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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 19 October 2015

Stewart Lee: “The most controversial thing you can do is be sincere in a world of irony.”

Andrew Haydon talks to Stewart Lee about journalism, live art, The Fall and access to education, among other things.
Andrew Haydon
Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee

Andrew Haydon: What do you normally get asked in interviews?

Stewart Lee: Well, it depends. Local newspapers haven’t ever seen you and they ask you where you get your ideas from, what you think of political correctness, are there any topics that are unacceptable, you know [does a voice] “Are there things that you can’t joke about, though?” And I answer them all the same. Then they ask me a question about Jerry Springer: The Opera, except they call it “Jerry Springer: The Musical”. And I go “It was Jerry Springer: The Opera” and they go “Oh yes”. Then they say, “You’re very controversial, aren’t you?” Because they’ve read that somewhere, but they’ve never seen anything you’ve done, so it’s really hard to talk about it. That’s normally what local newspapers do, because they’ve got to turn round loads of interviews in a day. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you get 20-year-olds on an art school course that are writing a thesis about you, asking you questions about Brecht and things like that.

AH: Really?

SL: Yeah. That bit tonight is slightly taking the piss of out these theses I read about myself. They send you this 6,000 word bound thing. I mean, it’s interesting. I’ve got about three dozen of them now. Some things you sort of intend, and other things… But that’s good fun as well. They sort of know a bit about theory and practice and ideas and they get a bit nearer to… They’re not so bothered about “Are you a comedian?” You’re just an artist of some sort, so actually they sometimes ask better questions but then they often think that things that all stand-ups do are very avant garde and amazing: just changing things in the moment, or there not being a fourth wall. And there’s never any fourth wall in stand-up…

AH: There’s that thing about “performing yourself”? Or an idea of yourself?

SL: Although, the really good thing about that is lots of performers they have a question about “what is the motivation of the character? Why are they there?” And, like, with him, with me – I call him him – it’s explicitly that it’s his job, so he has to do it. And he’s also, now, got these financial obligations to family…

AH: There’s a character arc, isn’t there?

SL: He’s got to do this job. And then the drama, such as it is, comes from his failure to do it because he gets distracted by his own paranoia, annoyance, genuine passion about things, disappointment with the audience, all sorts of things like that. Whether it’s a two-hour show like those or a half-hour block in Comedy Vehicle, now, really, the sort-of formula is that he’s got this thing that he wants to talk about, which he’s got to do because that’s his job, but then some other problem gets in the way and he gets distracted by it. What I like about it is, in stand-up you don’t have to think “What’s my motivation?” The person’s got a reason to be on stage, which is that they’re an entertainer. They’ve got to fill up time. Their motivation is that they’ve got to fill up time…/

[That’s quite bleak, isn’t it? Like Beckett or something]

SL: But you’ve kind of avoided this whole thing you get with character comics. I mean, there’s lots of really good ones, but sometimes it seems like they’ve made a problem for themselves. Like, why is this postman on stage? Why is this flight attendant on stage? Y’know? That’s not to criticise them, ‘cause obviously there’s loads of brilliant people [doing that], but…

AH: Is there a frustration for you that there’s all the irony, and all the meta-comedy… Do you get to a point where it feels self-deleting?

SL: When you go to Wrexham, people have come out because something’s gone there. When you go to Inverness, people have come out because something’s gone there. And what I like about stand-up is that one some level it’s tradesman’s stuff, you know? You’ve got to do this job. And they have to go away thinking that they’ve seen something that’s recognisably stand-up. But the good thing about it is because it’s such an obvious form – like, the form of stand-up is a man or a woman is at a microphone. I don’t even like it really when people put head mics on, because there’s this really powerful image there [mimes mic]. That’s the rules of that. It’s got a form like a sonnet. You know what it is and everyone understands what a stand-up’s supposed to be. So, actually, that does give you a degree of lee-way to experiment within that, ‘cause you’ve got these clear parameters. So, I like the fact that you can do both things. And, recently, an interesting thing is that ten years ago people would say, “my favourite comics are you, and Josie Long, and Simon Munnery” or something – weird people – and now I’ve got into this area where people come and see you, they might also see, y’know, John Bishop, or something. And they think you’re kind of part of *that*.

They can see you’re different to it, but… It’s interesting. And then, sometimes, really good theatre places say, “Do you want to develop a one man show that isn’t stand-up?” And I have done things like that in the past, but now I think with the stand-up there’s no incentive to, ‘cause actually the recognizable form and rules of stand-up are so strong that if I’ve got something I want to talk about, or something I want to do with sound or light or music or whatever, I can probably do it in one of those shows. And, I can do it in the Trojan horse of it being a form of mainstream entertainment, and I can get people that would never go to the National Theatre or the Battersea Arts Centre, or wherever, to watch something that sometimes is borderline avant garde. And they like it. And they wouldn’t go to it if they were told that it was A Highbrow Thing, which is a shame, but sort of true.

stewart-lee-stand-upAH: Although presumably being on telly once every two years or so for a series helps, though, right? Like a big advert.

Yeah. It sort of grows incrementally every time. But then it was anyway. It’s difficult to know. Some people go on telly every week for years, but because their demographic aren’t people who go out… You never know what’s going to happen. It’s a constant source of frustration to promoters that a fairly mainstream impressionist on BBC1 who gets 8 million viewers a week, they put him on the road and he’ll get less than me. Like nothing. Like ten people.

AH: And not because they’re not good…

SL: Not because they’re not good, it’s just that different kinds of people go out to things. It’s the same with advertising. Advertisers don’t necessarily pay a premium for some sorts of shows that get a lot of viewers, because the people that watch them don’t buy anything. Whereas something that appeals to 16 to 35-year-old gay men will have premium rate advertising because they go out and buy products and do things, they’re not in a system where they have to pay for, y’know, kids or something. So there’s not always a correlation. You remember the Lighthouse Family? That band? They were massive. Number one singles. Everything. I remember when I lived in Finsbury Park they put them on in Finsbury Park, in the park, and they had to cancel it because they sold like 200 tickets or something, because people who buy [those records] don’t go out. So it’s kind of weird. But tonight; Friday night; West End: two thirds of the people have never seen me before some of them may never have even seen anything you’ve done anywhere, they’ve just come to “some comedy”. Which I quite like, actually. I pretend that I don’t like it, but I do like it.

AH: So, no more theatre stuff then?

SL: I’m 47 now. The amount of years I’ve got left on stage are ticking away. There’s still loads to find out about this. I’ve kind of crossed the point where [swallows rest of sentence]. Also, it’s very flexible and cost-effective. And I’m my own boss. And in terms of my wife doing stand-up as well, and childcare or whatever, it’s sort of unrivalled. I mean, if I was to have to rehearse something… the days start to disappear… It’s easier working evenings and getting babysitters, so it’s kind of weirdly flexible. And also, I’ve now passed a point with it where it’s become quite an interesting project to think “Right, how much of this can you do?” And also, the things that change in my life changes… Like this series, a lot of it is about trying to make sense of… Like, it’s not a struggle; life. It’s a struggle, like, getting the kids into school and things like that, but we’ve got somewhere to live and trying to think about how do you write about that without becoming someone doing stuff about Ocado deliveries. And obviously it’s because he feels that he’s not entitled to it. So he feels…

AH: That is interesting.

SL: Well, it’s true as well.

AH: I mean, is it hard to accept because of the disparity in…

SL: Well, I have done this for a long time. I like all sorts of comedy. I like all sorts of music. I like all sorts of art and literature. And I know that there is no objective correlation between someone doing well and being any good. And so I don’t… It doesn’t make me feel any sense of “worth”.

AH: Do you secretly suspect a negative correlation?

SL: Yeah, I do. Yeah. And, again, I try to address that in this show…

AH: Is there a fifteen-year-old you sitting on your shoulder saying/ you’ve sold out?

SL:/yeah, yeah. You’ve sold out. And also I’m aware that there are… Ok, in Edinburgh, for example, really, that was supposed to be, that was billed as “Work in Progress”. And normally I do the “work in progress” shows in The Stand, in the cellar there; and it’s really good fun and costs eight quid and whatever. But I did it in a big room this year. And I did it in the big room ‘cause in order to stay in London to do these theatre runs, we bought a house in London and it’s smashed to bits – a broken house – the only kind of house you can afford in London. Even if you’re on telly. And we’ve got to do it up. And I thought, “If I do the big room and it fills up, I can fix the roof” right? So I made a decision about the art based on practical considerations. Which I’ve never done before. Then there’s a knock-on effect from that, which is that at least one of the two bits I did every day had to be bankable. ‘Cause there were 600 people in there and I want them to come back. So I never went on and did all… I didn’t do what I would have done in the little room to the hardcore, which would be to basically risk throwing the gig because I thought, this is a lot of people to play for, it could be an audience for the future. I need them to come back. So this year, on two or three occasions, I’ve made choices about things that are based on economics, that I’ve never done before. It’s quite interesting. So I suppose that is the beginning of it chipping away… I didn’t cover as much new ground as I should have done in Edinburgh.

AH: Is that what this run is for? To make up lost ground?

SL: Oh, no. I’d booked this anyway. I’ve got five now. I’ve got four that I know off by heart, I’ve got one that’s all written…

AH: And then the Jeremy Corbyn thing is… It’s new…?

SL: Well, it sort of is, although, weirdly, ten minutes of it was in before, and it was about a cat called Paul Nuttall from UKIP and it had a different spin on it. But weirdly, since May, I tried it and it just… No one’s interested. Like, it’s gone. It’s like you were talking about the civil war or something. It’s just off the face of the earth. Gone.

AH: Is it a bit like the Cameron thing?

SL; The Pig?

AH: Yeah. {recounts circumstances of hearing the Cameron/Pig thing while at at theatre festival in Serbia, and how weird it was trying to explain it…] And it’s gone in two days… 

SL: In a way, is Twitter almost like the Two Minute Hate?

AH: Like, your masters are quite happy…

SL; It spent itself, didn’t it?

AH: You were at Oxford at almost exactly the same time…

SL: A bit younger. They were in the third year when I was in the first year, all that lot.

AH: You didn’t meet them, obviously…

SL: No. And this is the awful thing about all that: say you’re a clever 17-year-old, and your school says you should apply to Oxford. You don’t want to because you think it was full of snobs, you know.  Do you know Arts Emergency?  They’re trying to improve access to university for kids who will be the first in their family to go to uni… And, I think, you know what? It’s like the world. You never even meet them [snobs at Oxford]. All the time I was there I never came across them. I got into some of their balls, because I would do music or comedy at them, and you’d get a free ticket, but even then it wasn’t the ones that you read about – it wasn’t those ones – it was this whole other layer of middle-class people, y’know. So I’m saying, it’s nothing like that. And about a week later that story breaks, and of course kids don’t want to apply now. And I thought; accidentally, just by being who they are, and being involved with those societies, whether Cameron did that pig thing or not, they’ve ruined social mobility. Because people will go, “Oh, is that what happens at a top university? I won’t apply then.” They create that impression.

I got the impression that people were angry and making those jokes precisely because they kind of knew that the Tories were like that anyway. That’s a funny thing about Twitter now. And I think it will sort of change comedy in that, ten years ago, that week some comedians would have done some jokes about it but Twitter’s like an infinite number of monkeys. There’s a million people all writing jokes about Cameron and a pig. Only a hundred of them need to be any good and all the jokes are done. So I think, weirdly, that’s good for people like me because [this] is not about lines, what I do. A guy that writes – ‘cause all the guys on panel shows have writers – was saying that they look on Twitter to check things haven’t been done, because otherwise people on Twitter go [does a whiny voice] “I made that up”.

AH: You’re not on Twitter.

SL: I look on it. But I don’t want to…

AH: No.

SL: I think I would get involved in the…

AH: [asks badly framed question about panel shows]

SL: Most panel shows are a recreation of the sorts of social situations I spend my whole life trying to avoid. I think they’re bad, ultimately. Most of the people on them spend more money on writers than they get paid [to appear]. They see it as a chance to get spotted, so they throw everything at it. It’s very exploitative in a way. There’s also a thing that’s really wrong about it, in that it pretends to be improvised – they’re a kind of mixture of improvisation and people working off prepared notes – but the thing about improvisation in theatre or music is that it’s a team effort, right? And you sometimes step out of the spotlight because you create something for someone else, and you think about the good of the whole. And no one does that on those shows. So it’s competitive improvisation. Which is a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t really make any sense when you think about it.

AH: You work with a lot of other comedians, though, so you’re not pessimistic about the state of UK comedy…?

SL: The thing is, when kids say to you afterwards, “how do you become a comedian?” I can give them that book How I Escaped My Certain Fate and say, well, there’s stuff in here about how I write, have ideas… What’s changed is economics. When I came to London in 1989 my rent was £50 a week I got a temping job that paid £105 a week, travel was like £15 a week, and you could live on £40. Then, after the temping job, I got a job doing freelance research for a publisher, which paid about £200 a week, and was flexi-time, and I did fewer hours as I got more gigs. That job now would be an unpaid internship. And it would be “How lucky for me to find a way into publishing”. But I didn’t want to work in publishing. Also, I started, there were only about 80 comics in the UK – alternative comedians, you know – so you’d start getting paid a bit if you were half decent, but you got paid in cash. You got a door-split. You might get £30 on a Tuesday night. That’s over half your rent. Now, even a little circuit-gig, the tickets go through an online agent because people book online, and it goes into your bank account, so you have to declare it, so you’re seeing 25% less of it. Plus rent, in real terms, is three or four times higher. So the sort of jobs you used to do while you were trying to be a comedian would now be things that you wouldn’t get paid for, because the idea is that you need the experience to do something else. So the economics is…

The circuit in the eighties, obviously there were Oxbridge people, and there were middle class people, but there was a real spread of types of people. It’s much more difficult to have that now. It’s like everything. The net’s tightened a bit. I don’t really know what the future is. Also, like, a lot of the young comics, the types of people that in our day would have said no to things – because they think they’re a bit naff, or because they had some weird principles – now say yes to them. But they have to say yes to them, because they don’t get paid for anything. And it’s much harder to…Pursuing your artistic vision is a sort of economic luxury created by a society that has loopholes in it. Those loopholes were squats, cheap rent, student grants, enterprise allowance…

fistoffuns1AH: And, probably for the decade before you, the dole…

SL; Even easier then. I mean, in the seventies it gave birth to alternative comedy and punk rock and whatever. Geoff Dyer wrote a really good piece about how he finished college, came to London, lived in a squat, did part-time jobs, and just read a lot. Then, by the end of that, he knew what he wanted to do. That’s gone. In the old days, there were lots of people getting by. They weren’t any harm to anyone. It feels like something maybe shifted slightly, culturally, with people’s aspirations as well? I remember a bit after I’d left university I was quite surprised that everybody wanted to live in nice places rather than just muddling by in the cheapest places…

I also think there are funny things happening again. There are so many of these competitions, like  X-Factor and stuff, I think people think you win a competition to be famous. What you don’t do is graft around for years figuring things out. The weird thing about all that art and music that was produced by the unofficial subsidy of dole-culture, that’s what “Cool Britannia” is. That’s what Cameron holds up as our cultural exports, but they were entirely produced by an unofficial subsidy culture that’s been entirely eradicated.

AH: Part of me doesn’t want to sign up to too much pessimism…

SL; Well, I am pessimistic. I’m from a lower-middle-class family, but I wouldn’t have gone to university – my mum would not have encouraged me to go to university – if I’d been taking on a £28,000 debt. It’s not the sort of thing we would have done. And she wouldn’t have thought there was any point studying English for three years for that debt. What I probably would have done is gone to London three years earlier and tried to get on with stand-up and done it in a slightly more muddled way than I would have done had I not spent three years reading books. It *might* not have made any difference, who knows?

AH: You would have done stand up definitely?

SL: I wanted to do it from 15, 16…

AH: And this is after you saw Ted Chippington supporting The Fall… What about that grabbed you?

SL: About stand-up?

AH: When you’re a 16-year-old, and you see a guy *supporting* The Fall and then you see The Fall, you don’t think, “That’s it! I want to be in The Fall” you think, I want to be Ted Chippington…

SL: Well, I couldn’t play the guitar. [laughs]

AH: You could have learnt.

SL: Well, no, look, I wanted to write comedy. And I liked comedians. But I’d never seen one… I thought you had to be energetic, happy, confident… Like you wanted to please people. I know that’s not entirely true of Dave Allen, who I liked as a kid, but Ted Chippington seemed like he didn’t want to be there. I think I thought, I can do that. And it was sort of noxious and adolescent and irritating… It was all the things you might like about a band or something. And it just seemed, it was just… You see certain things that people… Like, about ten years ago you had all these documentaries about punk rock made by people five years older than me making out it was the best thing ever. And of course it was, because they were all 18 when it happened. But for people ten years older than them, it was The Doors, wasn’t it? You’re very susceptible to things at that age. So the best thing you can hope is that you’re lucky enough to encounter something that actually does have some value, because you’re going to carry that thing with you whatever. That’s the thing that’s going to… I was just lucky, I think, that between 14 and 21; I ran across enough things that gave me the tools to do this in my life. Not all of them comedy. Bit of Live Art. Things like that.

AH: Yeah, I was going to say, you have that Live Art sensibility

SL: Well, I saw it without really knowing what it was.

AH: This was in Birmingham?

SL: Yeah. When I was about 15/16 I had a friend who was always into stuff. Went to see a guy called Anthony Howell, which I thought was idiotic for the first half of it, at Birmingham Art Gallery. He moved furniture around for half an hour and then he ended up getting inside a wardrobe and it fell over. I was so embarrassed by it I was sitting on my hands and laughing with embarrassment. And then the second half he did it all again by lantern light and with buckets of water as well, and I kind of went oh, right, fuck, this is really good, and by the end… I didn’t really know what it was but I thought it was brilliant. Funnily enough, I met him a couple of years ago. He teaches tango now, and he’s a poet.

Another thing was the BBC. John Peel would play not just music but he’d play sessions by people like Eric Bogosian. Eric Bogosian is now the star and director of some American cop show, but in the 80s he was on threshold of stand-up and performance art and he’d do these odd monologues… There’s a parody of him, actually, in the portmanteau film New York Stories, where Nick Nolte’s wife Rosanna Arquette is unfaithful to him with a character that is clearly a piss-take of Eric Bogosian and he performs in a kind of candlelit cellar, like walks up to people and shouts in their faces… Whoever wrote it obviously really fucking hated Eric Bogosian [laughing]. He wrote Talk Radio. Anyway. That kind of thing would be on.

And also, a lot of the people who would be early stand-ups would be from a Live Art background and then kind of went back to it. Like, one of the first gigs I went to was Oscar McLennan who’s now the sort of person who gets grants round the world to do Live Art pieces and performance art concepts, but he did a sort of show that I went to see at Warwick Arts Centre when I was 16. ‘cause, in the provinces, you knew this alternative comedy thing was happening, but you couldn’t see it anywhere. You were desperate. And it was like stand-up, well, it wasn’t really, he ended up crawling round on the floor lit by this light that was on the floor and complaining about his family…

AH: I saw a show at Warwick last night with a slightly similar ending, oddly…

SL: Did you? What was that?

AH: It was called Weaklings. It was a, it’s an adaptation of a blog by, do you know the writer Dennis Cooper?

SL: Yeah! Dennis Cooper really likes me!

AH: Really?!

SL: Yeah! He’s written blogs about how great I am!

AH: Aw. Well, someone’s done a stage adaptation of his blog.

SL: I’m in that blog! But, yeah. It’s… This sounds really arrogant, right, but… I get a better class of celebrity. I get people like that. It makes me laugh. You get these funny people like Grayson Perry and Will Self… Yeah, it’s funny that, um… It’s quite costly, because they say hello afterwards, and you want to give them lots of stuff, and you lose money on the merch. table every night, giving it away. It’s funny to have crossed over. But it’s a relief, because you become slightly more distant from the comedy community, I suppose. Because you’re not in normal gigs all the time…

AH: Is that maybe partly to do with it being very clannish when you’re all young and then everyone gets married and has kids and…

SL: Well, also that there’s an awkward thing now where I am like this thing that gets written about in a positive way, so really they ought to hate you. Except that I’m not bad enough. It’s confusing. The young ones will want to hate you out of some entirely understandable Oedipal thing. That’s the job of the younger generation: to hate you and older acts. But because I’m of that generation where you could afford, economically, to be more experimental, they can’t really write you off. Because you’ve got a flexibility that just through sheer time and chance and economics has been denied them. So it’s difficult. They sort of want to hate you, but they can’t hate you as much as they’d like to. And also, on a slightly cynical level, I get in there first. I can kind of intuit what the next thing used to slag me off will be, and I take it on as a positive thing.

AH: Like what?

SL: Like, “You’re a champagne socialist” And I say, “Yeah, I am, but I have prosecco” or whatever, and I’ve seen Charlotte Church saying that, and I know she got it from me, and good luck to her. Or, “You don’t know about anything, you’re out of touch”, or “What have you got to say now you live in a house?” Yeah, ok, fine. Take it all on, make it like… And what those things actually do, is they create problems to be solved. And that is the thing. I’ve seen poor old McIntyre’s been getting some bad reviews on this tour. Even from like – begrudgingly, even a liberal broadsheet would concede that he had various undeniable skills, previously, and would give him a three or a four, and now they’re giving him twos, and I suspect that’s because there’s no grit in that oyster any more.

Because he’s carried on talking about these things. And yet you know he’s got a £7million house. But he’s not that kind of character that can turn on himself. Or eat himself. Because he’s a broadly positive, happy sort of thing. Whereas with me, nothing would make him happy. And in fact, as you said earlier, even the fact that loads of people are coming, would itself be a problem. He would assume that was not any good.

AH: And I suppose, you only have to be funny. You’re not being elected. You don’t even have to be right.

And also, when you said, “you don’t have to be right”, that’s the other good thing; although I talk about things that I think are true or interesting, there’s another element to that which is that he’s self-obsessed, he wants to give a good account of himself, he’s arrogant, so they’re skewed by those things as well, so they don’t have to be exactly right, the things that you say, because there’s this filter.

But, when you said, “Do you want to do these one-man-shows and theatre?” another reason I don’t want to is because I’m really interested in what it’ll be like to be sixty-five being him on stage. Because I think it’ll be funnier. Because. To be petulant and to have a sort of adolescent sense of wanting to be taken seriously, all those things can only be funnier, surely, coming from an elderly man. It’ll become even more absurd. I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ve made a concerted effort in the last twelve months to lose weight and get fit. Partly because we’ve got this house and this debt, and partly, as I say on stage, because things are fucked. Like, all the other fall-back things like getting money from DVDs, TV, whatever, there’s no future in it, it’s fucked. The right [wing] have got hold of Über and Amazon and AirB’n’B and these things that undercut you, like they’ve got hold of iTunes so they don’t have to pay you anything and they’re all dodging their tax and they sort of want to destroy your livelihood. I think it’s a weird kind of thing, it’s almost like they hate creatives on some level. But live stuff, it’ll be the last thing to go. So I thought, I’ve just got to stay fit enough to do it. And that meant trying to lose three stone, basically.

So I could think, I’ve got to be able to do this. Forever. Because it’ll be hilarious. To keep coming back every couple of years with this much stuff would be…

Do you know that band, Guided by Voices? Fucking hilarious. The guy releases about seven albums a year of two to three minute long power pop songs with progressive rock leanings recorded on four-tracks, and they’re mainly pretty good and it’s like there’s not really – if you like slightly pretentious melodic indie rock – there’s not really any point of comparison. They’re obviously the best. Then there’s this massive dropping off before anyone else. And he’s sort of done it by sheer attrition really. Just by sheer weight of numbers. He’s written more great songs than anyone else in that vein and he’s like really old now – well, he’s like 57 or so… And like, The Fall as well, are a big inspiration in that way. I mean, there’s all sorts of really unpleasant things about it, but it keeps rolling along, and and gets more like itself. To a point that, only in the last five years, really, you think “Oh, this is what he’s been hearing for the last thirty years” and only now have they really got it. By a process of elimination they’ve arrived at this… The other good thing about The Fall or something, is it’s sort of sustainable. It’s mainly grooves. Not lines or moments, it’s about this kind of atmosphere, that you kind of get into. Each half-hour set has got a bit like “The Things that are on Rod Liddle”, or about the BAFTAs, it’s not really about lines… just kind of keep going and probing it and making this sort of sound like a drone and see what happens. That’s the fun bit. The middle of every half hour of those is like a ten minute… and like the urine one where I’m shouting at the audience about the ghosts attacking me. You just create this sort of space framed by conventional stand up where this other thing can happen.

AH: Is it relevant that they’re very visual?

SL: Well, it’s a new thing. I read things about myself: that I talk in a monotone and stand still, and I think it’s funny ‘cause I know that actually I do quite extreme things with physical stuff, like run round the room, pretend to be attacked by ghosts, fall over, and do things with huge silences where I’m not moving… And again, that’s not necessarily from stand-up.

AH: Anything you’d like to add?

SL: No. But, it was just… It was very nice to be written about by you, irrespective of it being positive, in that it wasn’t caught up in lots of things that um… I mean I gave up for a bit in about 2000/2001 because I got loads of bad reviews that were criticising me – criticising as mistakes – things that I’d actually chosen to do. Like people in the Independent, I remember saying, “At one point he seems to lose the audience for fifteen minutes, but gradually claws the room back from complete silence,  despite the fact that he has alienated everyone in it.” And I’d think, well, that’s what I meant to do. And, weirdly, the better you get at some things, the more, sometimes, if you act it well…

I was in Dublin doing the bit where I complain about all the dead comedians and the audience not getting it, and I saw this woman on the front row with her phone out doing something. And I went, “What are you doing? Are you looking at your phone?” And I thought, well, I can’t break off, I’ve got to roll with this. So I went to her, “Why would you get your phone out when I’m talking about people I know that have committed suicide? What is wrong with you? Why would you be on your phone? Get out.” you know. And she went. Then I got home and I thought “Hmm, I’ll Google that.” So I put my name into Twitter and she was a Sunday Times journalist, right? And she’d thought she was seeing this famous comedian having a mental breakdown on stage, so what she was doing was going on Twitter to tell everyone. And then she went out, and she went on Twitter, and she was all “I can’t believe it, I’ve just seen Stewart Lee having a mental breakdown on stage.” And she thought she’d got some exclusive, some scoop, and she was obviously off to write it up and try to get it in the paper, that I’d thrown this gig in Dublin by going nuts, and then a couple of other people went to her, “You know that’s part of the act?” And she said, “Well, from where I was seeing it looked pretty real.” And people were going, “Yeah, but it’s, y’know..” Because she’d left, you see. And I thought, “Wow.” It actually becomes a sort of problem if you make things look like they’re real, people don’t think you’ve got any skills. They just think you’re… It’s a shame people stopped her. ‘Cause I would actually have liked that story to come out. That would have been really interesting to see what would happen.

That’s another thing about the act at the moment, I sort of find things funny, but then I also find it funny that they exist. See, that diarrhoea-on-the-flag thing didn’t really work tonight, normally it becomes really like people are almost sick with… It goes on so long… Normally it goes through waves of not being funny and then it comes back. It didn’t really ever reach the scale of velocity tonight. I don’t know why. Who knows? Maybe, like, I didn’t do funny enough sounds or something, I don’t know, but. With that, part of what’s funny about it to me, why I get the giggles while I’m doing it, is thinking that it will be on television. And then you think of how angry people will be…

AH: [rambling observation from me that maybe irony is once more the new sincerity]

About five or six years ago I wrote, I think it’s If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, my sort of angle on that was that the most controversial thing you could do was to be sincere in a world of irony. But, it’s not possible night after night with the amount of gigs I do now, to put yourself genuinely in that level of… you can’t really have those feelings every night. You can’t do it, so in a way now I contrive things to get me stuff to work off but in a way, weirdly, that was sort of the show at the apex of honesty, that one If You’d Prefer a Milder Comedian, it was about seven years ago. And then, as I got more popular and had to do more shows I couldn’t *mean it* every night, you know, and I had to do what probably actors do, which is to develop ways of convincingly faking it and that is like to create little problems and little strategies…

The problem is now you’ve achieved being a convincing actor, so now… [laughs]

AH: …you’re scaring Sunday Times journalists.

SL: Actually, I contacted her editor… She was filming it! That’s right! She filmed it on her camera. So I went to her, “Don’t film it”, and then I contacted the paper to say, a) you’re not allowed to film anyway, and b) this is a bit that I’m working on, so I don’t want it posted up, but she’d deleted all her tweets. But it’s really out of order. Makes you think what vampires they are. Like she sees someone she thinks is having a breakdown and her response is to film it…

[interview turns into an untranscribe-able conversation about the ethics of journalism, public interest, and somehow a comparison with war photographers… They go and get the tube…]

A Room With A Stew runs until 8th January 2016 at the Leicester Square Theatre.

The Artistry of Stand-Up Comedy: On Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee.

A Philosophy of Comedy: On Kierkegaard and Simon Munnery

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Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/

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