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THANKS TO HIS INTELLIGENT AND PROVOCATIVE BRAND OF COMEDY, STEWART LEE IS WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED AS ONE OF THE FINEST STAND-UP COMICS OF HIS GENERATION. HE TALKS TO JOHN DONNELLAN ABOUT HIS CONTROVERSIAL MUSICAL JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, THE POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF HIS NEW SHOW AND REVEALS WHY IRELAND IS THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD FOR STAND-UP.
John Donellan, 20 Oct 2009
Stewart Graham Lee is an English stand-up comedian, writer and director best known for being one half of the ’90s comedy duo Lee and Herring and for co-writing and directing the critically-acclaimed and controversial stage show, Jerry Springer – The Opera. A Channel 4 survey named Lee as the 41st best stand-up in the world.
Stewart’s recent TV show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, received a less than glowing review in the London magazine Time Out. It described Lee as ‘fat’ and his performance as “positively Neanderthal, suggesting a jungle-dwelling pygmy, struggling to coax notes out of a clarinet that has fallen from a passing aircraft”. The poster for his 2009 Edinburgh show contained the line “His whole tone is one of complete smug condescension”. The thing is, he wrote both quotes himself. If it’s subversion you’re after, Stewart is the man.
We meet at Edinburgh’s Hispaniola restaurant, a homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s all doubloons, and pirates and skeletons and muskets. I imagine Stewart will be scathing about the naffness of the setting but he’s not that predictable. He’s delighted with the place, reckoning his little boy would love it.
So why would you describe your tone as complete smug condescension?
“Smug condescension, why use that quote? Say up here on a Friday or Saturday night, God bless them, working class Edinburgh couples take a punt. What they want, when they’ve sorted out the babysitter and paid twenty quid, is what they expect. They don’t want to see a man lying on the floor with his back to them talking about David Jason. If you put one thing on your poster to say this is annoying and pretentious, they might go see something they prefer. Plus I knew other comedians would find it funny.”
Speaking of other comics, I mention Irish comedian Jarlath Regan and his complaint that every review he gets in the UK blathers on about his “twinkly-eyed charm” or “blarney-soaked patter”. “Well, you have worked that a little,” laughs Stewart, “I’m not trying to get in with you here but Ireland is the best place in the world for stand-up. The average Irish stand-up is much better than the average English stand-up and about a million times better than the average American one. The things I worry about here... Am I going on too much? Is this turning into a story? Are there too many words? These are considered positives in Ireland.”