Stewart Lee: Beware - this man may be only joking

To some he is toxic and scornful. But behind the contemptuous on-stage persona is a family man who wants his own garden – and counts his luck. James Hanning meets Stewart Lee

The first thing to know about comic Stewart Lee is that much that has appeared about him in print isn't true. He was not at Oxford with David Cameron. He didn't invent Alan Partridge. And he is not slavishly politically correct with a smug contempt for his audiences. (He wishes there were more, funny un-PC comics.) These misapprehensions get about because people don't get the fact that … it's a joke. And the fact that his jokes aren't all instantly gettable puts people, and some newspapers, on edge. He, like Chris Morris, his partner in crime in his current television series and the inventor of the Partridge canard (Morris claimed recently as a joke, that Lee had indeed invented Partridge, but that in Lee's mind the original Partridge had been a clockwork monkey), is irretrievably not a conformer.

So what is true? He was a writer on the radio version of On the Hour, although his heart remains in stand-up. His stage character is, in his words, a "jealous, delusional, bitter, arrogant and anxious to give a good account of himself", while the real Lee, clearly, is more likeable and thoughtful. He is seen by his peers as a master practitioner, and the BBC has signed him up for another series after this one, thanks largely to Sky trying to poach him. He is left-wing but, he insists, the joke has to come first. And he feels no particular tribal loyalty to fellow comics.

He did go to Oxford, but a couple of years after Cameron. He had a comic routine in which he recalled an imaginary May Ball when he, as a member of the lower orders, was made by Cameron and his friends to drink vomit from a champagne bucket. "I didn't even know the Bullingdon Club existed when I was there," he says. "But you sort of know what those kind of people were like. Life was already decided at 18. You know where you fit into the hierarchy." He laughs a gleeful, demonic chuckle. "They sort of use you for what you're good at and you think you're in and then you're not and they'll move on. That's what they're doing to Clegg, isn't it?"

Is the stage version of Lee far removed from the real one? The man sitting in front of me, in a hotel round the corner from the BBC in central London, wears DMs and what his detractors might call agitprop garb, but is almost painfully courteous and trouble-taking. You suspect that, like Barry Humphreys and Sir Les Patterson, he finds playing the ogre quite liberating, as if it's him without the polite middle-class upbringing.

He grew up outside Birmingham, having been adopted as a baby which, he speculates bashfully, he thinks may have given him a freedom to choose his own direction. As an only child, he read a lot and had to amuse himself ("I don't think I'm particularly attention-seeking"). His late father ran a small packaging business and his late mother was manager of a medical practice. They split up when he was four. "I'm very grateful to my adoptive family. My mother sorted my life out."

He got a part scholarship to Solihull School, a fee-paying boys' independent school, and a charity award on the basis of being adopted (a "waifs and strays bursary", he calls it). "That difficulty in my start in life ended up giving me a functional level of education that I wouldn't have had."

And quickly we're back to politics. "You do feel an awareness of … luck. Which is why I'm surprised that [Michael] Gove can be so certain about things, because he is adopted and he was parachuted down into a degree of relative opportunity, like I was. In a period when there was a degree of social mobility that there isn't now… it makes me think how lucky [I am]. Seems to make Gove think he's worked hard and deserves the position he's in. I suppose we are what we are and we use the evidence to confirm what we believe."

His comedy is neurotic, angry and constantly self-examining. Much of it involves a mantra-like and uncomfortable repetition of politically obtuse remarks that he has picked up. Very often, he admits, he doesn't know where he is going with the joke. There is usually a safe option, but he likes to test his nerve, often passing comment on his act or his audience.

He is now into an annual cycle of writing and trying out a show in the spring in small venues, the newness of which he finds completely terrifying. "I went to a hypnotist to learn how not to use drinking a pint before you go on as a way of giving you the confidence to just fly at it, irrespective of the fear. That's not a long-term strategy, when you do as many gigs as I do. [Maniac chuckle.]"

He then takes the show on the road and stress-tests it. He must have balls of steel. "It's hard, there's no fall back. You've got to hold your nerve. Initially I don't think I was aware of how hard it was, but what's good about those things is that they leave you room to manoeuvre." There's a masochistic sense of trying to paint himself into a corner. "I try to find a different ending every time … and after 50 times, there's a decision tree. If something's working, there's a part of me that's trying to sabotage myself. I try to lock myself in and not know where I'm going. But then if I do get out of it, the arrogant/needy part of me wants people to appreciate what I've done."

Among those he admires are Arnold Brown, Jerry Sadowitz, Norman Lovett, and Ted Chippington, a 1980s anti-hero and cussed antagoniser of audiences whose proud purpose is to entertain himself.

"He seemed to be taking the piss out of comedy at the same time as doing it," he says. "You just go out and be annoying.... Of course it's very hard to do that, but I didn't realise that then."

It's a notion that many outside the smugger parts of Soho think too art student, too clever by half. One fuming critic wrote, having walked out of a Lee show: "If Lee had a shred of interest or insight into the working lives of other people, he'd realise that those who give up an evening at the end of a week to see him deserve his thanks not his toxic scorn."

Trouble is, again, it's a joke, and not to everyone's taste.

His home life is more conventional. He is married to Bridget Christie, a former Daily Mail journalist (yes, really) and fellow award-winning stand-up, and they have two children. Despite some papers' portrayal of him, at 45, the softie in him is evident. "Now I've got kids, you wouldn't want them to suffer because of a perception of you. I try to be very careful where I do things and make sure I know why I've done them. I wouldn't want them to be stigmatised."

So how does he judge success? He'd love to have a garden, he says without missing a beat, for the children to enjoy. You suspect the couple are too busy working to move.

There seems little danger of him selling out, maybe doing building society commercials. He thinks, in any case, that his stage character lacks the necessary aura of unfoolable truth-telling. He only performs in smaller venues, and doesn't enjoy doing panel shows. (Lee Mack once claimed Lee couldn't cut the mustard, whereas, although he enjoys the company of comics, you suspect green rooms bring him out in a rash.) He is amused that, rather than cashing in on the excellent reviews he has had for his current television series, he is, instead, in the provinces doing nine dates of avant-garderie with contemporary music group Usurp Chance.

Michael McIntyre, he ain't.

Curriculum vitae

1968 Born in Shropshire and adopted by parents who separate when he is four. Raised by his mother in Solihull. Wins a scholarship to Solihull School and studies English Literature at Oxford, the first in his family to go to university.

1986 While studying, he performs with his first comedy group, The Seven Raymonds, with students Richard Herring and Emma Kennedy.

1990 Wins the prestigious New Act of the Year award at Hackney Empire.

1991 With Herring, begins writing for Radio 4's On the Hour, which introduces Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge.

2001 Abandons stand-up. Publishes his first novel, The Perfect Fool. Creates the show Pea Green Boat based on Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat".

2005 Co-writes and directs Jerry Springer: The Opera which wins five Olivier awards. The BBC screens it and receives 55,000 complaints.

2006 Marries comedian Bridget Christie. They have two children.

2009 Creates Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and wins a cluster of awards.

2010 Writes his second book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate – The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian.

2014 Prepares third series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle.

Clara Baldock

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