Stewart Lee: “People like Sleaford Mods’ powerless rage – I have that too”

The comedy legend on the Tories' "culture war", Taskmaster, and returning to telly

You won’t have heard a lot from comedy legend Stewart Lee this year. When Coronavirus cancelled pretty much everything fun, Lee had to pull his latest tour Snowflake/Tornado from the road. In an ever-changing world, he’s been forced to take stock to write material that will still mean something when we emerge into whatever 2021 throws at us.

Still, he’s keeping busy. As well as appearing on Asian Dub Foundation’s new racist-bashing single ‘Comin’ Over Here’, he’s got a show coming up with Sleaford Mods and has been thinking about a return to telly.

We caught up with the Comedy Vehicle star to talk about Tory fumblings, Taskmaster, Brexit and what next year has in store.

Hello Stewart. How has your 2020 been? 

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Stewart Lee: “Well my tour was pulled 100 into 150 dates in March, and the half of my show that was about current events describes a world that no longer exists so that needs a big re-write!”

Current events are moving pretty fast. How do you keep up with that?

“The current touring show is called ‘Snowflake/Tornado’, and the second part of it is all about Dave Chappelle’s rider – that bit is unchanged. The first hour, however, is about the culture war against liberals, which has intensified and moved on since the show was last performed. It’s never worth starting a rewrite because you can never tell what’s going to happen. If I’d have written it three weeks ago, it would have been all about Dominic Cummings…”

 

The mood is always changing too. At the start of lockdown it felt like we were going to evolve into a new and more empathetic society…

“It did feel like that, didn’t it? Around where I live everyone was knocking on each other’s doors and seeing if they were alright. The culture war that the Tories manufactured has been fought in a vacuum and Black Lives Matter has been fought in a vacuum as well. We don’t really know what difference it will make on the other side of all this. I am a supporter of attempts to find an inclusive language, and I understand the debate that’s going on, but everything’s happening like wasps in a jar because there’s no outlet in the real world for these things.”

What do you make of the government’s handling of everything this year?

“In order to keep their failings quiet, both with Brexit and their management of the virus out of the headlines, the Tories manufacture various culture wars about what you can and can’t say and ‘getting thrown in jail for saying you’re English’ these days. There is a nastiness happening with it. People seem to expect that comedians, musicians and writers are going to be able to make sense of it. We’re all in this state of confusion together, and I don’t know what kind of society is going to emerge from it – certainly one with a lot less pubs and decent bands and comedians, sadly! Those are the main things I’m interested in!”

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Speaking of bands, you’re hosting a Q&A with Sleaford Mods at London’s Clapham Grand in January. How would you describe your relationship with them?

“I know that when I supported them at Hammersmith Apollo last year, we broke the venue’s bar record – so there’s obviously something going on there. They’re really great. It’s funny that they’ve not tried to make any friends and are alienated from everyone. You have to do that to a certain extent. If you’re ‘in the club’ then you get dragged down by it, but it’s a lonely life!”

So you have a lot in common? 

“People like the powerless rage of the character that I’ve got on stage, and Jason [Williamson, frontman] obviously has a lot of that too! They have a real gift for combining the mundane with the surreal. Jason makes very serious things seem comic when he writes lyrics like, ‘David Cameron’s face is hanging in the clouds like Gary Oldman’s Dracula’. I like the fact that he finds it funny to be furious about relatively trivial people, like Johnny Borrell of Razorlight. I don’t know how aware they are of it, but there’s something comically absurd about the stage set up of it too. The stillness of Andrew [Fern, instrumentals] just playing all these prepared loops with his little can of drink while Jason is just going mad – it’s a great little piece of theatre.”

What else have you been working on? 

“In the year before lockdown I worked on a film with Michael Cumming, who directed Brasseye and Toast Of London. It was called King Rocker and was about Birmingham post-punk band The Nightingales. They used to be The Prefects and were on the White Riot tour with The Clash. They’re still going. We funded it ourselves and only the crew got paid, everyone else volunteered. That will be on Sky Arts in February, I think.”

Have you been watching Taskmaster, featuring your old comedy partner Richard Herring?

“I watched the first one of the new series. I can see why it’s popular. It’s like It’s A Knockout but with celebrities. I saw the old version where Alex Horne did it as a one-man show and had to build this whole thing about 10 years ago. It was really good.”

Would you ever go on Taskmaster?

“No. What I do is stand-up, and I don’t need to do much to promote it for it to be viable. It just seems to take care of itself now. A lot of people go on those things because they think if they do enough of them that they’ll be so algorithmically present that they’ll be allowed to do the thing that they really want to do. You never know who’s going to be on it. It’s not even snobbery or anything like that because I don’t like to be looked at any more than is necessary.”

Do you think you’ll be back on TV again soon then?

“The BBC were supposed to be filming the current tour in York in the summer, but obviously that didn’t happen. Hopefully they’ll want to film it in the Autumn. I know it won’t be filmed for Netflix because they say I’m too parochial!”

Will Comedy Vehicle ever return?

“This sounds really arrogant, but when Comedy Vehicle was cancelled I thought, ‘Fair enough, I’m a white middle-aged man in my ‘40s and maybe they’ll give that slot to someone else to do something really good with stand-up’, but that hasn’t happened. There hasn’t been anyone doing a designated stand-up show that explores the form since, and I think that’s a real waste as there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be talking about. I did have a little twinge under lockdown where I thought about pitching my stand-up to someone on TV. It’s weird, I can do a quarter of a million people on tour but I’m sort of invisible to the industry, but I contrived that to happen myself so it’s my fault!”

Stewart Lee will be in conversation with Sleaford Mods at London’s Clapham Grand on Thursday January 21. See his 2021 Snowflake/Tornado tour dates here. Many of Lee’s comedy shows can now be downloaded and streamed via Media Garage.

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