Stewart Lee slings brand of hard-hitting comedy
Comedy, says English comedian Stewart Lee, has a most serious role in society. It should provoke, expose and even annoy.”That seems to be the point of comedy – to talk about things you shouldn’t. Like a release valve,” said the 36-year-old Lee from his home in London. “To put you in a confusing and difficult place.”Lee is referring, presumably, to the audience. But his brand of hard-hitting comedy has landed himself in a confused and difficult spot: under investigation by English law enforcement for blasphemy. If the case lands in court, it would be the first prosecution for blasphemy in England since 1977, when the Gay Times published a poem about a Roman centurion fantasizing about having sex with Jesus.Once again, it’s the juxtaposition of Christ and sex that has the authorities crying blasphemy. The arena this time is opera. “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” which Lee directed and co-wrote the libretto for, has the American talk-show figure Springer hosting a show in hell, with such guests as the devil, Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Following a run of several years at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End that earned numerous awards, the opera was televised by the BBC. The shift to the airwaves brought the outrage of Britain’s right-wing evangelists who, says Lee, have borrowed issues and tactics from their American counterparts.”We have those now,” said Lee of the right-wing evangelicals. “It used to be only in America. Now it’s one of the great things America has exported.
“It doesn’t feel very British to be getting so caught up in it. But there’s a pervasive anxiety about freedom of speech everywhere.” Lee can see how American reactions compare to the British; “Jerry Springer” is due to open in San Francisco this spring and on Broadway in the fall.Lee’s future plans don’t seem to include backing away from controversy. He is in the early stage of writing a second book. The subject: how the angel Gabriel, ordered by God to impregnate Mary, has to get lessons on sex from the Devil.Once upon a time, Lee was not such an agitator. Some 15 years ago, he was a stand-up with an act that he says consisted of “pissy, depressing one-liners.” That brand of humor earned him a decent niche in England’s comedy scene. But it didn’t earn him what he considered an audience of his own.”It was frustrating, because there was a perception amongst other stand-ups that I was good,” he said. “But it never seemed to move on. You get to an age where you want to find your own audience, not play to people who are just looking for a night out. I was spending a lot of time just establishing who I was before I could get to the stuff I wanted to do.”Compounding his frustration, Lee couldn’t quite find what he wanted to do in his act. “I couldn’t seem to write anything that sounded like me,” he said. “Everything was in a rut.”
During the rut years, Lee turned to writing his first novel, “Perfect Fool.” The book centered on clowns in the Hopi and Pueblo tribes in Arizona, a topic that deepened his self-examination.”It seemed like there was a powerful social need for comedy in those societies,” he said. “And it was dangerous. It made me think what I was doing was ridiculous.”Lee escaped by quitting stand-up. He had turned to his other career, writing music reviews for newspapers, when composer Richard Thomas asked him to help write the libretto for his opera project, “Jerry Springer.” The opera – half proper, classical opera and half Brecht/Weil-style musical theater – became a major hit. It also landed Lee in mildly hot water; Lee doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the potential consequences of the current investigation.The brush with harsher societal realities allowed Lee to find his stand-up voice. After a three-year absence, he returned to the stage at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival to great acclaim. He is in the midst of a British tour that has him tackling serious issues – 9/11, racism – and developing a sober style to match.”Quiet. Not particularly boisterous or excitable. Slow and thoughtful,” said Lee, describing his brand of stand-up. “At least I hope.”
Lee also believes he is finally finding his own audience. He chalks it up to the radio programs he did a decade or more ago. The largely teenage listeners are now comedy club patrons. “I think it took a decade for those little sprouts to grow into an audience,” he said.Lee has only performed once in the states. That was some years ago in Los Angeles, where he was pitching his film script about the finding of the Holy Grail in the Arizona desert. He also performed some years ago at Montreal’s Just For Laughs, where he was swarmed by TV executives who all wanted to cast him as “the eccentric English neighbor. I had this blinding moment of, ‘What am I doing here?'”So Lee is looking forward to returning to the states in his latest guise, as a stand-up comedian.”I’m actually loving doing stand-up,” he said. “Something seems simple and direct about talking straight to an audience again.”Stewart Lee performs tonight and Friday, Feb. 11, at 11:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 12, at 10:30 p.m., at the Hotel Jerome.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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