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Toby Parker-Rees: What would be the best thing to shake comedy out of the

homogenised doldrums you find it in?


Stewart Lee: I think the best thing that could happen to it is happening its
very interesting. I wasnt sure about this until really the last couple of weeks. I
was certainly worried about the stadium comedy boom homogenising
everything. But I think that whats happened in the last few weeks the debate
about Frankie Boyle, the debate about the Top Gear jokes, shows that people
particularly the younger people who are all on Twitter and things like that are
appreciating again that not all comedys the same; that its differently nuanced.

I think theres so much of it suddenly, so much access to it, that maybe people
will start to realise that its not all the same, theres different types and different
approaches and it can mean different things and be about different things and
maybe that means well get a new alternative comedy boom. Maybe itll mean
people will make a distinction and the massive success of McIntyres and
people like that will mean theres room for weirder people to survive in a
smaller economic bubble. I also think that perhaps the technology exists to
enable that with Internet access to things and the way informations
disseminated.

I dont know. I thought we were heading into a bland dystopia but in the last
few weeks Ive thought maybe maybe something interestings going to
happen.

TPR: On the subject of Michael McIntyre and interesting things, do you still
have plans to do perform a verbatim McIntyre script, making it as paranoid
and deranged as possible?
SL: Well Id really like to do that, but I dont know what the legal position is. In
the short term, in the Autumn of this year Ill be doing a new show in London
and then Ill tour that around next year, so if I do do this McIntyre show it
wont be until 2013 maybe. I keep mentioning it everywhere, Im hoping
someone will take it seriously and get back to me about it. Its great really the
more famous he becomes the more interesting the idea gets.

TPR: Until that point will it be all stand-up from here on out, then? Can we
expect anything like Jerry Springer the Opera or your semi-improvised Judas
monologue?
SL: There are several offers that are floating around about theatre Ill do
them, at some point in the near future, when I get the sense that people are
about to get sick to death of me as a stand-up [cackles]. When the majority of
things I read on the internet are oh, he always does this, I hate him oh here
he comes again, I wish hed die then Ill stop and do some theatre for a bit. But
at the moment theres enough people that like me and also I seem to be able to
come up with a new show each year thats significantly different from the last
one, so while thats still happening thats what Ill do. I would like to do some
theatre again. Its nice to work with different people. Ive just had an email
from someone in New York about doing something with puppets that sounds
interesting, then something with a big sculpture, going to see people about that,
but it might be for a while.

TPR: Obviously various tabloid campaigns, and pressure from religious groups,
made it very difficult for you to continue with Jerry Springer the Opera. Do
you think the current vogue for scandal is damaging to comedy?
SL: I dont know. On the one hand, perhaps its good, because it will make
writers think about the meaning and effect of what theyre saying. Certainly if
you subjected Top Gear & Frankie Boyle to some rigorous analysis and they
were made to be accountable it might make them focus their not inconsiderable
talents. The flipside of this sort of thing where people usually on the Right
exaggerate sources to sell newspapers, the flipside of that is it can make you as
a performer cautious even if theyre things you believe in.

TPR: Has it made you more cautious?
Certainly I have no interest in being much better known than I am already.
Because at the moment Im at a level which is sustainable, and were I to be
better known I suspect the things that I say and do might be of more interest to
tabloid newspapers, to the point where it would make it harder to make a
living. Theres a phrase that often gets bandied around, the idea that
controversy helps sell shows, but it doesnt; with JSTO for example controversy
just meant that we werent able to perform it enough places to get paid [he
cackles] so it was entirely counter-productive [he cackles much more].

TPR: In your book [How I Escaped My Certain Fate, a scholarly commentary
on his last three stand-up sets] you talk about finding a kindred spirit in the
ritualised scatology of the Hopi clowns do you think they would survive a
Hopi Daily Mail?
SL: Right, theres an interesting thing about that the first thing the white
settlers did when they got into that area of the States was try to ban the clown
rituals, and thats sort of why they went underground. They went underground
metaphorically and literally, in as much as the clown sects operated out of
underground chambers in the pueblos. Theres loads of books written by the
army surveyors and the anthropologists about how disgusting these rituals
were, and that opposition to the clown rituals tore apart the Zuni society
because it was one of the safety valves of the society, and they were prevented
from doing it. The invading armies, colonial settlers, and their authorities had a
sense that something was going on here; that they were being mocked in some
way, and they used the perceived scatological and sexual elements of these
performances as an easy way to have them closed down.

Its really interesting that they went for the comedy before they even went for
the religion [cackles] that was the thing where they felt we cant have them
doing this and thats why they dont have any photographic record of them.
There were some taken in the First World War era but since then they wont let
anyone photograph them or film them for precisely that reason they didnt
want to be discussed or misinterpreted by white America. Weirdly, one of the
only people thats got film of a Hopi clown ritual is Henry Winkler, who played
the ludicrous character the Fonz in the sitcom Happy Days I think he was on
a tour of the Hopi villages and somebody recognised him as a fellow comedian,
and said come and see our ritual, our clown performance youre funny. And
he filmed it. And to his credit, Henry Winkler, the Fonz, has always resisted any
requests by anthropologists or theatre practitioners to see the film.

TPR: Could that sort of secrecy work here, though?
SL: This is an interesting comparison to whats going on now Jerry Sadowitz,
for example, is a really brilliant comedian who deals in offence, but he doesnt
deal in offence in a Frankie Boyle, Top Gear kind of way, he deals in total
offence, to everyone. And its quite a cathartic thing. Its very hard to explain
because on paper it looks appalling but in the flesh its quite moving in a
bizarre way. And Sadowitz polices YouTube to the point where theres never
any footage of him there; he gets it taken down immediately he wont ever be
filmed. And I think he does that because hes aware that the context of a thing
changes that.

We live in a culture where that sort of material is seized upon and deliberately
misinterpreted by papers to flog stuff. And I think he wants to carry on what
hes doing. And how it makes me feel is that a live performance is about what
happens in the room on the night a line and an idea over the course of the
evening doesnt exist in isolation from the lines that precede it or come after it,
its very much part of a whole. We live in a culture where everythings reduced
to bitesize quotes that can go on a Twitter feed or under a picture of you in
Heat magazine.

Last year I got in trouble with the tabloids for some things I supposedly said
about Richard Hammond. Interestingly, eighteen months later, the point I was
making seems to be in broadsheets now, accepted as an interesting, as a
legitimate grievance. But the content was taken out of context in that routine
in the papers they went Stewart Lee has done a joke about Richard Hammond
being killed in a crash. I did that I did a forty-five minute piece about Top
Gear and that was one element of it, and obviously that element, that line, was
contextualised within forty-five minutes of material about Top Gear. Thats
just one line it shouldnt be reduced or written about, you cant just boil it
down to the essence of a line. When I finally did get to see the Pueblo clowns in
2006 Id read a lot about it I cant say theyve been an influence on me,
what I was doing predated that, but it did give me a great feeling of comfort
like theres a precedent. So wherever you go in the world people understand
what comedys for or what it can be. And its not to have what General Bourke
did to the Pueblo clowns or what the Daily Mail have done to me done to it. It
was very inspiring.

TPR: Because it shows that its important?
SL: When youre a comedian its changing a bit but youre the bottom of the
pile. Its not something thats written about seriously, or thought about. Twenty
years ago in the Fringe there were theatre critics and there were music critics
and there were dance critics, but the comedy was always reviewed by the
cooking writer or something. Theyd go go and write about comedy and the
review would be a man came out he said a joke it was funny I laughed. Its
only recently anyones started to think about it as an artform. So I think for a
comedian to go somewhere and see a place where the comedian is thought of as
a sort of spiritual figure [cackles] you come away feeling a little bit less like
youve wasted your life [collapses into cackles].

TPR: You sent a DVD to the Cambridge Occupation, and did a nice video
showing support for it. Do the cuts that all these protests are responding to
conform to the sort of limited view of the arts that leads to tabloid outrage and
so on?
SL: For me, the core thing about how education is being talked about now, and
what these protests hopefully reflect, is about values, right, and the idea that an
education is only worth something if what you learn has a financial value, right,
and I think thats the opposite of what civilisation is supposed to be. I think
theres a core discussion to be had on philosophical terms to be had with the
Coalition here, and I dont think its a discussion they could win. I think they
would always win a discussion about finance but I think theres something else
going on here and thats a sort of philistine agenda thats against thought.

TPR: Do you think theres any chance it will result in a revival of alternative
culture?
SL: Well, you know, it did in the seventies and the eighties, but in the eighties
things were a little bit different. If you wanted to make art you could get a
shitty temp job and live in a cheap flat somewhere and still have access to
cutprice culture and libraries and things like that. Or you could go on the dole,
the enterprise allowance, so there were all sorts of ways round it.

Now, if you want to stop what youre doing and create culture, even culture
which may be financially valuable to society, its much more difficult to just do
that because basic living costs have gone up so much since the eighties and also
there isnt the infrastructure of subsidised stuff that there used to be in fact,
what there is is being cut away. So I think its much more of a commitment
now to do that. So on the one hand youve got a load of young people who
broadly speaking, the more creative ones feel the government isnt for them, but
on the other hand I dont think its as easy as it was thirty years ago to drop out
and do stuff, because financially and socially the cards are all stacked against
you.

In order not to end on a downer I should happily point out that Stewart Lees
DVD and book are out and proud, and his Vegetable Stew show will be at the
Corn Exchange on Sunday the 6
th
of March.