Photography by Steve Ullathorne

You’ve got the music in Stew! In conversation with Stewart Lee

“It’s not for me to say I’m a jazz comedian,” Stewart Lee tells me. “It’s a label somebody else has to give you.” We’re moments into our conversation, and already diverged to somewhere distant from the delightfully clever questions I’d studiously prepared. He’s notorious for whimsical onstage detours, which neatly feed back into his overriding subject for the evening. I’m not panicking yet. Surely, we will be nudged back on track at some point.

He’s just been fiddling with an email. There’s been a request for his involvement in an upcoming music documentary, but he’s had to turn down the offer because of a packed schedule. There’s a family to attend to, plus a brand-new stand-up show to tour.

Music occupies a big space in his life and I’ve mused that this has manifested in his performances.

They’re peppered with repetition, harmony and tonality. Complex wordplay loops-back, imitates and evolves, twisting through different thematic ideas and contributing to a much larger work. But, no, he couldn’t possibly call himself a ‘jazz comedian’. 

Lee used to do a routine referencing Franklyn Ajaye, despite only really knowing two things about the legendary American comedian. There was a book Ajaye had written on how to do stand-up, and an album uncovered in a Norwich second-hand shop called I’m a Comedian, Seriously. The sleeve-notes included a high-minded paragraph about the artistry of the comedian and comparing it to jazz. “The track-list had things like Fat Assed Girls, and really awful titles like that,” he says with a guffaw. It was fertile ground for a routine exploring the potential gulf between the description of the comedian as an artist and the actual material. It meant he could never listen to the recordings; ‘in case they were really good’.

“About ten years later, I came out of a club in Melbourne at about four in the morning. There was this old guy playing saxophone in a doorway. I stood next to him talking for a while. Then I asked if he was Franklyn Ajaye, and he’s like: ‘Yeah…”’ I felt so terrible,” he tells me, now laughing at the brutal awkwardness. “So, I went and listened to his stuff, and of course it’s great.” 

The last ten years have witnessed a range of audacious, big-idea works.

Lee has deployed themes like the problems with political correctness and edgy comedy, the indignity of having the synopsis for low-budget horror-flick Sharknado mistakenly used as a label on one of his Netflix shows, or openly manipulating the market value of his own DVDs through clever use of eBay. Now he’s reining in the intricate narratives for a more traditional stand-up style. Except it’s not, is it? The new show, Basic Lee, only gives off the impression of being superficial and driven by one-liners.

The main difference is that Lee has benched his perpetually-enraged ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ onstage-persona for something a little softer and contemplative. “It was quite hard to put the character that people saw in Tornado to bed, because he would keep you awake. Whereas this character is very happy to go to sleep at the end of the show. It’s got a different vibe to it. I might go back to him, but it’s interesting to try something else.”

This tour has more room to ‘breath’

Lee has tried to make Basic Lee feel like he’s just ambling along, but obviously there is a neatly-composed thread running throughout. It does feel like there’s a lot more room to let the comedy ‘breathe’. His last tour, a double bill of Tornado and Snowflake crammed a lot of material into their cumulative two hours. “It’s nice to be doing something which feels like fun, as opposed to a complicated piece of work. I know there are some who see me because they want to be pummelled into the ground and exhausted. But people do seem to like this change of pace and style.”

He jokes that Brighton, where he plays five nights at the Dome this month, is like a compact of his cliched audience. People can anticipate where he’s going, so he feels able to be better. “But there’s a lot to be said for being in Southend and fighting against the perception of yourself as an out-of-touch metropolitan elitist who’s gone to a tough Brexit town.”

Photo by Steve Ullathorne

He suggests he got his career path wrong at some point.

While he sells tickets on a massive scale, those numbers are being spread amongst smaller venues. “If I’d gone and done the arenas, I would have been at home more and my relationship with my family would be better. But I think I wouldn’t have been as good an act.” As a hearing aid user, connecting with the audience in a huge space used to be a challenge. He’s recently got an upgrade and says it’s amazing what he can now hear. “It’s interesting that a lot of things, which might look like stylistic decisions, had really been the result of physicality. So, it’s made me more confident, and not as scared of missing reactions. If I had those sooner, I might have done the arenas and been a worse comedian. But I would have had a happier life.”

There’s an eternal balance to be fought between being true to one’s artistry and meeting the expectations of audiences. He refers to REM as being one of the greatest bands in the world until the 90s. Their material then had a sense of mystery. Words were vague, sentiments seemed to run in counter to the melodies and all kinds of interesting things were going on. Once you move into stadium shows, like they did, you’re compelled to generate euphoria and unified purpose. 

“We used to call them ‘lighters in the air moments’ when everyone smoked. You have to create a succession of certainties which bind people together.

My act is about confusion, and people not knowing how they’re supposed to think. I don’t know how well that translates to a massive room, where people want a communal experience. I like to give them a largely divisive experience.” He lets slip there’s an idea gestating for an arena tour which will ruin all shows of that scale forever, so nobody will ever want to try doing one again. He’s not about to deliver this mischievous fait accompli just yet. There’s still this tour to concentrate on. Plus his children have exams rapidly approaching and his wife, Bridget Christie, is about to unveil a new Channel 4 comedy drama. 

He’s always offered the air of that smart kid in school, who got bored when having to slow down for the other kids. Talking to him, you realise how acutely self-aware he is. He constantly pauses to chuckle at anything which might be considered pompous or needy. His live work often ponders on the faint ridiculousness of what he’s built a career out of, while simultaneously berating the ignominy of some not wanting their comedy to be so inventive. 

Obviously, he can churn out an observational joke which resonates with the broadest possible audience. Though, he’d prefer to spend twice as long explaining why it was funny and analysing the logical inconsistencies which have been exposed. It’s a long way from a metronomic procession of bad puns or the shock-and-awe offensiveness which has propelled many of his contemporaries to stardom. The allure of exploring those eccentricities out on the periphery is just too great to trivialize his act. 

He’s fully aware of public perception, and happy to play with the image of being rambling, woke and irrelevant.

“There’s that Lenny Bruce quote… ‘I could always make the band laugh’. Even when he was dying, doing his weird stuff in clubs during the 50s, he’d turn round to the band and do it for them.” It’s no secret that he seeks the respect of one of his peers over the thousands of people in an audience. 

When asked if it worries him that some might think he doesn’t take his job seriously, he cites when Al Murray perfected his Pub Landlord character to the extent it looked like a random bloke had just turned up and started rambling. “He got so fed up with people assuming he didn’t do any preparation. That he quoted the whole of the To Be Or Not To Be speech from Hamlet, just so people would know the rest of it was also a piece of work, rather than an accident which happened every night.”

Before he was better known, Lee would fake having a breakdown on the edge of the stage; distraught that Michael McIntyre received better reviews.

“People would go: ‘I saw this bloke. He was the most pathetic thing. He was crying about Jeremy Clarkson.’ You’d have to be mad to do that! THAT person wouldn’t be able to get onstage. People have quite low expectations of us because they think we can’t do anything. And, if you do it well, people think: ‘He’s not really trying.’”

A defining influence came from going to a show by The Fall, themselves no strangers to being singular and confrontational. Their support act was comedian Ted Chippington, a master of deadpan surrealism. “He didn’t seem to want the approval of the audience, didn’t have any jokes and was only there to annoy people. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.” The act eschewed all the qualities Lee disliked in mainstream comedy; most of all the requirement to be relentlessly cheerful and likeable. “He looked shy, introverted and miserable. And that he thought he was better than everyone else, despite having no apparent skills!”

Photo by Steve Ullathorne

“That was what made me want to do it.”

Lee, along with Chippington and other influences like Roger Mann, Paul Ramone and Johnny Immaterial, have all fed into a long-standing tradition of anti-comedy which stretches back to the days of vaudeville. Little stands in isolation. He’s starting to hear other performers assimilate him in various ways, which has presented the realisation he has a distinguishable style. “I’m trying to not do those things for a bit. It’s just that a lot of people who are ‘doing me’ are getting $60 million Netflix deals, which is frustrating,” he laughs. “I hear versions of my voice all around the place. Could you write that bit so it doesn’t sound arrogant or delusional?” He’d also like you to know that I comprehensively agree with him on every point he’s made so far.

I suggest that Jimi Hendrix had plenty of imitators, but the visionary guitarist would be still nothing without being shaped by the work of Robert Johnson. “Yeah. I see myself as the Robert Johnson of comedy. Well… maybe the Blind Lemon Jefferson of stand-up!” He acknowledges repeatedly thinking about his own work in musical terms – mirroring the different way instruments hold on to repetitions or patterns and working back to them.

“There’s a bit in the current show that explicitly makes that connection between music and comedy. Nine times out of ten, people really get what you’re doing.”

“Although, they didn’t in Swansea. They did in Exeter last night, but Exeter is much more of a jazz town,” he chuckles. Although he’s renowned for exhaustively writing his shows, Lee is attempting to escape the tyranny of sentences. What’s left is more a platform for rhythm and texture. Like jazz, it’s become about feeling, and celebration. “I’ve not got as many bits where I have to hit a huge block of text, that lands exactly as the massive crescendo of a rant.” He bursts out laughing again. “It’s very good for my blood pressure…” 

Thinking about the future, he confirms things will slow down a little during the next decade. But, he’s in an interesting place right now.

“Again, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t think anyone’s done what I’m in the process of doing. And I don’t think anyone has written this many ‘through-composed’ shows, and toured at the level I have, and straightaway written another one.” Many in stand-up seem to view it as a simple means to an end. That end usually includes scoring a lucrative TV deal or becoming a ‘personality brand’. These career options didn’t really exist when Lee started. Perhaps they’re not interesting enough for him. 

“I think now, what would happen if you just carried on doing this… trying to write two hour shows and doing them 200 times in a year? It’s unknown territory. Will it still be funny to see a bald, 70-year-old man behaving in the infantile way that I do? How will I survive when there’s a swing to the left in politics? Have I thrived in opposition?”

When out on the road, Lee regularly encounters the poet John Cooper Clarke and his manager Johnny Green (who used to work with The Clash) in different hotel bars. “Cooper Clarke looks like an emaciated Bob Dylan, and Green looks like a cool bloke from Showaddywaddy. They’re drinking their small sour drinks and smoking out on the fire escape, while talking to people they don’t know and leaving them with a funny anecdote. I think: ‘I hope I live long enough to be like that.’”

There’s been several successes, away from the comedy circuit.

He worked on the multiple Olivier award-winning Jerry Springer: The Opera, an experience Lee describes as ‘traumatising’. There was also the production of a documentary about the eminently credible post-punk band, Nightingales. He’s had trouble financing another film though, Mike Leigh confiding that nobody wants to fund these important, but niche, passion projects. There’s just something about stand-up. He feels he can do it and has only begun to explore the artform’s possibilities and delights. “I think some people seem to want to get out of it and do something else. But what if you do just carry on?” Rather unexpectedly he breaks into song, like a stage-musical’s protagonist emerging in a moment of personal triumph. “I’ve got noooo OTHER plans!!!”

Stewart Lee brings Basic Lee to Brighton Dome on Weds 26th – Sun 30th April, as part of a national tour. 

You might also want to read our conversation with Sooz Kempner who will be at Komedia this May.

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