The most inappropriate question to ask stand-up comedian Stewart Lee?
Can you tell me a joke?
Fortunately, when I ask this, he gets the joke. “Yeah, I haven’t got any. Still,” admits Lee. “I find the beginning of sets difficult because you’re supposed to do a joke to get going, but I just don’t have any. I’m like a broken old car, once it’s on the move it’s alright. But as far as getting going in the first place... I don’t have any punchy, panel show, top of the show one liners,” says Lee and then laughs. That’s right. The po-faced, often seemingly miserable, Morrissey-plus-size lookalike Lee, laughs. And his laugh, you may be a little surprised to hear, is a high-pitched giggle.
See, those of us who have loved his comedy for a long time know that while Lee is operating at the fringes of his art and is regularly quoted as the comedian’s favourite comedian, he is a man who likes comedy and enjoys a laugh. Loves it. It’s just that when you’re operating at the fringes, some people don’t get it. Lee has been polarising audiences for over two decades, but finally his mastery of his craft is being recognised and his Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle show is to return to the BBC for a fourth series, being filmed later this year.
The material for these six half-hour shows is currently being created, by Lee in front of live audiences around the country, including at St George’s Hall in Bradford on Monday. It turns out that Lee was hot property after the first series of the show in 2009 – sort of. “After the first series, the BBC said they didn’t think they were going to recommission it. Someone then said that they probably would recommission it if I went on more shows and became a ‘personality’ and I said I didn’t think that would work because I haven’t got a personality. Sky then said that they were interested in doing it, so I started talking to them and then the show won a few BAFTAs and British Comedy Awards, and then the BBC said they wanted to do a second series. I went back to Sky and told them the BBC wanted to make another series, so Sky then promised a further two series. I went to the BBC, told them and then the BBC then promised a further – it was weird because all I was doing was being totally straight with everyone and I ended up appearing to do some amazing Machiavellian negotiations.”
In an election year (Lee has a famous routine about Ukip that was viewed hundreds of thousands of times in the run up to the election) there is plenty for Lee to try out. The problem might be that there’s too much. “There’s actually a real difficulty in trying to write things now that will be still relevant when we record in December.”
Travelling around the country – when we speak he is on his way to Scarborough from Whitby, having been in Harrogate earlier in the week – Lee is on the road, meeting the people he is broadcasting to. So he’s touring the country, spreading his message and he still doesn’t have any jokes.
“I’m doing something that lots of comics historically have done. Dave Allen told stories, a lot of music hall comedians were working class surrealists and didn’t have punchlines, so what I’m doing, well it’s not a new thing. I try to get people in a groove where they find what I’m saying absurd. It’s not like there’s not any laughs, it’s just a different way of coming at things.”
It is different and it is brilliant and he is one of the most individual and brilliant stand-ups working today, punchlines or not.