Ipswich: Bring a friend jokes Regent-bound comedian Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee, coming to the Ipswich Regent this weekend. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Stewart Lee, coming to the Ipswich Regent this weekend. Picture: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

“Can they all bring a friend, because I doubt I’d be talking to you if it was selling well,” laughs a refreshingly honest Stewart Lee when I ask if he’s any message for fans. “I’m only doing you... I’ve done Ipswich and Hull which I suspect must be the ones that haven’t filled up,” he roars again.

Richard Herring and Stewart Lee in Fist of Fun

Richard Herring and Stewart Lee in Fist of Fun - Credit: Archant

New show Much A-Stew About Nothing touches on everything from parental alcoholism, justifiable shoplifting and urban foxes to vasectomies, Anglo Saxon epic poetry and Judith Chalmers.

He’s used it as a chance to road-test material for his new BBC2 series, airing in February-March.

“I can’t do the material again once it’s been on telly. I’ve been having some fun with it in the last opportunities I’ve got to play about with it. It’s weird, because normally the tours I do, there’s a two-hour long through-line, some story, some structure. This tour’s like 30-minute routines.”

Called a slime-pit of bitterness by the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir - “I always think it’s nice to counter-balance the good press so people aren’t going to come along under false pretences... to show it’s all a matter of opinion,” Stewart says - 25 years on, he’s none the wiser on how to write a good show.

Sometimes it’s luck, like catching an unintentionally funny interview with a member of UKIP on the car radio after dropping his kids off at school. Other times, going round the houses trying to make a piece about how lower income workers are being priced out of the south of England by foreign investment work can take months.

“I couldn’t get it to fit together. At the last minute, Boris Johnson did a speech about how rich people had got their money because they deserved it, they were better than poor people. That just tipped it into making sense; if he hadn’t said that I’d still be floundering around with it.

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“My wife said a funny thing to me about my pants about three years ago; that got me started on a whole half hour about marriage I don’t think I’d have got to if she’d not said that thing. On the other hand, some stuff you can crack it by just working away at it. There’s no exact science to it, it’s incredibly frustrating.”

One of the main problems while writing, especially for a show airing much later, is things become much more absurd much quicker these days.

“I wrote this bit in August about the idea I shouldn’t have to pay tax because I deserve all the money,” he laughs. “I meant that as an absurd idea. There does seem to be a move towards that idea almost [now], that we have to hammer people at the bottom end of the income scale, then find ways of easing it for people at the top.

“Sometimes things you’ve thought of as a joke seem to not become funny any more because they become what people are actually saying. That’s difficult... we live in interesting times for comedy. At the risk of sounding self-aggrandising, I don’t know if people are really seizing the opportunities.

“Russell Brand came out and said some very basic, straightforward, truisms about the state of the world and people went nuts for it because no-one’s really doing stuff about that sort of thing,” says Stewart.

“It’s interesting... I don’t fit a lot of models; I do stuff about politics and society but I do stuff about farts and funny animals as well,” he roars with laughter.

He couldn’t be happier with how recording for the new TV series has gone. Running it live in theatres is exciting, unpredictable, opposed to the stage-managed, formal atmosphere of the TV studio.

“There’s always a sense no matter how well a TV recording goes it’s never going to be quite as good as the live thing because there aren’t the variables, but of the three nights we recorded all the material on, two of them were as good as any gig would go in a theatre or club.

“Last night some really funny things happened in the room for real; stuff audience members said, people walking in and out.... It’s like two things working at cross purposes; on the one hand you want to get the material you’ve worked out down at its best possible form. On the other, you’re hoping it goes a bit wrong so it has the flavour of being a real one-off event because TV isn’t really like that; it’s a very controlled environment. To introduce a bit of chaos into it, however small can seem really radical on television.

“The American theatre director Peter Sellars said he thought the trick of theatre was about introducing air into a closed room and I think that’s the same with comedy on telly - how can you make it feel like it’s really happening, there’s something really at stake. Accidentally, the last couple of nights, that’s happened.

“Despite I’m three quarters of a stone heavier than I was in series two three years ago, the costume people managed to find a nice jacket from Marks & Spencer which was very flattering to wear. That coupled with how it went on the night I couldn’t have hoped for it to go any better.”

Looking back, it’s hard to believe but it’s been 20 years since Stewart and Richard Herring did the pilot for the anarchic sketch show Fist of Fun.

A couple of years ago the two were told the BBC had no plans to release it or follow-up show This Morning With Richard Not Judy commercially and were in the room where things wait to get thrown away.

“We got a little cartel of people together and bought it off them and sell it ourselves at gigs. We’ve made the money back on Fist of Fun, we haven’t put This Morning out yet,” says Stewart.

Funnily, he doesn’t have very fond memories of the time.

“It was very stressful and we lost quite a lot of money, we were toured in a non-cost effective way and it wasn’t much fun. I hadn’t looked at Fist of Fun, the first series... I don’t remember writing it, some of it I don’t remember ever filming, I have no memory of being at any of the places. It was like watching something by this young, thin man who looked a bit like you doing stuff.

“For the first time I could see what people must have liked about it and understand why somebody might have enjoyed that enough 20 years ago to still come see us now. I hadn’t really grasped that until watching it again recently.

“It was a relief to be honest because you always worry it’s rubbish, I thought it was pretty good,” he roars with laughter. “I didn’t like the second series, but I think that’s my fault; I think something was wrong with me and I ruined it for everyone but the first series... I really enjoyed loads of it; it’s funny.”

Much A-Stew About Nothing comes to the Ipswich Regent on Saturday, February 8.