Britain through the eyes of a comedy stalwart | Hailed as the ‘godfather of British stand-up’, Stewart Lee has also become a sacred TV presence and a writer of perceptive, hilarious press columns. In Content Provider, he’s gathered together a collection of his best writing and he joins the Edinburgh International Book Festival to chat.
“Stewart Lee is not funny and says nothing.”
On the cover of his book there’s two quotes, on is glowing, the other… “Stewart Lee is not funny and says nothing.” He loves the bad feedback and reviews, he finds them hilarious. They’ve become integral to his book. Content Provider has, in his words, “accidentally become coherent.” Politics has shifted so drastically that you never know what’s coming next, Gove was a gift who just kept on giving over the years.
He presents his columns, but with some context, the aim he had in mind, then public comments after. The comments can be so ludicrous they sound like they could be written by Stewart Lee. “I don’t have multiple identities and attack myself,” he laughs.
‘The Columnist’ was a character to him, one to develop; the right have a literal sense of humour, so he’d make his work surreal and full of mad things and watch them get beyond mad. “It’s white noise to the right.”
The infamous saying is “Never read the comments” but Stewart thrives in them. They goad him to be worse, he loves them. He has a collection of the worst things people have said about him online on his website. He could be writing about tomato soup, and without fail someone will comment, “Oh, brave to take on tomato soup. We look forward to your scathing attack on Islam.”
“You can do anything with stand-up.”
He talks through Baconface, Geddy Lee of Rush being a fan – “I was given high praise in Metal Hammer” – and his love of comic books. He grew up with the Marvel and DC world having continuity, and was driven to those by “college guys that’ve done LSD”, the weird and wild. He buys the reissues of those eras. Alan Moore is an influence in that “he tried to break comics. That’s what I tried to do to stand-up comedy.”
While a lot of his columns are funny, there are some more serious ones: rallying against comedy promoters trying to buy BBC3 to promote their own acts. “You need a platform for different kinds of voices to get through.” Then there’s secondary ticketing, where his events can be scalped and sold for 5-6x the price, “There’s no need for stuff to cost that much.”
The ticketing one was actually a ‘story’. It could have caused something in the press, that this Minister was sanctioning this kind of behaviour. “I’ve created a story here,” he remembers. “How will the machine deal with it?
“Throw kittens at it.”
In a perfect metaphor of the internet, the Monday papers were full of stories of him having helped fund some kind of place for kittens. That’s what his team threw out there.
Back to comedy, he believes you “can make comedy out of anything. I don’t know a subject matter that’s unsalvageable.” It depends on the intent, and the who’s the punchline. “You can do anything with stand-up. It can be absolutely anything.”
Oh, also, did you hear about George Osborne and pencils?