Stewart Lee interview: Putting his neck on the line
THE LAST time a show penned by the veteran stand-up comic Stewart Lee was broadcast by the BBC, it was no laughing matter. The channel's executives received death threats and one of them was placed under police protection. That was in 2005 when Jerry Springer The Opera, co-written by Lee, was aired on BBC2.
Objecting to what they saw as the blasphemous tone of the piece, pressure group Christian Voice launched a vociferous campaign against the opera and Lee himself. The campaign was largely responsible for hamstringing a subsequent regional theatre tour of the piece, resulting in Christian Voice's gain being free speech's loss.
Fast forward four years and BBC2 will broadcast the first episode of a six-part series called Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. Each episode consists of Lee venting his views on that week's topic. Unusually for television comedy, each show is presented in a mainly straight stand-up format with Lee performing in front of an audience in a small comedy club. The stand-up is interspersed with a handful of sketches illustrating the points Lee makes.
The topics range from fairly innocuous subjects such as toilet books to potentially more sensitive ones such as political correctness and religion. Lee insists that as far as he is concerned there is nothing controversial or offensive in his new show. None the less, he has learned from previous experiences and is taking the precaution of getting the hell out of Dodge City on the day that the first show goes out.
"I'm going away for six weeks on the day that the thing starts being broadcast," he says. "I won't have e-mail or phone contact and I won't look at the internet. If anything does get picked up on then there will be no way for anyone to reach me anyway. Once the material has gone out, I am never going to do it again and I am not going to discuss it with anyone. I am happy that it speaks for itself but if people choose to deliberately misinterpret it then it's nothing to do with me. It's not worth it."
Painstakingly thought through, carefully considered and slowly delivered, Lee's brand of humour is light years beyond the smutty bragging of Sachsgate or the crude offence of Jeremy Clarkson's "one-eyed Scottish idiot" outburst, but it could be argued that this is not the safest time for stand-up comedians to try to find the funny in contentious subjects. In Lee's unwanted but considerable experience, certain hot topics ignite emotional reactions that can't be reasoned with. During the Springer uproar, Lee travelled around the country trying to debate with the people who disagreed with him.
"It was a misguided notion. There would be these open discussion circles with the local psychopaths and there really was no point talking to them. They had their things they wanted to say to you, most of which had nothing to do with what you had written, and they would stand up and start shouting.
"At the Aberdeen talk, there was a man just chanting 'Love the sinner. Hate the sin'. There was no point being there. Most people came with an agenda about what they saw as preferential treatment for Muslims or gays. They wanted someone to be annoyed with."
Lee's humour stands out because he refuses to go for the knee-jerk reaction. For Lee, political correctness has definitely not gone mad but the definition of what is offensive is debatable rather than being a clearly marked line which cannot be crossed. He laughs about the storm that raged over whether Jonathan Ross or Carol Thatcher most deserved to be sacked depending on what he calls "the finely nuanced difference between sexual and racist offence".
"For people under 50, racist offence is probably worse than sexual offence, whereas for most people over 50, racist offence doesn't really matter but something scatological or sexual seems obscene. This idea that there is an objective value attached to notions of offence rather than realising that society values change is wrong. A golliwog wasn't offensive 40 years ago but we have to be a lot more careful about how we use that iconography now."
Lee started out in stand-up more than 20 years ago, first appearing at the Fringe as a student along with Richard Herring. During the Nineties, along with Herring, he had a couple of anarchic television shows: Fist Of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. He also contributed to On The Hour, the radio show which launched the careers of Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. The last two are involved in Lee's Comedy Vehicle as executive producer and script editor respectively.
Compared to today, television comedy back then was allowed a much longer leash. "It's 10 or 15 years since I last did telly," says Lee, "and the scrutiny the current script was subjected to by the legal compliance office for the BBC was much more thorough than it was back then."
Some material for Lee's Comedy Vehicle didn't make it past the compliance office, but he used this as an opportunity rather than a setback. "You find an interesting way around the problem. This increased scrutiny of material might do what writers and comedians in totalitarian countries say: that it brings out a greater degree of creativity. You worm your way under a fence rather than throwing shit at it."
While very broadly in the same industry as the Sachsgate duo, Lee has little sympathy for Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand, describing their ill-advised comedy routine as "almost indefensible". But he stops short of joining the long line of people calling for their public execution on the grounds that people must be free to voice their opinions no matter how ludicrous or obscene they are.
Lee's more pressing concern is that the furore surrounding the episode is being used to silence legitimate debate and more creative humour. Lee mentions the recent incident where the BNP reported Jo Brand to the police because she had made a joke about their members. "It's insane. These are crazy groups who pursue active campaigns against minorities and then like to act as though they are one when they are targeted by a comedian. If someone from the BNP is offended because I make fun of racists or if someone from Christian Voice is offended because I make fun of the idea that homosexuality is a sin then who cares?"
Free speech is inviolable for Lee even if it does mean he ends up with some unlikely bedfellows. One of Lee's favourite whipping boys is Jeremy Clarkson, who he regards as "a yardstick of stupidity". However, Lee unexpectedly found himself on the same side as the Top Gear presenter when Clarkson was being pilloried for a joke about truck drivers killing prostitutes.
"That was a good test of free speech," acknowledges Lee. "Obliged to stick up for Jeremy Clarkson."
Having not had his own television show for more than a decade, Lee was as surprised as everyone else when BBC2 invited him in and asked him what sort of show he would like to make. Personnel changes at the TV channels, changing comedy fashion and serial setbacks had more or less convinced him that that door had closed, but a run of glowing reviews from the 2005/2006 Edinburgh Fringe encouraged the broadcaster to harness Lee – even if their attitude was "we are very excited about your work; whatever it is you do".
With no fast cuts, music, cutaway shots for audience reactions or repeat characters, the format of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is different from anything else on the box, which is just the way Lee wanted it.
"The series is a gamble. It is not compromised in any way, which may be a strength or may mean that it sinks without a trace. There's a lot in the series about what you can say on television and a lot about this spurious idea that we live in a politically correct dictatorship. Hopefully, it will answer its own questions."
• Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, BBC2, March 16, 10pm, www.stewartlee.co.uk
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