Is this really what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a writer. The idea of the sort of stand-up I am now didn’t appear to exist to me as a child. There was Dave Allen, I suppose. But in Solihull in the 1970s, before the internet, you weren’t going to come across Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Bob Newhart. Folkie-comedians like Jasper Carrot, Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Max Boyce were a big deal to me, but I still thought you had to be a big happy personality to be a stand-up, so I imagined I’d just be writing comedy. Then, in 1984, when I was 16, I saw Ted Chippington opening for The Fall in Birmingham, being all dead-pan and depressed, and then three years later, at the Fringe, I saw Jerry Sadowitz, Arthur Smith, Arnold Brown and Norman Lovett all on the same life-changing bill at the Gilded Balloon, and I realised there were ways of doing stand-up that would suit me. It’s fair to say my early stand-up was just a mishmash of them, especially Ted. So although “this” wasn’t what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I didn’t know about it when I was a child, it was what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I’ve been really lucky. Simple economics would make it much more difficult today.
When we left college, our friend Simon Mills made us all fill in a thing saying what we wanted to be. This was 1989. I wrote “Obscure Cult Figure”, which I think I have pretty much nailed, so well done to me.
Is there any prospect of you mellowing?
The TV series being cancelled is a huge help in not having to mellow. It becomes less convincing to be apart from everything when on some level you are a media insider. Also, helpfully, the global drift towards the right, and the general trend towards the abject unpleasantness of everyone, means there is ever more to be irked by. A woman in Hackney spat fully in my face today, after I remonstrated with her for stepping out in front of my car while wearing headphones and not looking. Now my eyes sting. I’ll probably get eye hepatitis.
You’re undoubtedly a role model for many disaffected middle-class young people who think they are comedians. Does that irritate you, worry you or feed your secretly massive comedy ego?
Well, as Jesus said, I am whatever you say I am. I too was once a disaffected middle-class youth who thought he was a comedian, and in the end I made that my clown persona.
I suppose it irritates me when people rip me off under the guise of parodying me to audiences who aren’t familiar with my work and then get four-star reviews for rewriting what is basically my material; it seems rude to go on the same bill as me before me doing a shit version of my stuff, leaving me nowhere to go. I don’t really mind being
a noticeable influence on people – and Ted Chippington has been very kind about my obvious debt to him. In my book How I Escaped My Certain Fate I went into great detail about the specific debts I thought I owed to people who had influenced, inspired or helped me in my standup – people like Ted, Greg Fleet, Simon Munnery, Richard Herring, Julian Cope, Bridget Christie and many more.
I am reluctantly annoyed that mainstream acts are assimilating all my ideas about how to film and edit standup, often using crews I had worked with and trained up, but without understanding the reasons why the moves are there; but when people rip off stuff – dramatic moods and performance-art steals – and then jam them into normal stand-up sets without there being any character-driven build to them, it’s a bit rubbish.
I worry that what I do will appear like a cliché, because it is copied. I am often accused on social media of being influenced by people who actually post-date me, or who used to book me all the time for their little gigs, and who I know have assimilated things from me – such as Gervais.
The good thing is that if what you do becomes a trope, it’s time to move on from it – although when people tell me I need to move on from certain things, the contrarian in me just does them even more.
When so many people admire you, who do you admire?
Again, I am not sure it is the case that ‘so many people admire’ me. Brendon Burns explained to me that I am the kind of comedian that people who know nothing about stand-up say they like in order to try and seem clever. It was kind and thoughtful of him to take the time out of his busy schedule to do this.
Lots of the young famous comics I meet seem to hate me, I think because I did a routine taking the piss out of the amount Russell Howard’s PR says he earns, as opposed to the amount he raises for charity, and they have all at some point lived for free in one of his many houses. Certainly, most comedians’ podcasts just seem to be people like Mark Watson slagging me off and making up untrue things about me, which I am not there to correct, and then they ignore my emails.
Believe it or not, I actually like most stand-up. It is my favourite thing and it is the thing that interests me above all others, which is why I talk about it on stage. Here’s a list of 40 people I like, or liked, off the top of my head, who all make me laugh madly and also inspire me, some of whom I have personal relationships with, some of whom I know actively despise me. Some are dead, most are alive, and some are barely out of the box. I’m sorry it’s so white and male:
Kevin MacAleer, Daniel Kitson, Simon Munnery, Greg Fleet, Josie Long, Bridget Christie, Jerry Sadowitz, Lenny Bruce, Ken Campbell, Mike Wilmots, Lewis Schaffer, Grain Maguire, Aamer Rahman, Will Franken, Paul Sinha, Holly Burn, George Carlin, Nish Kumar, Eleanor Tiernan, Bill Hicks, Kevin Eldon, Steve Carlin, Harry Hill, Boothby Graffoe, Tony Law, Hans Teeuwen, Johnny Vegas, Phil Kaye, Ted Chippington, Maria Bamford, David O’Doherty, Michael Legge, Henning Wehn, Norman Lovett, Judith Lucy, Earl Okin, Pappy’s Kunt & The Gang, Mark Doherty, Oscar McLennan.
Your new book, Content Provider, is a collection of your newspaper columns. What is the difference between writing a set and writing a column?
I think the newspaper columns are being written by the sort of person who would write for a liberal broadsheet. He sort of overlaps with me but he isn’t me, and is shaped by the hostile below-the-line comments, as I respond to them by becoming more like the things that annoy trolls.
The columns are never any use for stand-up, really, apart from the odd line. The written columns are meant to sound like writing, whereas stand-up is writing broken down and distressed into a form of pretend conversation. If it’s too “written”, it isn’t believable. David Mitchell’s monologues on The 11 O’Clock Show were the same as his columns, for example, and were not performance pieces as such, for all their strengths.
Do you have any ambitions left?
Not really. At least they have changed. I got a version of what I did to work, most of the time, on TV. I’ve made one or two concert DVDs that I’m pleased with. I don’t want to do theatre or film or TV drama or write a novel. I suppose now I am interested in whether it is possible to maintain the gradual decline of what must be my peak audience numbers over the next 20 or so years, at a slow enough rate to discharge the various financial and familial responsibilities I now have. It will be interesting to see if audiences allow me to continue to develop and whether it is financially viable to do so. I don’t think anyone in the UK has written quite as much stand-up as me over such a long period, and if they have they certainly haven’t toured it as relentlessly or intensely or in such lengthy shows. From a health and sanity point of view, I probably can’t keep that up, but it will be interesting to see what more I can do with the form of stand-up and the trust of audiences, and to see how to sell what I do in an environment that is increasingly controlled by the same narrow band of commercial interests, without having to resort to the prostitution of social media.
I would like to lose weight and read more, and listen to all the ’65–’66 Bob Dylan studio outtakes. I would like to live long enough to see my kids grow up. And then die.
Stewart Lee’s Content Provider is a work in progress at The Stand and will be touring throughout 2016/2017. His book of selected prose, also entitled Content Provider, is published on 4 Aug, £14.99 (Faber & Faber).
Words: Kate Copstick
Picture: Idil Sukan
Stewart Lee: Content Provider The Stand Comedy Club, 5-28 August (not 15, 16), 12.45pm