He favours ideas and weird turns of phrase.
He is an arch satirist, a scourge of all that is lazy, cruel and anodyne in British culture. Lee refers to comedian Michael McIntyre’s act as “warm diarrhoea” and wonders whether or not people at his shows are laughing at him or just excited about seeing someone famous in a football stadium.
Lee turns criticism on its head. He harvests negative comments for fliers and posters for his gigs to ward off unwelcome visitors. A reviewer from the Sun newspaper said he was “the worst comedian in Britain, as funny as bubonic plague”. Lee’s favourite is a comment from How to Lose Friends and Alienate People author Toby Young: “I have always thought that Stewart Lee’s comedy is the opposite of what comedy should be”.
The London Evening Standard has majored on his looks. A critic in the late 1990s said he was like “a crumpled Morrissey”. A decade later, the same newspaper described him as “a squashed Albert Finney”. Lee mocks himself on stage with these assessments. He said it was strange that himself and Morrissey were decaying at the same rate.
Physical decline influences how his comedy is interpreted, he says. “Twenty years ago, I was a 10-stone man with perfect skin and some hair. Now, I’m a 16-stone, overweight man going grey and balding, who looks a bit done in. That really changes how what you’re saying is perceived. The same line said by a good-looking, fit, confident young man might seem arrogant, but if said by a decrepit, middle-aged man, the same line might have the air of defeated heroism about it. Who you are now, what you look like, and how life crushes you into the ground, physically changes your persona as well.”
Lee has two children — a boy and a girl — both aged under five years. His English wife, Bridget Christie, whose parents are Irish, is also a comic. Being a parent has forced optimism on him, he says.
Born in 1968, he was the first in his family to go to university. He studied English literature at Oxford. It was then that he first went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he returns this month for 24 shows. He has performed every year — bar one — since 1987. His maiden voyage was in different times.
“The whole world’s different now,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, the Fringe was different.’ In the 1980s, you could sign on during the summer. You could probably sleep on a floor somewhere. And in Edinburgh, you could sleep on a floor in an empty church hall without running water, but because a number of people in Edinburgh still didn’t have bathrooms, there were public bathhouses where you could go and have a wash. You could put a show on for £3. That’s not a long time ago — 25 years. But it sounds like I’m talking about Victorian times.”
Of all the colourful experiences he’s had while touring, a couple of incidents from another festival come to mind. “At Glastonbury,” he says, “a man interrupted my set by walking across the stage dressed as Jesus, with blood and wounds, carrying a cross. He was in the full Good Friday gear. That was quite a hard thing to come back from.
“Another time at Glastonbury, all the power in my venue went down. There were no lights or sound in a 5,000-seater tent, so I went and stood in the middle of the audience and tried to shout my act. People started to listen, because it seemed such a mad thing to do. Then, someone handed me a megaphone. Then, another guy lay underneath me, between my legs, shining a mining-helmet torch at me, so it kind of worked — I was sort of spot-lit.”
Lee says these kinds of incidents happen less frequently, now that he is better-known and plays in theatre venues.
“If you’ve more of a controlled environment, it’s great, in that you can do more of what you’re trying to do. On the other hand, you sometimes have to engineer problems in order to make people realise they’re watching something that is really live. I think people consume things very passively now.
“In the tour before last, I had a big opening, where I would come on through loads of smoke. I managed to find a little, plug-in smoke machine — one that my promoter found under his desk — that would always malfunction. It was a great way of getting off to an exciting, live start in my head, because I never knew whether there’d be a few wisps of smoke or so much of it I couldn’t be seen, or if it would go all over the audience instead of onto the stage, or whether it would go just up into the rafters or not hang around,” he says.
Lee retired from stand-up at the start of the last decade. In what turned out to be a one-year sabbatical, he wrote a musical, Jerry Springer — The Opera. During its initial run in the UK, it attracted hysterical opposition for its alleged blasphemous content. Christian Voice tried to bring a blasphemy case against it, but failed to get a court hearing. Cast members had trouble getting into bed-and-breakfasts. The police advised those involved in the production to go into hiding.
“I’m really proud of having been involved in it,” says Lee, “but it’s not something that I could ever revisit. It became so awful in the end. Weirdly, the other day I had to go to where it was on in London, the Cambridge Theatre, for some other job and I just got the shakes being backstage.
“It was like revisiting the scene of a car accident. It wasn’t much fun trying to keep it on the road in the face of mass protests. I was trying to be so polite to people and reason with them. I wish I’d gone back and punched someone in the face, to be quite honest,” he says.
“Funnily enough, when this group Christian Voice started complaining about the opera, I looked them up on their website and they said that hurricanes in America were God’s punishment on homosexuals. I thought, ‘this isn’t going to stick because these people are nuts; they’ll just be ignored.’ Then, I was really amazed that they were taken seriously. They were given a platform on national television. It was insane.
“I don’t think many people in respectful religious groups think God would send a hurricane to destroy New Orleans because they’d had a gay parade. There was so much collateral damage. If he’d wanted to get all the gays, why destroy the whole city? If he exists, he’s not an idiot,” Lee says.
* Stewart Lee performs at The Stand Comedy Club, The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, until Sunday, Aug 26. Further information: www.stewartlee.co.uk.