In the late 90’s Stewart Lee and his comedy partner Richard Herring seemed poised to tip over the alternative comedy brink and into the mainstream public consciousness with their BBC2 TV shows Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy. Alas, they were cast into the TV wilderness by those determined to keep TV a square hole, with no room for round pegs, let alone such strange shapes as Lee and Herring (not literally - that would just be rude!). After twelve years writing and performing comedy, including writing for On The Hour which became The Day Today, four Radio 1 series of Fist of Fun¸ co-founding the revolutionary Cluub Zarathustra and even landing his ‘dream job’ as a third-string music writer for the Sunday Times, Lee seemed like a pioneer who’d missed out on the goldrush, after years on the comedy frontier. He ‘grew pallid in Stoke Newington and bled into the toilet bowl’ but made a critically acclaimed return to the stand-up circuit and published a novel; The Perfect Fool. In 2003 Jerry Springer – The Opera opened in ‘London’s shit West End’: The joint creation of one-time TMWRNJ musician Richard Thomas and Stew, JSTO debuted two years before and had caught the interest of ‘secret representatives of money grabbing West End whores.’ The groundbreaking and sometimes shocking show seemed to have gained mainstream acceptance and for once it looked like Stewart Lee would get the glory (and perhaps more importantly money!) that he deserved. However, it was not to be. After the BBC screened a performance of JSTO, a wave of protest from Christian and other right wing groups scuppered the show’s chances of being judged on its own merits and there were rumours of Lee receiving death threats. This summer Stewart Lee returns once again to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a new show; Stewart Lee – 90s Comedian before a Soho theatre run and national tour. I caught up with him at his palatial mansion, built on the site of a Hackney orphanage by the displaced occupants, where he poured me a glass of milk and a biscuit*, sat me on his knee and answered a few of my questions…
*Yes, he poured the biscuit as well, it was remarkable to watch…
Who or what inspired you to get into comedy and what keeps you going?
The moment I decided to be a stand-up comedian was seeing a stand-up called Ted Chippington supporting The Fall in Birmingham in 1984 when I was 15. Alternative Stand-Up Comedy started, for want of a better word, in London in 1979-ish. Out in the provinces we read about it in the NME and saw The Young Ones on TV but we never experienced it. There weren't any dedicated venues. The place you saw stand-ups was supporting bands. I saw Phil Jupitas open for Billy Bragg three times and Peter Richardson, from The Comic Strip, open for Dexy's Midnight Runners. But at the time the twin paradigms still seemed to apply - there were old fashioned Working Men's Club racists, like Bernard Manning or Mike Read, or political ranters like Ben Elton, who used to be a left wing radical when I was young. Ted Chippington's act as totally different - a mixture of surrealism and insolent provocation and uncompromising boredom. I thought it was the coolest thing I ever saw. The show came out as a 7" 33rpm single on Vindaloo records and I was in the crowd. When I hear tapes of me from 88/89 I am still copying Ted. He gave up soon after, but I am trying to help his former label find money to put out a 3 CD box set of his best stuff.
Who do you currently admire in comedy? Any big tips to become household names, or even cult heroes in the future?
Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, Will Adamsdale, Tony Law.
After 17 years performing, is there anyone in comedy who can still surprise you?
Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, Will Adamsdale, Tony Law, Simon Munnery, Boothby Graffoe, Chris Morris, Harry Hill, and Greg Fleet who is one of the best comics in the world, but rarely leaves the St Kilda region of Melbourne.
Would you do another TV show, given the chance, or are you happier performing live?
There are people at BBC2 interested in me doing something. While Jane Root was in charge, 99-2004, comedy output was cut by 2/3 and she specifically didn't seem to like me or people I was associated with. I seem to be popular with the new controller, so have a window of about 18 months before that fades or he is replaced or quits. In some ways I have loved not doing TV, and it was a relief not to have to argue with morons like Jane Root, or find your work inexplicably rescheduled or edited behind your back, and I have found real satisfaction in doing stand-up for its own sake and writing novels and doing JSTO, but I began yesterday to try and assemble a team to do something new for TV. The bottom line is I really need to earn some money too. Because the Christian protests have resulted in the cancellation of JSTO tour, I made about £80 000 out of it over 4 and a half years work, and that's the end of that. I was relying on a royalty from it touring and am a bit fucked now to be honest.
Do you think you'll ever work with Richard Herring again?
What is 90s Comedian about? Is it a straight stand-up show, or something else?
It is a straight stand-up show. I can't really afford to do anything more elaborate. I need to be able to tour this to earn from it and so it needs to be a small, mobile unit which can work in different places, but it will still be pretty strange. I don't know exactly what it will be about at the moment. Against my better judgement, I've ended up doing stuff about the JSTO controversy, but I am anxious it will seem like that very boring film of the brilliant Lenny Bruce onstage shortly before his death, reading out his trial transcripts and his FBI citations to a bewildered crowd of disappointed fans. I'm trying to do quite self-consciously stupid and scatological things this time around, to veer away from all the reviews saying I am clever and intellectual. I am trying to write the most self-consciously pathetic and blasphemous routine I can imagine, to prove to all the people that complained about the inoffensive and morally sound JSTO what gratuitous really means.
If I knew nothing about you, what would you say to get me to see the show?
Nothing. I can't be bothered pleading with anyone. It's so undignified. I'd rather you didn't come.
And if I'm an old fan, who thinks he's seen it all, why should I go!?
I don't care. To be honest, with that attitude, I'd rather you didn't.
What is it about Edinburgh that keeps you going back?
The chance to see so many different things that I would never have imagined which inspire me and encourage me annually. Also, seeing all the new young comics and realising they are the competition, not Ben Elton.
Who, other than you, should we look out for this year?
Gamarjobat from Japan; from Australia - Tim Minchin, Fiona O'Loughlin, Charlie Pickering, An Englishman An Irishman A Scotsman Explained; lots of marvellous young women - Josie Long, Danielle Ward, Jo Neary. Anything in the physical theatre vein at St Stephens. Yo La Tengo and Dick Gaughan and The Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players. Veterans of comedy like Arthur Smith, Rob Newman, Jerry Sadowitz, Simon Munnery, Boothby Graffoe, Robin Ince, Phil Nicol. Newish types consolidating their burgeoning reputations - Daniel Kitson, John Oliver, Andy Zaltzman, Janey Godley. And fattie Herring obviously.
How do you think getting older has changed you as a comic and as a chap?
I am heavier, balder, greyer. I care less what people think, and care less about looking cool, which makes you a better comic. I wonder when I will grow up properly though. I am 37 now and don't seem to have the natural impulses of decent men.
Do you like being awkward - I'm thinking of things like those 'Surly, Arrogant, Laboured' badges?
Well, yes, I think I do. And I think I have developed a reputation for it, which probably harms my career. That said, not being scared to be awkward also helped make JSTO what it was and prevent it from being diluted by music theatre ethics and the demands of investors. I fought off some stiff interference with truculence and insolence.
Did you intend to shock or offend people with Jerry Springer - The Opera, or were you surprised by the controversy it caused?
It seemed such a charming, and obviously moral and thoughtful piece, neither I nor the composer and initiator of the idea Richard Thomas imagined for a moment it would cause anything like the fuss it did. I still can't understand it and feel really depressed about it. It's a problem that doesn't go away.
What's happening with JSTO - I heard you'd scrapped a nationwide tour after protests by Christian groups and other mirthless types?
The tour became financially impossible because Christian Voice intimidated 1/3 of the venues into dropping out. Then the Arts Council said they'd make up the shortfall so it could tour on a reduced budget, which involved none of the key creatives getting paid. Then earlier this month, after some of the venues had already put tickets on sale, they withdrew their funding without any real explanation. So yes, for the for the time being it's totally over. It was developed on public money, won dozens of awards, and the public won't get to see it. We live in strange times. I am angry and worried and sad.
Does it frighten you that a small but vocal minority can wield such disproportionate power?
Not really. Lots of important social changes have been achieved by small minorities. It's just that most of the people complaining about it hadn't seen it, and Christian Voice and The Evangelical Alliance have basically very reactionary positions on all sorts of issues from homosexuality to women's rights, so it was sad to see them being given such credibility. I think lots of the newspapers that helped blow the story up probably feel bad about the fact that it's ultimately killed the show off. It's also worth pointing out that lots of religious types have been very supportive. It isn't an us and them situation.
Have you really received death threats?
No, not personally, just lots of abusive emails saying I am going to hell etc. BBC execs got death threats and had to go into hiding.
What do you think will happen in the wake of the bombings last week? Do you predict a wave of jingo-ism like much of America after 9/...er, 11/9?
I think there'll be increased racism and increased anti-racism. I don't think there'll be the same jingoism as in US as most people here were against the war and the bombings are connected to that.
What's the worst record you've ever bought?
Monster by REM. Such high hopes. The beginning of the end. The first of my teenage faves to really betray me.
In your capacity as a rock critic, who were you most excited/nervous about meeting?
Mark E Smith from The Fall. But it was fine. He was clever and funny.
Who are your favourite artists?
The Fall, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Derek Bailey, Guided By Voices, Giant Sand, Eliza Carthy, Bob Dylan.
Do you hate pop music?
Is there anything you regret in your career?
I regret agreeing to the 2nd series of Fist Of Fun on the terms that were offered, which basically meant changing lots of what was good about it. I regret falling out with the Day Today lot and not doing the TV series of that. I really regret our 1996 TV pilot of Cluub Zarathustra and my 2000 pilot Head Farm not getting picked up by C4 as I think both would have changed comedy in a good way and helped stem the tide of Nuts magazine style lad-comedy and post-pub shit. I wish I had applied myself more. I wish I had drunk less in the mid to late 90's.
Would you like to go out mid-gag like Tommy Cooper, or quietly in your sleep?
Mid gag like Tommy I think, ideally on stage at The Classic in Auckland, New Zealand.
Sorry, that last one sounded a bit creepy.
Not at all.
But would you?
Yes. Or during sex. With you. And your mum. Together.
Stewart Lee - 90s Comedian is at the Underbelly, White Belly throughout the Edinburgh Festival (You can get tickets here), preceded by some warm-up gigs, mainly in London and followed by a run at the Soho Theatre in - guess - Soho and a national tour. Click here for more details and other stuff Stewart Lee's doing. He's very funny, you should go to see him!