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Stewart Lee: The comedian on positive discrimination, causing offence, and who he currently rates on the stand-up circuit


Where are you?

I've just taken my son and daughter to school and nursery, which are in opposite directions so I'm sitting in the car, as I do when I'm trying to get stuff done. We just moved house, about 500 yards from where we were, to get a garden for the kids.

Tell us about the second series of The Alternative Comedy Experience.

It's a showcase of the best comedians, including Tony Law and [Lee's wife] Bridget Christie. They're cleverer, more political, more surreal than ones who are normally on television. It's shot in a club in Edinburgh called The Stand, which holds about 150 people. We hang on to mistakes and things that happen for real in the moment. Lots of stand-up showcases on TV are made by production companies that also represent acts as clients, so there tends to be a demonstrable bias towards a certain group of people. Ours isn't like that.

There's been a lot of talk about how few female comics are being booked for big gigs. What do you think?

Partly that's because they're not well represented on panel shows, and partly because there's still a school of thought that where you have one woman on a bill, you don't want to spook the horses. About a third of performers we have in this series are women. It's not difficult to find them, but then it's easier for us because [the show is] about quirkier material and lots of females are doing that sort of thing; they're not always suited to more mainstream, bear-pit sort of stand-up. If we get a third series, we need to open it up more in terms of race, ethnicity and cultural background.

So you think positive discrimination is helpful?

Anyone in the arts has had an experience of seeing someone who they related to doing something and thinking, "I could do that". If you have one generation where you force its hand a bit, then the next one fills in the gaps, because it's seen an example of what can be done.

Are booking agencies such as Off the Kerb at fault for mainly representing male clients?

You can only reflect society. I imagine a lot of the places they place their acts wouldn't make it explicit, but they wouldn't want a woman comedian. You can't have a society that glorifies the free market and then at the same time complain that it doesn't reflect people fairly.

What news stories are capturing your imagination right now?

It's difficult to write anything at the moment as every week there's a seismic shift in world events.

Is any subject off the table?

Nothing is too controversial, but you have to think about how to do it with sensitivity. I don't try to be insensitive. I think really, really carefully about exactly what things mean and how they will affect people. I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product of what you do, in the same way that if a dog defecates on the pavement it's not trying to offend you, it's merely carrying out a process that you might find offensive. What annoyed me in the Jerry Springer: The Opera days, is if I'd set out to cause offence it would have been much more offensive than that. Why would you spend years working on something just to be deliberately offensive? It would be pointless.

Tell me something funny.

What, like a joke? I don't know any.


Stewart Lee, 46, is a writer, comedian, director, producer and musician. He was adopted, raised in Solihull, and went to Oxford University. He lives in London with his wife, fellow comedian Bridget Christie, and their two children. 'The Alternative Comedy Experience' is on Tuesdays at 11pm on Comedy Cent