting or music. It isn’t like 30 years ago. If you’ve got rich parents you might be OK, if you haven’t don’t bother. Every loophole that allowed people to subsist financially while working out their schtick has been closed and all the opportunities are controlled by the same production companies. It’s a closed shop now that is only open to the wealthy anyway. Do something else.
Ricky Gervais defended himself earlier this year after a couple took offence to a joke and walked out of his Belfast gig. There were also calls for him to drop the material in question from his set. How would you have responded in that situation?
I don't know what the material was, who the people that walked out were, or what they were offended by. So I can't really comment. I don't think comedians should drop material if the public don't like it, unless all they want is to have as large an audience as possible. As a rule we know more, and have thought more, about whatever it is we do than the public have, so I would normally take the side of a comedian against a member of the public, even if it was someone who I feel is given to errors of judgement. At the end of the day the public are the enemy of creativity and you have to master them, not be their slave.
Other shows you have been involved in have been very controversial, like Jerry Springer: The Opera. Is Content Provider shocking?
I don’t really understand this question but this show is I suppose ‘less shocking’ than usual. I think my core audience is having a bad time at the moment – they are the sort of people who will be depressed about Brexit and Trump – so I feel it’s time to cheer them up, not engage in terrifyingly dark black comedy. The world is bad enough.
Comedy Vehicle was cancelled in February after 10 years and four mutli-award winning series. Were you surprised?
Not really. The BBC is facing massive cuts due to the government trying to systematically dismantle it so something had to go from the comedy slate. Also, I’d done about all I could with that format. The truth is, financially I am better off touring that amount of material for two years, making a live DVD and then selling it to Netflix than I am giving more material away to BBC Two for less money. I am 48 with two kids and doing a job with no pension plan so I need to be realistic about making hay while people want to have my hay.
With Netflix revolutionizing the way stand-up is ‘consumed’ and distributed, is the gulf between watching at home and experiencing it live in a club or theatre getting wider do you think?
I worry that the Netflix Golden stand-up Goose will die if they flood the channel with too many poor quality mainstream British panel show one-liner types and waffling formless American arena stand-ups. People will go, "Is that all it is?" That said Netflix have just got Kettering's James Acaster on who is better than any of the American stand-ups on Netflix, so maybe people will see that and be reminded how good stand-up can be, and perhaps the channel will raise its game. If the filming of his show works.
I think if people watch too much TV stand-up they don't know what to make of proper good live stand-up as most of what is on TV isn't great. Even if the stand-ups themselves are good, the TV formats they are put in rarely serve them well. So in that respect there is a gulf I suppose.
This tour will be your first time performing at the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry. What’s your impression of the city and what can those who have never had the chance to see you before expect from being in the live audience?
I have played Derry~Londonderry a number of times before. I didn't get an impression of the city. I turned up in darkness and left early as is often the way with one-nighter touring. I really enjoyed it last time I played there. Northern Ireland's Kevin McAleer was in the audience who is my friend and one of my favourite stand-ups of all time. I have laughed more at him live than at anyone else ever. I admire the boldness with which he slowly hunts down a single idea to its logically absurd end point.
Who are some of other your favorite comedians?
Lots of them are dead or unknown, but here’s 20. Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Eric Bogosian. Jerry Sadowitz, Ken Campbell, Dave Allen, Ted Chippington, Nish Kumar, Harry Hill, Daniel Kitson, Bridget Christie, Paul Sinha. Johnny Vegas, Simon Munnery, Michael Legge, Josie Long.
You’ve been described as ‘the comedian’s comedian’. Is that flattering?
I don’t think it’s the case. Most of the younger comedians seem to hate me, I think, and because I’m not really on the club circuit any more, and do my shows in theatres, I’m not part of any community and none of the new ones know or see my stuff anyway which is good I suppose, because if they did they would give up.
What are your plans for the future?
Well I’m touring this Content Provider show until 2018. I’m supposed to be making a folk rock album with the group Trembling Bells at some point. I wrote a comedy drama about Brexit in September that is currently with a production company trying to find someone who’ll pay to make it. I’ll write another book for Faber, this one about doing stand-up on TV. But I need to slow down. I have no life and no friends. I don’t do enough with the kids. After the tour ends in the summer of 2018 I’ll lie on the sofa for a bit and watch ‘60s Italian westerns. They’re all I’ve watched for the last few years really. I’ve see nearly 200. I like them because the directors and writers tried to slip weird and interesting and political things into them under cover of the movies being genre. I suppose that’s what I try to do with stand-up. At the end of the day it’s still just comedy, but maybe you can make it meet something better half way.
Stewart Lee's new show Content Provider comes to the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry on September 27 and the Belfast Waterfront on September 28. For tickets to the Millennium Forum go to www.millenniumforum.co.uk/shows/stewart-lee and www.waterfront.co.uk/what-s-on/all-events/stewart-lee-content-provider for the Waterfront.