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on Tue, 25 Feb 2020
Midlands-born comedian Stewart Lee brings his new touring show to the region...
Last year, after three decades in the business, Stewart Lee was hailed by the Times as ‘the world’s greatest living stand-up’. His current tourer is entitled Snowflake/Tornado, a show which sees him, in his own words, “negotiating the thin line between has-been and legend”.
What can audiences expect from your latest show, Stewart?
It’s two one-hour shows back to back. Tornado is a story show about me sharing a venue with a famous American comedian and getting chased off by his private security team. Snowflake is a more discursive, ideas-driven hour, about how some people think political correctness has supposedly imposed on people’s freedoms. I’m a 1980s snowflake liberal and very much a product of political correctness, but fans of shock and awe will find enough in both shows to flip their wigs. Every new tour, I tie myself in gut-wrenching knots worrying that time will finally be called on my career, but this show has got better reviews than ever, so I am cursed to continue.
You’re in the strange position of having won every award going, being able to shift a quarter of a million tickets on tour without needing to advertise, but by no means being a household name. Does that bother you?
Not really. To some extent I engineered it, by never going on panel shows or Live At The Apollo - it was easy to do this as I was never asked. Celebrity gets in the way of the art of being a stand-up, and it’s a massive pain in the backside being even a bit famous. Me being recognised is embarrassing for the kids, and we’ve had to take legal advice on people threatening and harassing us. The last stand-up special, Content Provider, played to two million people on the iPlayer in 2018 and there was stuff about Brexit in it, so before it went out I grew a massive beard and let myself go a bit so that I didn’t get attacked in the street. The problem is, I can’t seem to find my way back to normal now, so I look like a furry bin bag.
You mentioned the dreaded B word there. Is talking about Brexit a problem? Do you change what you say in different parts of the country?
I don’t really change what I say. The on-stage Stewart Lee is an artist imposing his arrogant vision on audiences. He’s not there to entertain people. He just does what he does, and if they’re entertained it’s an accidental by-product of the performance! But in April 2017 the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, Shortlist, the Daily Mail, Breitbart and Spiked Online all ran versions of the same largely made-up story, saying I was having mass walk-outs because of doing jokes about Brexit, which was entirely untrue. In the end, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express made minor corrections online, but it does show you how they run fake stuff up to fit their agendas. I’m a graduate who works in the arts from a 78% remain-voting constituency, so obviously my attitude to Brexit reflects that. I wouldn’t be as aggressive about it now as I was last time I toured, because I don’t think anyone has got what they wanted, so it just seems like a massive tragedy. But I’m not going to change who I am or what I think, even if it did lead to losing audiences, which it doesn’t seem to have done. They’ve gone up if anything! I didn’t get into this to get big crowds. I got into it to be free to do what I want. People can come and see me if they want, but it doesn’t make any difference to the work I produce. I’d do it anyway, to no-one.”
Who were your comedy influences?
Well, when I was a kid, I liked The Two Ronnies, Monty Python and The Young Ones on TV. But I think it was Dave Allen who really went in, when I come to break down what it is I do now. I realised I wanted to be a stand-up when I was 16, watching this weird punk-comedian Ted Chippington supporting The Fall in Birmingham in 1986. He didn’t have any proper jokes and just liked annoying everyone, and I thought it was the best thing I ever saw. At the Edinburgh Fringe in the late ‘80s, I was exposed to the Scottish shock-comic Jerry Sadowitz, the dry Jewish comic Arnold Brown, the surrealist Norman Lovett, the ‘performance art’-driven Oscar McLennan, and the brilliant Irish storyteller Kevin McAleer, and they all remained cornerstones of what I was doing until I finally found my voice.
What about now? Who do you rate today?
I was very lucky to start out when the old ‘alternative comedy’ values were still in place, as I think modern stand-up is bland, market-driven and unpleasant. I still love the work of my contemporaries, like Harry Hill and Simon Munnery. I think Daniel Kitson is the greatest living stand-up, and I would like my wife Bridget Christie’s act even more than I do if I wasn’t married to her and knew what she was really like. Paul Sinha from The Chase is a great stand-up. From the newer comics, I really like Rosie Jones - and Ghosts, by the Horrible Histories lot, is my favourite comedy TV show since Detectorists and This Country. I saw the husband from Ghosts in a tile warehouse and was quite star-struck. And of course, he didn’t know who I was, so it was all very awkward.
Stewart Lee plays Malvern Theatres on Tuesday 3 March; Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Thursday 12 & Friday 13 March; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on Sunday 31 May; and Lichfield Garrick on Thursday 9 July.