Culture Wars: Standing up for comedy
Stewart Lee talked to Timandra Harkness about cracking jokes
'It's great!' Stewart Lee's enthusiasm for contemporary British comedy contrasts sharply with the recent spate of 'mithering' articles about the Edinburgh Fringe. 'People are saying, "Oh, it's much worse now than it was", but they haven't been going to Edinburgh for 13 years like I have.'
A good-looking boy with several TV series under his belt and a stand-up act that packs a deadly dry stiletto, Lee directed the Perrier-nominated Arctic Boosh at this year's Fringe. He was deeply impressed by another Perrier-nominated show: Simon Munnery's League Against Tedium. 'No-one's ever done anything like it in comedy, in the history of the world', he says. 'And there's people going, "Oh, it's so boooring". It's just rubbish.'
The clearest criticism of contemporary comedy is that it's not Saying Anything - true? 'That's like saying Have I Got News for You is about something because it's about politics. It isn't, it just trades in a set of accepted untruths like "Fergie's got a fat arse", or "Mrs Thatcher is like Hitler". People buy into it because it's telling them things they agree with.' The Perrier winner, Al Murray, is 'much more interesting, because on a good night he will have a mixed-up audience that don't know whether they are supposed to agree or disagree. They are made to use their imagination, their intelligence.
'If something is seen to be "about" something, it's above criticism, isn't it? Because it's worthy in some way.' So comedy should not be worthy? 'No - it can make the world a better place, but not by being preachy. In the 1950s and 60s your payoff line would be about the way that an Irish person or a gay person behaved, because it was based on a shared assumption with the audience. In the 1980s it was about the way that Mrs Thatcher, or a yuppie, behaved. It's not necessarily any better, intellectually. It's just a different set of buttons being pushed.'
For Lee, good comedy involves challenging an audience. 'Sometimes it's like people want to have the things they've already found funny with their mates aggrandised by seeing it performed on stage, by a bloke who is a bit like them. Comedy shouldn't be like that. It should be giving things to people that are entirely different to anything they could ever have thought of, performed by people they can't relate to, who are strange. Otherwise you're just like a member of the public on stage, aren't you?'
How has political correctness affected comedians and their audiences? 'People used to be really on their guard for things that were not PC, but I sometimes wish they would be more PC now. If audiences become tolerant of racist and overtly sexist things again, it means people don't have to work as hard at coming up with interesting stuff.' And like many comics, Lee has had occasion to collide with a few sensibilities.
'The material I've got about Diana normally works the same, but once lots of people complained, and another time people started shouting "fuck her, we're glad she's dead!". What is offensive really depends on who the audience is. Greg Fleet does this good bit about a shark attack, which was funny everywhere, except once people started crying in the front row because their son was one of the 10 people that year in the world who'd been killed by a shark. So then that seems like poor taste - but it isn't, because it would normally be all right.
'If you try to deal with anything controversial with any level of sophistication, you're going to run the risk of being misunderstood. You don't have any control over the way a thing's perceived, without putting up a thing that says "what I actually think is in fact the opposite of this". It was like that with Alf Garnett - Johnny Speight was a nice old fella who thought he was satirising racist attitudes, but my parents liked the programme because they agreed with what he was saying and found it funny.'
Doesn't Al Murray's xenophobic pub landlord character generate a similar response? 'I think it's 50/50 nowadays. But that's part of what's great about it - it's so convincing. But what do you do? At least in the better acts, there is something that you might misunderstand.'
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999