You won't see much of Stewart Lee in his latest TV series starting on February 5. He is executive producer/curator of Comedy Central's The Alternative Comedy Experience and only crops up briefly interviewing the acts between their appearances. The real stars of the show are the acts – SIMON MUNNERY, ISY SUTTIE, BOOTHBY GRAFFOE, PHIL NICHOL, ANDY ZALTZMAN, HENNING WEHN, JOSIE LONG, PAUL FOOT, TONY LAW, ELEANOR TIERNAN, DAVID KAY, DAVID O'DOHERTY, BRIDGET CHRISTIE, STEPHEN CARLIN, PAUL SINHA, ALUN COCHRANE, SAM SIMMONS, ROBIN INCE, GLENN WOOL, and MAEVE HIGGINS. A lot of the acts are established Edinburgh Fringe favourites, but they usually only get on television by appearing on panel shows and rarely get to do their proper stand-up material in the proper context. I spoke to Lee (left, picture by Steve Ullathorne) about the show, the way that big agencies dominate the TV comedy scene and about other things Lee has been up to in the past and will be up in the future. A feature on the subject appeared in the Evening Standard and you can read that here, but what follows is a full unexpurgated transcript of the interview.
BD: Tell me the background to The Alternative Comedy Experience?
SL: I can talk about it immodestly as I'm not in it. About 3 years ago I pitched an idea not dissimilar to BBC4 which was turned down. It featured loads of people critics and comedians think are the best comedians and they tend not to be on those er..those programmes, not just that one. Sometimes they are on television but not at their best if they are. Then at the same time Colin Dench, who produced my DVD got a job a comedy Central He had been at The Stand with Tim Kirkby, who directed Comedy Vehicle, and his DP John Walker, and thought The Stand plus those acts is a programme, Initially it was going to be called Stewart Lee's xxxxxx, but I didn't want my name in it. It's not for me to go 'I give you these people'. Most of them are better than me anyway. I didn't want it to be celebrity driven vehicle and if hosting they have to come off the back of your energy. Saying 'here's a person I've seen and they are so great' is all wank. If you have a host the assumption is that the host is the best and you are waiting for the host to come back, so in this there is no host. We want it to be like when we are at the back and enjoying an act and the audience doesn't like them.
BD: You interview them instead?
SL: I was more interested in doing the backstage interviews. I know it's a little bit Des O'Connor sometimes, doing a set-up for gag. But they all know that club so they are relaxed and forget the cameras are there. It's an appallingly shaped room. Half the audience can't see the other half, on one side there is a little tunnel, yet its everyone's favourite room. Boothby Graffoe was "on" as if he was on Des O'Connor, but most just talked and came out very well. It helps to set up the performers, probably more so than me saying 'I think he's great'. You get more of a flavour of them this way.
BD: You wanted to take a back seat basically and let the line-up have the limelight?
SL: Taking promotional photos I realised I was being put in the middle and I ran around the back. I curated the Alternative Jazz Stage at The Cheltenham Jazz Festival and it somehow became Stewart Lee's Stage with my photo being used, rather than the giants of improvisation I was hosting which was embarrassing.
BD: This feels like a very democratic series. The comedians in it are great and all feel like they have equal billing.
SL: If the BBC4 series had happened it would have been filmed at the Mildmay Club (where Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is filmed) but the BBC is very nervous. Mainstream broadcasters have a relationship with about three agencies and being on this is a bit like the kiss of death for agencies who want to get their acts £20,000 for a corporate gig. They want to see them going down well at Hammersmith, this might be seen as a tiny gig in a cellar.
BD: It is definitely a part of the current wave of stand-up shows on TV, at the other end of the spectrum to Live at the Apollo.
SL: Comedy Central want it as another possibility of choice on your comedy smorgasbord menu, but it is an alternative and we should nail our colours to the mast. Particularly after Funny Business (the recent BBC2 doc on the comedy as big business. Henning Wehn (left), Paul Sinha and Alun Cochrane could do corporate gigs, but the important thing is it is not a be all and end all. They do not wake up in the morning thinking How can I develop a content-driven engagement platform [a phrase used on Funny Business] but comedy, first and foremost, in the purest sense.
The problem at the moment is that everything has to be about generating maximum profits. But in arts education and culture if you eliminate all the people that don't do that those are the people that develop the new language of the form and you end up sapping the people at the top. A lot of the older ones on TACE have helped develop the form. A lot of them may not become big themselves but are hugely influential, ie Russell Brand would not be as he is if he had not seen Paul Foot. He just added rock star trousers and a different vocabulary.
BD: Has working with Comedy Central been easy?
SL: Comedy Central is concerned about 18 - 32 year olds, If I'd had my way there would have been younger and older comedians, but they are a little bit frightened. They want an audience like the people in that poster [points to glossy picture of sexy flatshare sitcom Threesome], but young people do not understand the linear process of time any more. Kids love Norman Lovett, but a marketing person will think all they want is Jack Whitehall.
We had to not spook the horses. Comedy Central was leaning on us to get people who didn't quite fit but were names. I don't know if they know what they've got really. They talk about getting audience figures to please the advertisers but I think they will discover levels of pleasure they never thought they had when they see the coverage the programme gets.
BD: Your own audience is pretty mixed so that should help get a cross-section of viewers?
SL: My audience defies any demographic rationale. I get old people who have seen me and I remind them of Dave Allen, while young people like me too.
BD: The gender breakdown in TACE looks unusually even for a TV stand-up show. It's good, for instance, to see Isy Suttie (left, picture by Steve Ullathorne), best known as Dobby on Peep Show doing what she does best.
SL: A third of the line-up is female and there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't have been more. I went to a gig the other night and over half of the acts were women. 25 years ago a bill like that would have been for a lesbian shelter.
BD: Comedy has turned into much more of a business during your career hasn't it?
SL: When I started my ambition was to be at the sort of level of people I'd seen at Warwick Arts Centre, like Oscar McLennan. In 1990 Newman and Baddiel did the Cochrane Theatre which held 400 people and I was thinking this has gone far enough surely. Then two years later they were at Wembley and since then there has been a background noise that that is what you should aim for.
I wanted the artistic fulfilment and economic reward of a folk singer. That has changed. There wasn't much point in compromising in the eighties because there wasn't anything to compromise for. Now there is an incentive for a content driven engagement platform which meant we lost a few people. Russell Brand, I thought he was good, but he can never be what he should've been because you view him through the prism of celebrity. He doesn't have to work because people lap it up and he can't have a real life.
I was lucky with the double act [Lee & Herring] at the arse end of comedy as the new rock and roll. We were chewed up and spat back out without making any real impression on culture. Two or three times in my career I've had to go back to square one, until recent years. The interesting thing about this programme is that what the comedians on it have in common is the spread of the type of people who would not be on those programmes.
BD: I guess Daniel Kitson would have been the perfect person to get on the show?
SL: I told Colin it wasn't worth asking him. He did and it wasn't. Jerry Sadowitz wouldn't do it. But on the whole we got everyone.
BD: There was no ban on people who have done the mainstream stand-up shows?
SL:There are loads of good acts on those shows, Henning, or Miles Jupp. They were very frightened of Noel Fielding and had to keep cutting to young girls in audience to prove it was alright.
One dictate of mine was that you don't see audience cutaways because they are designed to shore up the response at home by showing a person appropriate to the joke laughing at it ie a black person if the joke is slightly racist or if they show a celebrity laughing it must be funny. Esther Rantzen is laughing at it so it must be funny. Those shows are about showing you a person in a big place and they must be good because there are 4000 people laughing. The onus with TACE is on you here to decide if it is funny. The response has not been manufactured in the cutting room. The original credits were going to say "Real proper live audience – no Gok Wan or Esther Rantzen. The audience came to it through liking the people who were in it.
The comedians on TACE all fit together so well. They are of a piece, but you've got to listen. It's like the TV producer who said to the makers of Police Squad 'the problem with your programme is you have to watch it.' (laughs)
BD: Your acts straddle the political divide though? They aren't just whinging lefties
SL: Glenn Wool is like a survivalist libertarian so political spread is interesting, Stylistically the show ranges from easy chatting to Maeve Higgins and David Kay, who you really have to listen to. Plus women and music and women doing music which are too things which are so unpopular they almost cancel each other out.
BD: The way you feature acts then return to them later reminded me of the old Granada show The Comedians?
SL: Yes, definitely. That's partly deliberate. The difference is there are little bits of them but also bits where someone does a long bit like Apollo, say five minutes. One or two people who are brilliant are not best served by the format. Paul Foot and Maeve Higgins were hard to edit. Although a lot of them, like Simon Munnery, talk about really obtuse things but also have a lot of good jokes. Simon was great. He's like Barry Cryer. The other thing I had in the back of my mind was The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, but a non-racist version.
BD: Could your style of stand-up have fitted in?
SL: If I'd done an hour you could have got 20 minutes out of it.
BD: Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle is coming back for two more series isn't it?
SL: The BBC is in a constant feedback loop between audience approval ratings and veiwing figures. Either they can't justify it because of the ratings or they have to recommission it because it justifies the spending of public money.
BD: Have you ever played Hammersmith Apollo or the O2?
SL: I've done benefits at Hammersmith, but I haven’t seen anyone there since Billy Connolly 20 years ago. I've never been to O2. I'd like to see Louis CK [this interview was done before he added Hammersmith dates to his 02 date], but the sad thing is I won't be able to disassociate seeing him from being in that room. I could do the O2 Arena three times given my sales figures at Leicester Square 45,000 over three months. but I'm not sure if the people who like me would go.
BD: Doing a long run rather than one big night is very time-consuming though isn’t it?
SL: It's difficult with kids because I missed bedtime for three months, but it's not going down the pit is it.
BD: Are you in or out of fashion at the moment?
SL: All the people who hate me have just given up complaining about me. This year the British Comedy Awards did a promotional cartoon of ex award winners and I wasn't in it despite the fact that I won two awards last year. I've managed to not be in that world, I couldn't have engineered it better. I didn't want supernova thing, I want to be more like Dave Allen, just come back every couple of years.
BD: Would you ever do something like Jerry Springer The Opera again?
SL: I just dropped out of something similar and don't think I'll do it again. I was really lucky to be asked to do it but the bigger it got the harder it was to keep control of the nuanced tone and the marketing which was problematic. It was sold in a way we didn't want – "prepare to be shocked" – which came back to bite us. We didn't anticipate it being controversial when we started doing it at Battersea Arts Centre
BD: You are not a big fan of collaborations like that are you?
SL: 'm a control freak. I never want to work with more than one other person. To be honest I often don't even agree with myself. Financially it's not worth it either. I'm trying to get enough money for the kids before I die and it is not worth it.
BD: What is it like having your wife (Bridget Christie) on the show?
SL: Bridget would be on anyone's list for a programme like that. She should be on it, but she felt she had to be twice as good to avoid it looking like....people tend to like her a lot more until they find out she's my wife. People that don't like her think she's only getting 40 seater rooms because I've put the word in! I think it definitely hold her back. Standing next to me is like standing next to a light everyone is looking at. In one show she's written a routine about her husband doing something and a reviewer said 'typical, the only funny thing was a bit her husband Stewart Lee had said,' but of course she had written that. I think when her radio series comes out it will be so good it will start to settle down.
BD: Do you ever discuss using something that has happened to you together?
SL: Sometimes a thing will happen and we have to decide "who has it?" Some day when it doesn't matter any more we might both do a routine about our honeymoon, the same stories told in my way and her way.
BD: What’s next?
SL: Bridget (right) is on tour from February so I'm looking after the children. Then I'll be in Edinburgh and at the Leicester Square Theatre with a show called Much A-Stew About Nothing, which will be developing material for the next series of Comedy Vehicle. 90 minutes a night, in three half hour blocks, so that by December I'll have six half hour blocks. | might try to do one of the episodes as not me, and have me interviewing me.
BD: What has happened to your plan to do your Michael McIntyre "cover version" show?
SL: I'd love to do it, but I've got my own stuff to do for now.
BD: You must be one of the few comedians who have managed to resist joining Twitter.
SL: It's just another background noise I have to deal with. I can't look after two children and have to think of this. A lot of people on Twitter hate me, R4 said to Bridget should open an account for her new programme, but there are people out there who say 'you should be sexually mutilated,' Why open that floodgate?
BD: This isn't a show about creating new stars though is it?
SL: There is a difference between being good and being a star. That's what this show is about, that there is some relationship between popularity and quality which there is but doesn't have to be.
BD: Tony Law (right) is on a bit of a roll at the moment though, isn't he?
SL: About 18 months ago he just clicked. He's like Robin Williams. A synthesis of Noel Fielding and Harry Hill, all these thing come together to make a new thing. And Josie Long is the sort of person who people maintain don't exist any more. Funny but political and absolutely uncompromising.
BD: Will it get people to go to comedy clubs? The club scene has changed a lot since you started.
SL: Live by the alcopop, die by the alcopop. As the chain clubs expanded their remit changed from comedy to food, alcohol and dancing and the comedy became incidental. Promoters of smaller rooms will tell you there isn't enough audience to go around, but clubs like Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and Lolitics are always sold out irrespective of who is on. They trust that brand. It is actually so much healthier than America. Here you can build a coherent show, not just a seven minute act to get onto Tv so that you can et a sitcom.
BD: TACE and ACMS feel like the spearhead of a punk-style reaction. The Sex Pistols and The Clash to Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay's Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones.
SL: For every action there's a reaction. You need to let them know that there is another sort of stand-up. My original press release said "do you hate all stand-up on television?"
BD: People just need to know there is an alternative...
SL: During the first series of Comedy Vehicle I was in a children's playground in Malvern and a man came up to me and said 'I really like your TV programme. I hated Jongleurs and thought I'd never go to a comedy club again. I didn't know people were doing that stuff live.'
The Alternative Comedy Experience starts on Comedy Central on February 5 at 11pm.