Stewart Lee is a stand-up comedian known for his anti-populist, deconstructive approach to stand-up, his nonchalant delivery and his undulating repetition. He is also an author, director and columnist. He has a BBC Two stand-up series called Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
Stewart Lee loves Leicester. He says that, as a child, he ‘used to look at the picture of the fattest man who ever lived, Daniel Lambert, who was from Leicester, in the Guinness Book of Records and dream of Leicester.’ He tells me that, in the ’90s, he was fond of the German Psychedelic Progressive rock record shop ‘Ultima Thule’ which was near the station. I can’t contain my jealousy for those studying at DMU at the time as Lee says he ‘always seemed to be doing gigs at the Poly and then eating lovely curries after.’ Particular praise goes to the night porter in the bar at the Mercure Hotel, Lee looks forward to ‘his deadpan sense of humour’ every time he stays there.
He also thinks that Leicester is ‘an example of multiculturalism working, on the whole, that disproves a lot of the stuff we hear at the moment, though I appreciate a lot of effort goes in to making this work.’
Most importantly though, in 2004 he met fellow comedian Bridget Christie at a party above an Indian restaurant while they were both appearing at the comedy festival. He is now married to Bridget and they have two children. Lee says that, as a result of having stand-up comedians for parents, their children ‘meet all kinds of people when we do Edinburgh and in our lives generally because the spread of people that do comedy is so vast – all races, religions, social classes etc – which has already had a really good effect on them I think.’
This, in my opinion, must have been very different to how Lee grew up. This is based on the fact that he grew up in Solihull, the same place that I grew up. It’s very different from the vibrant multicultural society of Leicester. When I tell Lee that Solihull now has its own comedy festival called ‘Lolihull’ it becomes clear that he will never perform at it. I get the feeling that he’s been constantly eluding me for years as he tells me that, not only did he perform at my university many times in the ‘90s, but in 2005, he performed in a pub in Knowle. If only eleven year old me had taken the ten minute walk from my house to the highstreet of Knowle, I could have been turned away from the pub for being eleven. Lee’s vowed never to return after ‘all the sisters of people I used to vaguely know turned up to gawp at me and prove that I was wrong to have left small town England for London. Then some weirdo who was now a born again Christian tried to convert me afterwards. It was awful.’
Lee isn’t a stranger to criticism, The Daily Telegraph say that ‘Stewart Lee is not funny and has nothing interesting to say.’ The Sun says that he’s ‘the worst comedian in Britain. As funny as Bubonic Plague. The Birmingham Sunday Mercury says that ‘”His whole tone is one of complete, smug condescension.”
Lee’ comedy isn’t for everyone, and that’s just the way he seems to like it. I haven’t been trawling through reams of reviews to find these quotes. I’ve simply lazily copy and pasted these quotes from Lee’s website, the covers of his DVDs, the back of his books, and his tour posters. He prints the above criticisms in an attempt to dissuade people who wouldn’t enjoy his work from watching, reading or attending it. Engaging with the criticism in such an unabashed manner suggests that he is immune to their insults. He says that the criticism does strengthen you, but agrees that it can make you unhappy and bitter.
When I asked him about the next series of Alternative Comedy Experience, the stand-up TV show he created and curated, I was told that there wouldn’t be one because Comedy Central don’t want one. ‘It got good figures but with the wrong age group’ Lee says. Perhaps one of the executives at Comedy Central will soon find themselves on one of Lee’s posters, as they were quoted in the Guardian as saying that “Cynical clever comedy like Stewart Lee is all very well but we don’t find it being shared on line by our target demographic.” Lee calls this ‘a real shame. As it was the only worthwhile piece of original programming on the channel.’
On the subject of criticism, he says that “What is annoying is to be criticised for things you haven’t done or said, or to be criticised by people making wrong assumptions about why or how you have done the things you have done, or to be criticised by people who don’t know anything about what you do, based on their own prejudices.”
Unfortunately this is exactly what happened to Lee when he visited Leicester back in 2005. There was a particularly strong opposition to Jerry Springer The Opera, co-ordinated by an ‘especially unpleasant Tory councillor’. Lee directed and co-wrote the script for the musical about the eponymous talk show host which features depictions of Jesus, God and Satan amongst other biblical characters. As Lee documents in his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate and in his 2005 stand-up show 90’s Comedian, there was a vicious campaign to get the show banned. Christian pressure group ‘Christian Voice’ rallied the forces of ignorance to protest against the show, which won four Laurence Olivier Awards, claiming it was blasphemous. Lee says that ‘the bishop of Leicester invited me to a debate in the Cathedral which he assured me would be reasonable and I fell for it.’ Lee debated with Resham Singh Sandhu, who has since served a stint as ‘High Sherriff of Leicester’ which is actually a thing. A primarily ceremonial, archaic thing which involves wearing silly clothes, but a thing none the less.
Lee says that the former High Sherriff ‘didn’t seem to think not knowing anything about the subject in hand was any reason not to have a violent opinion about it’ and that, in the spirit of open minded debate, the Sherriff used his opening remarks to pray that the show would be banned. Lee relives this moment again and again in his mind, realising that this was the point he should have walked out and left them to thrash it out amongst themselves.
‘They say you only regret the things you didn’t do, and not walking out at that point will haunt me for the rest of my life. In a slurry of unpleasant experiences associated with trying to tour the show, Leicester was probably the point at which my patience ran out and my spirit was finally broken, so I always associate that with Leicester too sadly.’
Lee’s bittersweet feelings towards Leicester are perfectly summed up by the 2005 Valentines’ edition of the Leicester Mercury. Lee and his wife were stopped in the street by the local paper and asked if they had romantic memories of Leicester. Lee says that ‘In the next day’s Leicester Mercury page 5 was a picture of us in a heart shaped border captioned ‘romance in Leicester’, and page 3 was a picture of me arguing with Resham Singh Sandhu, captioned “face of hatred” or something like that.’
Understandably, Lee can’t see himself venturing into the world of musical theatre again anytime soon. He says that his Jerry Springer collaborator Richard Thomas has an idea he’d like the two to work on, and Harry Hill’s X-Factor musical was a reminder how great big shows can be, but the thought of the stress of it is off putting. ‘I never want to do anything so well known that I have to meet people like Resham Singh Sandu again, and if you’re spending money to make a big show sadly you are obliged to promote it and raise its profile.’
Despite having many other talents, he mainly seems interested in continuing with stand-up. In my continued efforts to badger someone into opening a new comedy club in Leicester, I asked if he’d be interested in opening a comedy venue with the same ethos as Alternative Comedy Experience. Lee says that it would be too much effort and that he doesn’t know how people do it. ‘I might do it when I leave London when I am old, and book all my mates, and force them to bring me newspapers from the big city.’
Lee wrote for On the Hour with comedy giants such as Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, and has continued to work with them on other projects. He’s no longer interested in experimenting with film as they all have with Alpha Papa, In the Loop and Four Lions. He tells me that he spent 1997 – 2005 almost getting a script made: ‘I had Peter Fonda, Daryll Hannah, Alan Rickman all lined up but it kept falling apart around changing Hollywood fashions. I went backwards and forwards to New York and LA losing money. Never again.’
Neither would he entertain the idea of being given his own panel show, saying that he’d just use the time to write more stand-up ‘which would pay more than a panel show, and wouldn’t mean I was seen by 4 million people, who would then hassle me in the street and try and secretly take pictures of me with my kids on their camera phones.’
Lee has previously talked about success and critical acclaim making it harder to write. I asked him if it was getting any easier, he said that ‘It gets harder. My brain is slowing. My knees hurt.’ Despite this, he still hopes to be performing when he reaches the age of 75. In fact, he’s looking forward to it ‘It’s a reason to live. It will be hilarious to be an old grumpy man’ and if he makes it to 90 then he might even reunite with former double act partner Richard Herring. I hope that the 65 year old me finally catches up with Lee and is there to see it. But what will he talk about? What will the issues of the future be? ‘I expect I’ll be talking about the same things as I am now. Farts and UKIP.’
You can see Stewart Lee discussing both farts and UKIP in A Room With A Stew on the 12th of February at De Montfort Hall.