Experimental Music Love

August 20, 2008

Unscrambling Lee

Filed under: Edinburgh Festival,Interviews — by Free Edinburgh Podcast @ 1:20 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

When I talked with Stewart Lee for a bit in a car on the way to Culross.  He was great.  This is the director’s cut version from Three Weeks which can be picked up at any big Fringe venue, or read on-line at http://edinburgh.threeweeks.co.uk/feature/5309.

Stewart Lee looking at something you can only imagine.

Stewart Lee looking at something you can only imagine.

“It’s been 23 years since I first came here, but I still love doing it. I don’t think I could ever miss it now.” Stewart Lee is one the festival’s real veterans. And with both a stand-up show and a play to put on, he’s back, and sure to be as critically acclaimed and big-selling as ever.

“This year’s been really relaxing so far actually, especially being here with my family” says Lee, who recently became a father. “I’m usually up at 5.30am now for the baby, which used to be the time I’d get in when I was here a few years ago. I can almost see the ghost of my past self as I go out the door.”

And it’s not just fatherhood in the future for Lee, as this year’s festival run sees him perfecting ideas for a much expected BBC TV series in 2009. “The show is really for a TV series that’s been four years in the pipeline. There’s old and new material in there. It might seem a bit bitty, but the audiences are responding well.”

It shall be a welcome return to our screens for Lee whose last creative television work was directing the sorely under-rated Attention Scum. “I’m back on BBC2 now its ratings are down 50%,” he jokes. “I’m even getting on with the executives this time. I’m so old now, they leave me alone to do what I want really. Like a real grown up.”

But it’s not only his solo stand-up show Lee’s involved with this festival. Following on from last year’s sell out play, Johnson and Boswell: Late But Live, he’s teamed up again with Miles Jupp and long-time collaborator, Simon Munnery, to bring its Elizabeth and Raleigh equivalent to the Fringe. “They’re both fantastic comedians,” he says of the pair. “And just as good actors as it turns out. It all started as a joke really to cast Simon as Elizabeth, but he does actually play it really well. It’s almost scary.”

Things aren’t all perfect at this year’s fringe however, and Lee isn’t afraid to speak his mind on the matter. “There are two bad things with this year’s festival. The first is the failure of the website. All the organisers had to do was create a website that worked, distribute the program and sell tickets, and they couldn’t do any of that. And that’s discouraged the lovely little people with their flasks and sandwiches who come up and fill shows and allow interesting acts to be discovered.”

The Edinburgh Comedy Festival has also effectively introduced a two-tier system this year. It’s a nice, sane thing to have everyone together on the same footing. But this separates the big acts from the smaller ones and is destroying much of what’s good about the festival for awful marketing reasons.”

This cynicism of the marketing approach has affected the way Lee distributes his own recorded work. His last DVD was sold by independent on-line retailers, Go Faster Stripe and his current DVD release, 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, named after the Channel 4 poll that saw him nominated as such, is again produced by an independent company. “I did it with Real Talent, who have been great, and I’m really pleased with the way it’s turned out. It’s sold more in the first week than my first DVD ever did.”

Of course, with the internet now, you can cut out the middleman, who can often be an obstruction or a filter. With my What Would Judas Do show, Radio 4 were interested in recording and selling a version of it. But with all their conditions, it just wasn’t worth it. With Go Faster I was able to make more money and have complete control over the recording.”

But how important is recorded work for a comedian’s career? “I mean, you can get now 4 DVD’s with Peter Kay doing the same material in four different venues, but you’re not able to find something by Simon Munnery anywhere. Music’s always being recorded and sold or downloaded, no matter who or how old it is.

“It’s just good to have your stuff archived. It’s certainly helpful to have 90 minutes of material out there that will always be around. It keeps you motivated. From 1997 to 2001 I was doing pretty much the same show, as there was no real incentive to move on.”

Lee has moved onto many sources for his material in his time, often finding himself the subject of much controversy along the way. Would he call himself an antagonist? “I never go out of way to cause offence. It’s just a by-product of my performance.

It’s like being upset at a dog shitting in the gutter. It may offend people who look at it, but it’s not its primary purpose. With the people who complained about Jerry Springer, nobody really thought to look past that and see the thoughtful take on morals and ethics we were trying to develop with the show. If I ever deliberately set out to cause offence, it would be a lot stronger.

I see people like Jerry Sadowitz who does material that even almost even shocks me a little, but he does it all in such a way where he just seems to take such little joy or pleasure in what he’s saying, and it’s brilliant. It’s important to have the right tone when it comes to controversy.”

Controversies all very well in a comedian’s repertoire, but should more stand-ups go out with a point and purpose in their material? “They should just do what they want. But sometimes it’s only really the comedian who can, or will, challenge topics that need to be challenged. If you look to America, the only real music star saying something significant against the government is Neil Young, who’s now in his 70s. It’s taking younger comedians to stand up and say something.”

And there you have it. Only getting funnier and eloquent with age, and the easiest interviewee I have ever had.

Stewart Lee: Scrambled Egg, Stand Comedy Club, The Stand Comedy Club, 3 – 24 Aug (not Fridays or Saturdays), 7.45pm (8.45pm), £10.00, fpp 100.

Elizabeth and Raleigh: Late But Live, Blue Box Eleanor Lloyd Festival Highlights Anthony Field Associates Underbelly and Skullduggery, Udderbelly’s Pasture,31 Jul – 25 Aug (not 13), 10.35pm (11.35pm), prices vary, fpp 48.

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