STEWART Lee has been a director, novelist, playwright, documentary-maker, actor and librettist (he co-wrote and co-directed Jerry Springer The Opera), but he is best-known for subtle stand-up comedy.
After starting out as a professional comedian in 1988, Lee made his name at the Hackney Empire in 1990, when he won the theatre’s new act of the year award.
On 20 June, Lee returns to the Empire to stage a performance entitled More Bums on Seats, a benefit gig for Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company that produces performances by homeless and displaced people. Cardboard Citizens has gained a reputation for innovative socially-engaged performing arts projects, ranging from workshops and community productions to collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Lee, who lives in Stoke Newington, muses on what the borough means to him, how it has inspired his work, and why he has become involved with Cardboard Citizens.
Stewart, you’ve lived in Hackney for the last ten years. To what extent does the area in which you live inform your comedy and writing?
I think it really informs it. I think that for a start being in London does, because there’s such a vast spread of different types of people, and you also feel stressed out and under attack from the city and you have to run to stand still and everything’s broken and nothing works, so I think that it keeps you alive in a really weird way.
I think Hackney and Stoke Newington more specifically inform it because there are so many different kinds of people all mixed up. In Stoke Newington, for example, the range of different types of people – I’ve never seen anywhere like it, to the point where it really ought not to work, but it does. So you do pick up a lot like that.
There’s a routine I did on the last DVD about going to a Weight Watchers round here, where there’s old Eastern European guys and young women in Islamic dress – and the sort of minefield of going through that and trying to work out what was the correct behaviour for the basic procedure of being weighed, with all the different cultural considerations to take into view. I like to think that it was an even-handed look at the pros and cons of multiculturalism, through the prism of a Weight Watchers group in Hackney.
I like specifically being in Stoke Newington, out of all the bits of Hackney, because it’s got this tradition of would-be radicals living and working here, and it seems to have been a haven for those kinds of people. So it’s nice to feel like part of some sort of tradition. Although bizarrely this very fact is now the sort of thing you would see on an expensive Stoke Newington estate agent’s spec for the area – that the Angry Brigade lived here in the 70s, as a selling point for this bijou area.
I tell you what is influential about Hackney: I’d always liked that kind of avant-garde, free jazz improvisational stuff. One of the great things about moving here was realising that I was by the Vortex and I could go and see these people that I’d heard of a bit and had sometimes seen at the Royal Festival Hall. Going to see a lot of that music was a sort of influence on the stand up: it made me go on longer with the improvisational bits to the point of perversity almost, which is a bit like what that music is like.
How do you feel your comedy and comedy in general is understood in class terms?
It’s an interesting question that. When I started doing the circuit 20 years ago it was, I suppose, middle class in a late eighties way, in as much as it was broadly liberal and you were probably a Guardian reader if you were at a gig. I think after Frank Skinner and Fantasy Football and things like that, it kind of changed and you got a lot more lads in, which was good, and it became more democratic and more diffuse.
I quite like, in the telly show and the live shows, giving the impression that I’m from London and therefore will have a more interesting outlook than people from the Midlands or the North – which I don’t actually believe – and of course I’m from the Midlands. But I do think that being here you do get a broader view of some things.
In what I do, I try not to have references to things that you would only have known about if you had been educated. But I do do things that you have to concentrate on, and I think that those two things are different. When people said the programme, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, was middle class, I thought in a way, the weird thing about that on television at the moment is, that seems quite radical. Because in the last 20 years, television has been taken over by educated middle class people who have a slightly contemptuous view of the public and are making programmes that they wouldn’t watch – so you have a lot of laddy comedy and comedy attacking social stereotypes. I think that to have something quite polite and thoughtful, like I did, rather than seeming conservative suddenly seems like the alternative.
You’re doing a benefit gig for Cardboard Citizens – why them particularly?
I spent a day with them in West London, where they have their HQ, about 18 months ago, and they try to get homeless people to do drama and write and perform stuff about their lives. I think that there’s a distancing effect that you can feel between yourself and homeless people.
What was really good about the work that I saw Cardboard Citizens doing was that you were reminded that homeless people are the same as you but have just ended up in different circumstances.
So they were able to explain that in a really direct way, using the stuff they had written and performed. It was really obvious from spending a day with them how worthwhile that was. They’re a great charity. One of their patrons was Tony Arthur, who used to present Playschool, when I was young, so you couldn’t help but have to agree to do anything you could for them.
More Bums On Seats is a cheeky evening of stand-up comedy with Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Simon Amstell, Brendon Burns and Josie Long, with all proceeds to Cardboard Citizens.
Hackney Empire Saturday 20 June | £18.50 | Doors 7.30pm, 8pm start
To book call 020 8985 2424
For more information about Cardboard Citizens: www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk