Who says you can't do jokes about religion on the BBC?

Stewart Lee's new show takes a pop at some sacred cows – and Russell Brand. Rob Sharp reports

Stewart Lee is not a happy man – at least, he doesn't seem that way. The blood vessels run close to the surface of his face, giving him the appearance of having a permanent, self-loathing blush. He talks in hushed tones, occasionally giving out a harsh, maniacal cackle. Say the wrong thing and he jumps down your throat; he doesn't suffer fools.

"I have always sounded like this," he says. "When I was young it looked like an affectation. The audience would see an 11-stone, 23-year-old man and they would think, 'What's your problem?' I had some time off stand-up for a few years and came back and was older and greyer. I think people believed the persona a bit more after that."

The comedian, now 40, is slumped in a bar in the top floor of a hotel in the West End of London. He's here to promote his new television series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, which airs from tonight on BBC2 (10pm). Each of its six episodes tackles a different theme – such as books, television, or religion – with Lee talking through the topics in a studio mocked up to look like a comedy club. Each episode features several scenes shot outside the studio – on what seems to be more expensive film stock – with the likes of long-time Lee collaborator Kevin Eldon. Overall, it's extremely funny. Lee's world-weary deconstruction of his various bêtes noires is well thought through rather than indiscriminately snide.

In the first of the series, subtitled "Books", Lee takes a pop at celebrity biographies. First up is Russell Brand's My Booky Wook. "You can read Russell Brand's autobiography and dismiss it as rubbish if you like," he says. "Or you can dismiss it as rubbish without reading it, to save time, if you'd prefer."

Lee lampoons the descent of the novel from its lofty origins to the oeuvre of Chris Moyles – whose highest literary aspiration, Lee says, seems to be a desire for people to read his work on the toilet. "We could only have two shows at the start of the series – books or TV – because they are well-known quantities for a mainstream audience," Lee says. "It's a hook to get people involved. The next four shows are about more abstract ideas. It's amazing to be on telly doing this kind of thing."

It's amazing, for one, because one of the shows is about religion – a subject dear to Lee's heart. Jerry Springer: the Opera, which he co-wrote, attracted some 55,000 complaints when it was screened on BBC2 in January 2005 (it was slammed, in part, for its irreverent attitudes towards Judaism and Christianity).

This series is being closely monitored by the now-vigilant overseers at the BBC. "The show is really about how jokes about religion work," Lee says. "I can't see anything wrong with its content, but you never know. When we laugh at religion, are we laughing at jokes about doctrine and dogma, or are we laughing about the fact that 90 per cent of people in cassocks look funny? Most jokes about religion are about superficial things like that. If you do things about doctrine and dogma then it's more difficult. Well, it's increasingly difficult, because we don't know anything about the majority of religions in the UK. We live in a multicultural society. It's about that, really."

Lee says his show on the credit crunch had to be closely monitored given the severity of the current economic situation. "What I try to do in a show about property and money is to start it like looking as if it was taking a pop at estate agents and bankers, which would be the obvious thing to do," he says. "And then change it along the way so that it implicated us as consumers with a degree of culpability in the situation. And I did that because I think it is partly true. I partly did it because you would expect that show to have jokes about estate agents. And then I take it a step further."

So what does the future hold for Lee? "I can't do any more things for nothing. What I want to do is... I'll do another series of this if they offer me one. I don't want to do any television that I don't have complete control of. I don't want to be in anything, really; I don't want to act, I don't want to present documentaries, I don't want to be on quiz shows or in adverts or be interviewed about anything ever on camera by anyone. I don't want to be in films. I don't want to do anything with commercial West End musical theatre. I don't want to develop characters as animated things for the internet. All I want to do is this series. If it gets re-commissioned, I'll do a tour off the back of it..." Probably best not to press Lee any further on this one.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Junior PHP Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Guru Careers: Front End Web Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: Our client help leading creative agencies ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot