Interview: Stewart Lee

Stephen MooreBest known to some for his involvement in the controversial Jerry Springer The Opera, and to others as one of the more acquired tastes of today's stand-up scene, Stewart Lee returns to Norwich. STEPHEN MOORE caught up with him.Stephen Moore

Best known to some for his involvement in the controversial West End smash hit Jerry Springer - The Opera, and to others as one of the more acquired tastes of today's stand-up scene, razor-sharp Stewart Lee returns to Norwich. STEPHEN MOORE caught up with him.

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With a humour that is acerbic, dark, leftfield and meandering by turns, Stewart Lee's latest stand-up odyssey - If You Would Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One - sees him return to Norwich Playhouse next week.

It might consist of just three jokes, but you needn't worry about getting your money's worth, as anyone who has seen his previous visit back in March can testify.

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If you haven't seen him, Stewart is more than happy to fill us in.

t What can the audience expect from this show?

When I was writing it I was thinking about what is expected from a comedian, particularly an older comedian, as I'm 41 now. And it seemed to me there is two dominant forms at the moment. One is the rise of the Michael McIntyre kind of comedy where you talk about everyday life, and everyone understands, and the other thing is these dreadful one-liners like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle or someone like that. And I don't really feel like I fit either of those, so it's about trying to think what you really want to talk about at 40-something, and so it's about the genuine, depressing despair and disappointment that I feel in all aspects of my life. [wicked cackle]

t With the recession still lingering, what does live stand-up have to offer that can't be downloaded or stuck into a DVD player?

I try and make it a real experience. Because you feel like, with everything being downloaded illegally or put on YouTube. When I was a kid a record or a book, it felt like a sacred little object, whereas now information, texts and sounds are all digitised and zipped around, and I don't know if they have the same sort of currency. But the one thing you can't commodify is the experience of being at a live event. And so we have to make live events as 'live' as possible. As different to listening or seeing that stuff as possible.

t Do you find doing the same material night after night restricting?

I'm not like Dara O'Briain or Frankie Boyle where they come out on stage and they've got 200 jokes. I've got three jokes, and they add up to a story and they've got a point at the end, so I can't change the whole show, but within that I try and build things in so that there's stuff that happens differently, even to the point of risking failing at certain points, to try and keep it alive. A live performance is about trying to make people feel that they've seen something that only happened once, I think.

t Do you think comedians are too narrow in what they feel constitutes a live show?

People on Arts Council budgets at the National Theatre and Scottish Theatre or wherever are spending a lot of time sitting in closed rooms trying to work out how to communicate with audiences as directly as the lowliest Jongleurs comic does, every night of the week. And I think stand-up is a much maligned and misunderstood art form. The spread of stand-up from, say Michael McIntyre to Jerry Sadowicz is as diverse as the whole spread from a punk through to a Handel concerto. It's an incredible art form and it's a real privilege to be in it.

t What do you make of stand-up today?

As a child in the Thatcher years, most comedy was stuff you wouldn't want anything to do with. It was about maintaining the values and attitudes of people in power. And I think it's sort of drifting back towards that now, which is a shame. There seem to be a lot of comedy sketch shows that pick on what the middle class educated performers writing them and performing them imagine the working classes might be like. You know what I mean? I think there's a lot of nastiness that's not about anything, that doesn't have any point to it. If I was a teenage me now, watching comedy on telly, I don't know I'd wanna be a comedian. It'd just look like something idiots did, I think. But you know, I am. There's nothing I can do about it now! [Laughs]

t Is there one joke you could destroy forever?

I dunno, I really like a lot of old, sh** jokes, 'cos I sort of think of the story behind them. For example, you know this joke, right: 'What time does the Chinese man go to the dentist? Two Thirty.' Now that's an old sh** pre-political correctness joke, and you think that's a bit rubbish. But actually, the more you think about it the more interesting it is. Like, who's made that appointment for him? Did the people in the dentist give him that appointment to make fun of him? And if so, it doesn't even work unless he speaks English with a Chinese accent. He won't even realise that they're insulting him. Or did he make it himself as a sort of aide-memoire, knowing that he speaks English with a Chinese accent? So a lot of these jokes that used to seem sh** and a bit corny, the more I think about them, there's this bizarre world of assumptions within them. There's probably an hour in that, talking about that joke. It's always interesting, seeing what makes people laugh. And what doesn't.

t Stewart Lee is at Norwich Playhouse on April 30, returns only, 01603 598598,