Stewart Lee in interview: "Annoying, confusing, weird, satirical and clever"

Feature by Bernard O'Leary | 29 Jun 2012

Next week, The Stand Edinburgh will be taken over by the kind of lineup that will make comedy purists tremble at the knees. Josie Long, Robin Ince, David O’Doherty, Tony Law, Bridget Christie, Simon Munnery and Isy Suttie are just a few of the names appearing at the series of ten shows, masterminded by none other than Stewart Lee.

“I was approached by Colin Dench of Comedy Central,” Lee explains. “They had seen my style of shooting and were interested in doing something along those lines. All of us were aware that there was a school of standup that is very popular with comedians, but isn’t favoured by the mainstream comedy programming on television. It was very interesting that when we tried to programme it, we found ourselves ruling people out because they could appear on other shows. What we were left were these people who all fit the motif of alternative comedy.”

‘Alternative comedy’ is a troublesome term. The alternative revolution of the 80s effectively killed off the competition and now every boy in a t-shirt who notices things is technically the bastard lovechild of Alexi Sayle. Some people still think that Michael McIntyre is alternative.

“Yes,” says Lee, calmly, “there are people who think that. But he isn’t.

“I think alternative comedy is a good name for this because people think alternative comedy is something annoying, confusing, weird, satirical and clever. And I think... yes. That's fine. I don't really want anyone to come and see the show, to be honest.

“Jim Bowen had that joke about ‘Alternative comedy? It’s the alternative to comedy’. I think it’s good to have an alternative to the kind of standup shows you have on TV now.”

The shows at The Stand will be aired on Comedy Central in August in a sort of standup/documentary hybrid, which the performance intercut with Lee interviewing each of the acts about the art of comedy. “It’s the kind of programme I’d want to watch,” says Lee.

In some ways could this be great. A space on Mock The Week or Live At The Apollo remains the best way to sell tickets. But is this true of all comedians? Or will Lee's guests find their audiences unchanged by this exposure?

"Its' hard to say. We discovered that the number of people coming to my live shows was higher than the viewing figures for [Stewart Lee's] Comedy Vehicle. So you wonder if maybe the kind of people who enjoy alternative comedy are people who do go out and do see live shows, and the ones who watch more mainstream shows are not."

Lee mentions a certain comic (who we won't name) who was advised by their agent (who we also won't name) to avoid doing a themed one-hour show for Edinburgh this year, and instead produce a series of six minute bits which could easily translate onto television. "That's because all agents these days," he says, "see an appearance on McIntyre's show as the only way to be successful. But it doesn't always translate into ticket sales."

Whether or not this show is the catalyst for a massive Tony Law stadium tour (and hopefully it will), it's certainly going to make for a fascinating document on the state of alternative comedy in 2012.


More on Stewart Lee and Edinburgh Fringe Festival:

Stewart Lee & Bob Slayer: How The Fringe Escaped Its Certain Fate / Stewart Lee: Scrambled Egg / Stewart Lee - 41st Best Stand-Up Ever! / Fringe Therapy: Stewart Lee / Stewart Lee: Carpet Remnant World

The Alternative Comedy Experience is filming at The Stand, Edinburgh, July 2-6. Shows at 6.15 and 9.15 each day, tickets £8/£7