Stewart Lee Press
STEWART LEE INTERVIEW. BATH. JULY 26 2000
"Read all about it! Bath Chronicle in interesting news shocker!" A sweaty figure dressed in faded black ambles down the stairs towards the entrance of the Ustinov Studio. I approach.
ďHello, my nameís Deian Vincent.Ē
His face has the look of someone who has just finished performing, hyper, excited and in no mood for daft bloody interrogations.
ďI got in touch with you not so long ago, about doing an interview?Ē
His face lights up with recognition and so begins my interview with one of Britainís best and least known comics, Stewart Lee.
Before our chat Stewart had just finished a sell out performance in front of an eager crowd at the Ustinov Studio in Bath.
Though billed as a preview of his upcoming show at Edinburgh it was more a work in progress as alongside older material Stewart tested some gags to see what worked and what didnít.
For the record the show was great and although a little rough around the edges his experience and confidence on stage pulled it through and with polishing the show in Edinburgh will probably be great. (Yes, I know Edinburgh has been and gone. Blame my photographer for the delay!)
For those not in the know and uttering, ĎStewart Who?í Stewart is a young comedian who has been in the comedy biz for eleven years.
He has writing credits with Harry Hill and was the script editor on Al Murrayís new sitcom Time Gentlemen please, which is showing on SKY One at the moí on Monday nights.
He is probably best known for his TV work with Richard Herring on Fist of Fun and theyíre Sunday morning hangover cure show, This Morning with Richard not Judy. (Which will never see the light of day again thanks to some chinless, sense of humour by-pass merchant who now runs the BBC!) ďGet a catchphrase out of this one then!Ē Thankfully, aside from the blaring jukebox it was fairly subdued in our interview setting at the Hobgoblin pub and therefore a good place to yak some.
I have to admit, this was my first proper interview and although I felt like a complete tool, Stewart answered my questions in detail and never spoke down to me. He kept the interview going when I was umm-ing and err-ing and kept constant eye contact through out. He also has a laugh like Ray Liota in Goodfellas, which can be very unnerving at times! I can only hope all my interviews are like this.
After Stewart kindly got the drinks in, we began...
What did you think about tonightís performance then?
Well, the first forty minutes went well and then the pace dropped after that. When I first started out I used to write a lot of one-liners and then I started to write longer things. Now what I really like writing is long involved things. So I tend to write lots and lots of the kind of material thatíll work well in the second half of the hour without any opening short stuff. So whatís wrong with the show is that after about twenty minutes in it feels as if its winding down because all the things I do are the kind of things I do as a closer and thatís the sort of stuff I really like performing now. So I need the space to write the sort of stuff thatís more upbeat which is real easy but boring, which is why I donít do it.
Now that comedy has evolved from one liners and mother-in-law jokes (though someone really needs to tell Alan Davies of this fact) do you think youíll ever get the chance to perform a show of longer involved material?
I donít know. The problem is, is that Iím half known so in an audience, half the people will be there to see me. And theyíll be thinking, ĎGreat. We know he can do the job letís see how heís going to do now.í And theyíll be ready for me to develop it a bit. But in every audience Iíve played thereís other people there that have come along just because its comedy. So they need to be convinced that I can do the job or theyíll not trust you to do it.
Its a weird thing being half known, itís like the different parts of the audience have different expectations. Iíd rather be unknown or really well known than have to have this thing of being half known. Itís really hard to play both sets of expectations. So the only way to get the live stuff further is to do more TV so that the people will trust you and then they can see that you're already funny.
Therefore you could go on a bit of a journey with them. But TV can be a two edged sword, because when you watch mainstream comics do benefits or whatever, they do really rubbish stuff but they donít realise its not very good because the audience laughs at it because they like them. So I just donít know what the answer is really. Iíve hit a bit of a brick wall the last sort of year.
Does this depress you?
Not really. Itís inevitable. But I canít really see a way around it.
The gigs I get that pay a lot of money in the theatre or something like that are where the local people have gone because itís comedy night and they wanna see something that broadly conforms to their understanding of that. So I always end up going back to the kind of material I did in the first half tonight. Which even though is a bit weird, still has the rhythms of jokes. I donít know how to get round it really.
I then mentioned that nearer Bill Hicks untimely passing, on performing heíd said that heíd almost give up it up completely for a more socially aware commentary in a theatre setting rather than in a comedy club.
In answering Stewart made an interesting point which, to be honest, Iíd never really considered before.
Iím not interested in social comedy but he was able to do what he wanted because he knew he was going to die. So he obviously thought, I might as well (give it a go) what have I got to lose? And he literally had nothing to lose.
Do you think thatís why he performed the material that he did then?
Yeah, partly. Because you might as well, mightnít you? It wasnít like he was building up to anything.
You have to be careful with Bill Hicks because retroactively heís become an important figure but he was just a road comic in his day in the states. He never achieved any real level of success. Here people tend to see him being cut from Letterman as evidence of some sort of conspiracy theory. But I expect they just overrun. Iím not saying he wasnít good, he was, but he wasnít important or influential in his time and heís much better known here that he is in the states.
American comedy carries on quite happy - the same as it was without any awareness of him or interest in him. It doesnít matter.
It wasnít until I played these words back that I realised how controversial these words might become.
You might scoff but Bill Hicks has reached a near spiritual figure amongst comedians and fans alike (including me!).
And as with most criticising or slight knocking of iconic figures, people get riled.
Hey, it happened to Jesus!
But remember, Goat children, its only an opinion. Weíre all entitled to it, ok?
After that hot potato I switched the talk to a new project Stewart has become involved in, script editor to Al Murrayís pub Landlord sitcom character, ĎTime Gentleman pleaseí currently showing on SKY One now.
Have you seen Alís act?
Well, I think its better (the sitcom) really because one of the things that gets problematic about the act, the more popular that it gets, a lot of people in the audience donít really get it but just like the swearing and the slagging things off. But in the sitcom there are other characters there that he gets the chance to have some dialogue with, so, I think its better really. Theyíre doing twenty-three which is the proper international sitcom unit and the kind of thing that all Brit TV companies say is impossible but weíre going to do it.
Christ! Twenty-three! Its usually only ever six!
Only if Keith Barronís in it.
So Mr Lee, do you like Bath?
Yeah, I really do. I had a really good time at the Fez (local Bath comedy club) a couple of months ago. Its great.
Any towns that you donít like?
Well, the only town that I wonít do gigs in is Glasgow. I did about five in 1996 and whether theatres, student venues or clubs they were always awful and I hate the city. So my live booker has a note that says, ĎWill not work in Glasgowí. Iíll never work in Glasgow. Everywhere else in alright.
Why was it that bad?
They were always awful for different reasons. I donít know. After five times I just think, thatís enough. Give up, forget it!
My photographer, James, then points out, obviously feeling a bit miffed, that Glasgow was where he was born.
I then politely enquire as to why, if it is so good, he is now living in Bath. He shuts up then.
So, which comedians do you rate these days?
Well, oddly enough theyíre mostly people that Iím now friends with or knew when they started out. Al Murray, Harry Hill, Simon Munnery. And as well as them, John Shuttleworth, Johnny Vegas, Sean Lock, who has inexplicably become a marginalized figure despite being brilliant, and when I was a kid, Ted Chippington, who you probably wonít have heard of. He was the one who made me want to do stand up.
To be honest, the more you do it as a job, there are a lot of people that, I donít like their stuff, I donít like what they do but I can admire the work that they put into it. So I kind of like Mark Thomas even though I donít really like what he does just because he does that really well. You have to admire the craft of it; you know what I mean?
So itís a bit weird, me doing it professionally. You donít always laugh at what you think is funny. You sometimes think, I donít like that, I wouldnít say that but if I did like that and I did say it you could do a lot worse by saying it like that. So there are all sorts of other things to consider.
How did you first get into the Comedy biz then?
Well, Iíve always wanted to do it. Iíve done bits at school and bits when I was at College and I moved to London and I did the open spot circuit. Simple as that really.
How did the writing come about?
I went to Radio Four when they used to do The Weekending and they had an open meeting for new writers; which doesnít exist anymore. But it was a good way in.
Was that how you got to write for Harry Hill?
Harry Hill came about because Iíd done a few TV series and I knew him and he was getting one and he just wanted me to help him write for TV basically. It was just Ďcause I knew him really.
I then asked the question Iíd been dying to ask. ďWill we ever see This Morning with Richard not Judy return to our screens?Ē
It definitely wonít be.
The new controller (for the BBC) doesnít like it so she cancelled it.
And it would really be hard to get it back together again.
Because we did the double act (Stewart is best known alongside erstwhile comedy partner Richard Herring) for four or five years, including the radio shows, during that time even though we were writing our own stuff it was sort of up and running, yíknow?
Weíd always be meeting up to write but to get the time to get together and write enough stuff for a series from scratch would take an amount of investment that no-ones likely to put in.
Plus Richard mostly writes Alís new sitcom too. He writes most of it and heís really happy doing that. And I like doing stand up. We havenít fallen out or anything. Also I can make more out of doing eight shows on my own than I can out of doing a forty-five date tour with the two of us, because of the overheads and the way its calculated is so different, so its not really worth it on a practical level. And Iíd rather use the money I get from stand up to buy more time to write things.
Weíve got a sitcom pilot that weíve written which isnít out of the question.
But I donít wanna take it to the BBC cause I donít like the controller and I donít want to take it to Channel Four Ďcause I donít like the controller there either.
So itís a case of waiting till one of them leaves or doing it at SKY if Alís thing goes well.
Iím not in any real hurry to do telly again unless itís going to be right, basically.
Would you ever tour with Richard again?
Well, we never got that many people anyway and that was when we were on telly. We never really got enough people to make it cost effective. To go out now would be just ludicrous, just impossible.
By the time weíve done advertising, transport, hotels whatever. We just couldnít do it. A record company always offsets what a band loses on tour, so itíd just be impossible for us. We just canít do it.
How long have you been on the road, so far, for this current tour?
Iíve been doing one week out of London. And for the last month Iíve been trying to change it from last years' set into this years set by a process of osmosis and reading of bits of paper. So its on its way.
Do you use a lot of new material?
I used to but for this show Iíve been too busy. I got back from Australia at the start of May thinking Iíd have three months to get this together. But I got offered to direct this TV show; Simon Munneryís League against Tedium show, so I did that and that took me to four weeks ago.
And the last four weeks Iíve been seven days a week in an editing suite trying to get it made before I go to Edinburgh.
So the thing I havenít had time to do is write the show.
So I was doing stuff for the first time tonight on stage, which I wouldnít normally do. Normally Iíd break it up a bit. I just havenít had time, so itís going to be a bit like going in blind next week.
Do you get nervous before a show?
No, not normally but I did tonight. Because it was the first time Iíd done I (the material) really.
It went well, though you didnít seem that nervous you can certainly tell that youíve had a lot of stage time and that youíve been around a bit.
Yeah. Thatís weird cause part of the problem with that is this has been under prepared for about a week now and Iíve been performing it.
But I kinda get away with it just by experience and cockiness.
But at the end of the day about a third of the show just isnít written properly and Iím covering that up by arsing about a bit and I need to find some time to do it properly.
But, yeah you can get away with it with experience.
I mean, some gigs you end up doing twenty minutes without doing any material now.
But I sort of hate that because I actually like writing stuff and trying to do it and see how it works.
I donít really like improvising but you can kind of fall back on it as a second position, yíknow?
But some of the things I said tonight I wrote down so theyíll be alright.
Very true, in fact Stewart came up with quit a few good improvs tonight, including one piece about a ginger and a pussy.
Even writing it down got him some laughs!
Your worst heckle?
Cause Iíve got quite bushy eyebrows and they were out of control that night. I hadnít realised that one of them were about two inches long, sticking out, and I couldnít understand why people were shouting out, ĎEyebrow!í And the whole audience were really laughing cause they could see that I had a massive eyebrow. I just couldnít figure it out.
Did anyone tell you in the end?
Yeah, in the end. But by then Iíd lost all credibility with the audience.
I wonder if that happened in Glasgow?
Bringing the interview to a close I asked Stewart what advice and tips heíd give to aspiring comics and comedy writers trying to break into the biz.
I donít know because it was different when I started doing it.
When I started doing stand-up at the end of the eighties, there werenít so many people trying to do it. So if you got a good open spot within three months youíd get a paid gig. Now youíre looking at eighteen months. I donít know what you do.
Likewise for writing, when I started there was Spitting Image and Weekending. Which both made a point of being open to new writers. Whereas now both are finished and no-one really knows where to go.
I really donít know. I donít know where youíd start.
To be honest, if I was starting now I donít know if Iíd have the staying power to stick with it for the amount of time it would require to see results.
I think I was lucky that I got in in the twilight years when you could still get results more or less immediately. I really donít know.
In terms of advice about writing things thereís all these courses about comedy that say, talk about what you know and try and be yourself. Those are two good bits of advice. But if you look at Harry Hillís act, a good piece of advice would be to talk about what you donít know and donít try and be yourself. So, thereís no hard or fast rules.
You can always tell the people that have been on comedy courses, they come on and go, ĎIím a plumber, right, and in my jobÖí and they try and talk about their life.
Now, I donít wanna know about their fucking life. I want to know about something interesting, you know what I mean? I donít wanna hear the mundane things of everyday life bounced back at me by a bloke whoís as normal as I am. I wanna see someone a bit weird or special or different whoís got something to tell me.
But on the other hand, thatís an equally valid way of doing comedy, by going, ĎWe all do this, donít we?í and try to make connections with people. But it isnít the only way, so I donít think there are any rules.
And the more people try and follow them, the more weíre waiting for someone to some along and change them all. What Iím trying to do at the moment is eliminate me, as a personality, from the act.
I had a lot of really good ideas the other week about one night stands and stuff. But I thought I donít really want to talk about that cause thatís about my life, me as a person and I wanna be talking about ideas and things.
Thatís what I wanna do. I donít really wanna go, ĎYouíve done this and Iíve done this.í
I want to try and get rid of all of that even if itís funny, just clear it out. Just to make the changes. Iím not saying that isnít a really good thing to do, it is but someone else can do that.
Fair enough. Looking forward to the Edinburgh Festival?
Less than I ever have done. When I was eighteen or nineteen whatever, I thought, ĎOh thisíll be interesting.í
Then, when I was twenty-one I thought, ĎOh maybe someoneíll see me and Iíll get some workí.
And when I was twenty-five I thought, ĎIíll be able to get a show together, itíll be interesting and Iíll get to see all the other shows, whatever. And maybe Iíll get off with someone.í
Now, Iíve got a girlfriend, I donít want to be discovered, I have been and I didnítí like it. What Iím going up for is to do a show, which will lose money, but by the end of it, itíll be better and I can turn it around and make the money back.
So, itís a bit like running a cardboard factory. You need to buy paper, an outgoing expense. So, Iím going up there and by the end of it Iíll have a product and I can tour that around for another year. And then write a new show. Itís really a dull, monotonous methodical sort of thing. And the shows will be fun. Itís really nice doing an hour every night for a month. You canít do that in many places. So itís worth it for that. And also, bizarrely, Iím looking forward to having some spare time and trying to get on with other things Iím writing in the day.
So, normally I wouldnít do an Edinburgh but Iíve been so busy this year that Iím really looking forward to just getting up there and just doing it. I really like the flats there too. Iíll be staying in a nice big flat with high ceilings.
And Iím going to go see another show. I always go and see shows there too. I try and see two a day and all the other comics take the piss out of me for being interested but I go and see loads of Theatre and music and stuff.
And thereís loads of good second hand record shops.
Cool. So, have you ever considered joining the ever growing list of comics who write books?
Iíve got one coming out next year.
Thatís what Iíve got to get on with in Edinburgh. Iíve been doing it since í93. But itís only since the last two years that Iíve started showing it to people. But Iíve got to finish it basically. I see writing as a lifeline. Basically what I wanna do with the rest of my life is to do stand up and write.
I donít really want to be on TV again unless I have control of it and thatís a difficult thing to get. So, Iím really hoping the book does all right on its own terms. But I just donít know whatís going to happen.
(If youíve seen the act lately youíll have a good idea of what its about. Moon. Sex. Pig. Thatís all Iím saying!)
I got the idea for it when I went on holiday to the USA in í95 with Kevin Eldon. I went and drove around Arizona with him and got loads of ideas for it. IĎm going back in September to go back to all the places I went the last time and Iím gonna stay on an Indian Reservation for two nights.
You lucky bugger! Howíd you get to do that then?
Well, if you contact the right people you can stay up there in a special centre theyíve got. Itíll be alright.
After time was called at the bar we called it a night. After a brief chat with the tape player off a few pics were taken outside by James.
ďSo,Ē I asked as Stewart posed.
ďWere you being sarky earlier when you said you liked Bristol then?Ē
I expected a big laugh in return and an, ĎOf course I was!Ē to follow.
ďNo. Iíd really like to live there. It seems to have a really good vibe.Ē
Oh Lumme! Time to go! ďNext stop, Bristol!Ē
© 2000 Words: Deian Vincent.Pics: James Fenwick. Source - Mrh-online