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
Monday 16 March 2009
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.
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