Monday, March 13, 2006

"It might have been better kept a secret"

Following Friday's show (see below), I got in touch with Stewart Lee to ask him about stand-up, his novel and - yes - 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. And this is what he had to say...

As you put it in the '90s Comedian' show, stand-up involves standing in front of a group of strangers who are sat in the dark judging you and trying to make them laugh. What inspired you to put yourself through it again after a gap of several years?

"Well, I got frustrated with not being able to do BIG IDEAS in stand-up, and wrote a lot of stand-up shows with props or costumes or sound cues etc and then in 2000/2001 I finally quit stand-up. After doing four years in theatre I began to see the value in simplicity, and economy. I really wanted to try and do BIG IDEAS in a small way."

On stage you take risks and don't seem to mind alienating and discomforting some of the audience, while your posters for '90s Comedian' featured the Telegraph critic's comment "ill-judged and gratuitously offensive" and you also had a badge made bearing the Independent reviewer's comment "surly, arrogant, laboured". Would you say you're proud to be an acquired taste, and indeed actively promote yourself as such? And if so, why?

"I don't want people to be annoyed if they hate it - I think putting bad quotes on the poster kind of lets me off the hook. They were warned. But it's also to make the point, which is something I have come to feel increasingly strongly about, that different people will have very different reactions to the same thing."

Much of '90s Comedian' concerns your experiences in the aftermath of the fall-out from the BBC's screening of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. Touring the show, have you felt as though you were preaching to the converted (if you'll pardon the expression), or has there been some genuine ill-feeling directed towards you because of the second half of the show?

"There has very rarely been ill-feeling, even if people haven't liked it they have understood the point I was TRYING to make. The good thing about doing little comedy clubs, and especially arts centres, is you're probably playing to smarter people anyway. I used to nobly think the whole idea of the arts was to reach as many people as possible with good stuff, but my experience of JSTO and the protests has made me less idealistic. I can't afford to be stopped from working - I need to make a living - so ideally I'll just be able to carry on with what I am doing in relative, and economically viable, obscurity."

You talk about how 2005 was a very difficult year for you. With hindsight, are you glad 'Jerry Springer...' was televised? Were you pleased at the prospect when it was first mooted?

"I was pleased it went on TV initially - it was £45 in the West End and free on TV and I think the point of BBC2 should be to make culture accessible - this idea defined my youth, it was my gateway. But obviously, even though we couldn't have seen it coming, the Christian right seized upon the show as a result of the TV broadcast and have made it financially non-viable. It might have been better kept a secret."

The last two TV series you were involved with (as far as I'm aware), 'TMWRNJ' and 'Attention Scum!', both suffered untimely fates. Have those experiences put you off writing or contributing to a TV series in the future?

"Yes and no. Execs change every five years. The current BBC2 crop like me so I need to try and get something made before they all leave."

Armando Iannucci, Alan Yentob and Greg Dyke have recently all spoken or written about the current state and the future of the British sitcom. How healthy do you feel the British sitcom is at present?

"'The Office' is great. Don't really watch many. 'The IT Crowd' was OK. British sitcoms have always been mainly shit."

How would you describe your novel 'The Perfect Fool' for a publishers' catalogue?

"Failed first novel."

Would you do it all again?

"I am writing a new novel about The Annunciation. I'm 10000 words in."

Finally, as you mention in the show, Robbie Williams apparently said you have the sort of voice that would be ideally suited to meditation tapes. It might also be suited to reading out the football results - would you like the opportunity to follow in Mark E Smith's footsteps?

"No. I don't like football."

More's the pity - I'd like to hear Sunderland's results read out with a hint of sarcasm...

Thanks to Stew for his time.

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