Sometimes as a journalist, you get to interview people you’re a genuine fan of, and there’s always the risk that they’ll let you down or disappoint in some way.
Although you’re there to do a job, really, you’re just like any other fan, and if someone you admire turns out to be rude, obnoxious or just…a bit boring, it can be deflating. Especially when you then have to turn it into a decent piece.
When I lined up Stewart Lee, a comedian known for his dour observations and cynical attitude, I was a bit worried he’d be thoroughly bored by an interview, but in fact, he turned out out to be one of the chattiest, friendliest folk I’ve ever interviewed.
I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for well known people with apparently sullen public personas to turn out to be the most generous and funny interviewees. I interviewed fearsome Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood once, and steeled myself to be put down with a drawling ‘this is a complete dis-AS-ter darling,’ before he slammed the phone down and flounced off. But he turned out to be thoroughly loquacious and charming, hilariously catty, purring delighted insults about his onscreen enemies, but you got the feeling it was all in good humour and he was nothing but polite to me.
Anyway, there are enough people around who aren’t bothered about being particularly engaging in interviews, so it’s always a pleasure when a conversation you can see going horribly wrong turns out to be the opposite.
I love the way Stewart talks about his relationship with comedy – like being in love with someone but being annoyed by it at the same time, and trying to childishly deny it – and if you’re a fan of the man, have a read, he’s really quite wonderful.
FOR a comedian who claims to ‘not have any jokes’, Stewart Lee has certainly done alright.
The adulation he received from critics and fans is matched by the number of people who just don’t get him and are left baffled by his deadpan delivery and lack of punchlines.
But for a man who co-wrote Jerry Springer the Opera, directed the Mighty Boosh’s first live show and has established himself as a cult figure on the comedy scene, he’s not too bothered about those who don’t embrace his deconstructive approach to the game.
Stewart boasts a collection of bad reviews on his website, including the one from the Sun we’ve used as out headline, and has even savaged himself in a negative self-penned review in Time Out.
“It’s a practical consideration,” he says, explaining his exclusive approach.
“I’d like to be able to carry on working until I die, and the couple of times I did reach a mass audience, the response from the tabloids was so hostile it meant I was unable to work.”
Because of these bad experience, he actively discourages mass interest in his comedy and prefers to carry on appealing to a smaller but loyal crowd.
Stewart caused a tabloid storm by saying he wished Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond has been decapitated in his horrific crash.
He then brushed off the comments, saying ‘it’s a joke, you know, like on Top Gear.’
But the Daily Mail didn’t share his reasoning, that if the presenters of the hit BBC show were able to brush aside outrageous remarks as ‘jokes’, then he could too.
He adds: “TV pays less than what people would expect and I feel just about adequately compensated for the inconvenience of being recognisable to a small amount of people.
“Unless I was able to live in a gated community in the Yorkshire Dales, I wouldn’t want to be more recognisable.”
Stewart always wanted to be a writer – but admits that he had no idea how to approach comedy.
As a youngster in the early Eighties he wasn’t inspired by what he saw, but everything changed when he encountered self-dubbed ‘anti-comedian’ Ted Chippington, famed for his listless monotone and onstage air of boredom.
“The idea of stand-up didn’t exist,” explains Stewart. “Apart from folk singers like Jasper Carrot or Billy Connelly, or Oxbridge satirists like Rowan Atkinson.
“There was working man comedy, where it was all Pakistani immigrant jokes, or ultra-left wing stuff. In 1984 I went to see a band called the Fall and sometimes comedians would go on before bands.
“I saw a comedian, Ted Chippington. He didn’t have any jokes at all, he just had really long, monotonous things and he seemed to enjoy annoying the audience. I had never seen anything so exciting.
“To be a comedian you didn’t need to be happy or look like you wanted to be there – or have any jokes – I thought I could probably do that.”
But for a comedian, Stewart seems to be a reluctant one. His offbeat style sees him avoiding mainstream comedy circuits and panel shows.
“It’s a bit like being in love with someone, but it annoys you,” he says.
“So you try and deny it. I think I’ve spent 23 years trying to escape it, by doing it in a really weird way.
“I’ve avoided all the venues you’re supposed to play. I’ve got no jokes and you don’t see me in panel games. Yet somehow I’m still a comedian.
“If you try and eliminate every possible support and you’re still doing it… I suppose that means that’s what you are.”
Stewart says that having kids has altered his performances, although he’s unlikely to start cracking jokes on how amusing children are.
He says: “What had changed is about a year ago someone said to me ‘you used to be really tightly written and now it’s much looser’.
“I tried to pretend that’s a positive direction I’ve deliberately taken, but in fact I used to sit at home writing it all out. Now it’s quite hard to do that, with childcare responsibilities like giving them a bath. I tend to work out shows onstage now.”
But has the presence of children in his life changed Stewart’s cynical view?
“I’m not the kind of person who’s going to write a show about how funny children are,” he says.
“I’m quite cynical about the world, I’ve always hated everything, and I still am, I still do.