The time I ‘met’ Stewart Lee

Some days, you just can’t do anything right.

I almost met someone I respected last night; but the reality was a lot weirder than that.

Around 3 weeks ago I saw the ‘comedian’ Stewart Lee was playing two nights in town. I use the term ‘comedian’ advisedly, because in reality, he’s evolved into a performance artist who’s found a way to monetise his physical theatre by occasionally providing laughs. Often quite big laughs, though increasingly baffling his audience with lengthy passages of Kurt Schwitters bumming Miles Davis through repetition, iteration, or hilariously inexorable movement patterns.

Anyway. I saw he was playing in town, and emboldened by late pandemic optimism, invited my friend. We can both suffer from social anxiety from time to time, so I wasn’t sure if he was as committed to the idea and decided to buy myself a solo ticket for the second night to make sure I didn’t miss out.  Leave the house. Bring back the spirit of the days when I went to see Tank Girl on my own three times at the Odeon. I forgot about the invite. My curiosity got the better of me, and I looked up his ‘press agent’ to request an interview. I again use a term advisedly, because the agent in question never replied. I sent examples of my previous, well researched and in depth interviews – omitting the work in progress with some serious jazz heroes of mine in Iceland. 

I said Stew would appreciate this, because my lack of readership means I would also lack the pressure of time constraints that would otherwise not allow me to be so thorough in cohesively criticising his hip tongue in the handful of YouTube interviews he’s done recently. It may have sounded creepy or sycophantic to say I had spent more time comparing these interviews and philosophising about the more gibbered sections of his live DVDs than studying the subject I came to university here for; but it was true. I found Sonic Arts as presented academically here to be a soft and futile bath of pain, the absence of risk found in the “here’s one I made earlier” aspect of ‘diffusion concerts’; the antithesis of the Sonic Youth, Steve Reich, Schwitters et al I revelled in for my BA. I could never sound as sycophantic as that chirpy toddler, Stewart Goldsmith at any rate.

Stew’s many available shows, talks, and works in progress surreptitiously folded under the settee of Youtube were balm to my starving conscious brain. I just wanted an interview, at his leisure between shows whilst he was in town. Given the many credible outlets (and Stewart Goldsmith) getting half the story from him on the subject of comedy, music, and Robin Askwith, who had all contributed to my sanity over the last four years, I thought Stew would have enjoyed it; and I wanted to give something back to this online, ad-riddled whorehouse font of all inanity I had drawn so much life giving knowledge from. But alas, the veil of unlikelihood increased as time passed. No reply from the press agent.

I refreshed the page one day, and the first night had opened up, and after a short exchange with my homeslice, I’d snapped us up two seats much nearer the front than my solo seat. I called the venue to clarify if they meant doors at 7:30 or if that was showtime. They clarified the timing and I enquired about returning the solo seat. They said it wasn’t sold out, but I would have to contact the ticketing company. I never got around to this.

So we went on opening night and had a great time. Stew was back in more coherent form than the last live DVD I’m still trying to figure out. I was a little confused by the opening line of “Stewart Lee’s let himself go”; largely because in most of the lockdown era interviews online, he’s got a massive beard and resembles a harmless, if disconcerting, retired member from the cast of the Wombles. He said once or twice in these interviews that the beard became a shield against recognition from Brexiteers accidentally brought to see Content Provider by their friends. It made the wizard fool shamanic figure appear more welcoming and enticing to someone with my interests in intelligent difference over indifferent intelligence.

Stew’s second line was the beginning of his critique of the audience. I witnessed this, giggling away, when I first saw Stew at Leeds Festival back in 2006.  I know a festival crowd can be a bit of a shit sandwich, but it did take him some time to warm to the audience and paraphrase his 90s/Stand Up Comedian sets. This felt like something more than comedy. In later years, we would go to the old Italian restaurant as a family, my brother, I, and my stepdad, followed by Stew at City Hall on the many warm up tours he took to develop his Comedy Vehicle show on the BBC. I passed on the Carpet Remnant World tour, and when I saw the DVD, I realised why: Stew had evolved into the same receding hair chubbed into a suit as my stepdad. The roles were different, Stew no longer the cool kid he grew up from the anarcho gibberish of Fist of Fun I first heard through my brother’s plasterboard bedroom wall. Ironically, we both seemed to miss the previous work Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World and later incarnations.on Radio One because we were too busy off at gigs when we should have been sleeping for school. I might have emerged more straight-headed, had I but stayed in to listen to Tom Baker introduce the Nimrod show. 

We interviewed hundreds of bands at the local toilet venue. My brother even got a few of his published. I didn’t really care back then, because by the time the interview was published, the bands had gone and could impart no greater wisdom – a number of times the Longpigs let us interview them, took us to their hotel bar and bought us drinks. The short haired guy from Embassy brought a bong and the first ounce of resin I ever saw, then the ‘pigs gave us taxi fare so we didn’t get “murdered, raped, or mugged” – apparently the best order if needs must. Not to mention the time they supported Sleeper at City Hall and snuck us backstage to hang out, saying not to look Louise Wener in the eye. We were kids. They were heady days. I once stole the Bluetones ashtray and half a pack of Embassy from their van. The first time Skunk Anansie came to town, I got there a little early and scrawled a tiny swastikka behind a bar table; only to reveal it during our first interview, quoting the song “Who put the little baby swastikka on the wall?”; before lamely apologising that it was me, unaware of the wider context. How we laughed. Later that year they came back, and I brought a found boombox to record the interview soon to be taped over with something more useful to my then brain. I’ll never remember how their experience filming Strange Days for Jim Cameron went, but conversely, I will never forget bumping into Skin backstage at Reading that year and her recognising me and asking how I was getting on.

So I have met a few people. Urusei Yatsura were pleasant, Hammell on Trial not so much. Whatever. In later life, I interviewed some people, and even got around to keeping the words, formatting them, and posting them in this blog.  I am proud of the work, partly due to its in-depth approach; but primarily because I’m paying off those drinks, taxis, ashtrays from all the bands that courted my influence back when I didn’t have any. 

Only two spring to mind who caught on – John Power from the La’s and Cast saw me inhaling snuff on the train track behind the venue and advocated for speed. “You got any?”

He said he’d bring some out earlier, but obviously decided against amphetamising a fourteen year old; the other was Willie from Honeycrack, who politely informed me they were all gay and none of them took drugs whilst maintaining eye contact, puffing on an Embassy and chugging away at a whiskey as the others laughed at my expense. He dedicated a song to “the guy going apeshit in the dress at the front”. Heady days.

So back to our hero, Stew had provided great  elucidation in his YT interviews and many laughs along the way, but developed slowly into more of an artist he could feel proud of, who could inspire the next generation of performance artists like myself to free ourselves from the shackles of mostly white balding men pressing play on elaborate sound systems for other gammons to stroke their fucking chin over. I practiced forming tarot cards with swords in contemporary dance for weeks before our big night opening the Avant Garde and Occult Society; where I was dismayed to discover I couldn’t finish with a projection of the eight of swords to demonstrate method to my madness, because if I were to drop my water by the stage, the other artists’ synths would be ruined. So it was to be nothing like the reveal of Content Provider’s incredible planning. No shellac stage for me to crush Beatles on. Still, the influence on me was huge, and I wanted to discuss it with the man himself. I had a mad idea, paraphrasing Stew’s line about ‘Deep fried heroin’, to visit the (allegedly) nearby home of the deep fried mars bar to begin the interview the following day. Nice curry house nearby with plush booths to reduce echo on the recording.

Sadly, as Stew’s boundless momentum peaked, I felt too intimidated even to pass on my business card to his assistant and explain the whole thing on the first night. There was a line about a younger comedian and council legislation of shopping spaces which this time didn’t work, because nobody knew the answer; and I immediately started second guessing myself as to the validity of me chiming in with the answer the following night, now that I know, it – or would he prefer it if I let him fail without that?

I decided Stew was too intimidating for small talk, even via his assistant selling merch at the end, that I would have another chance tomorrow on my own and get better results. So we left.

Next day, I looked up the buses, and decided to get to town super early and avoid being heckled like anyone else Stew sees coming in late or going to the loo when he’s clenching a punchline.

Took a slow walk down to the fast burger, ate said burger, and slowly walked to one of the labyrinthine cobbled streets that all end in the venue’s direction. Still pre-doors, I slowed right down and self consciously puffed down a cigarette next to the booths of the hotel restaurant I’d envisaged for better sound proofing during our potential interview that never arose.

On extinguishing between thumb and forefinger, I looked up to see what could only be himself, along with a guy half his age with shoulder length hair, thin flannel shirt, and probably glasses. Looked like the guy on the merch stand from last night, I thought. Here, my thought process was simple: should I go run up to give him a hug like I did to DJ Hype? No, not appropriate and insufficient Mandy in my blood. No, let him be. He’s very old, and probably tired (and that’s just the Hype). Then the third thought before they even crossed the road – you wrote to his press agent almost three weeks ago and heard nothing, give him your bizcard now, and you’ll be out in time to catch the next bus home rather than waiting amongst drunks. He’s met people before!

So I sauntered over, keeping a respectful distance. Stew ‘disappeared’ behind his thinner colleague  as I softly called out, “Hey Stew”

His millennial minder turned to me and gave off the slightest pheromone of ‘not the time mate’, so imperceptibly I wasn’t sure if I imagined it, so I tried again. “Stew. Mate, mate?”

After the lengthy and frankly painful “Maaaaatttteee” passage of Content Provider, I cringed as this came out my mouth. I imagined the “Dan!” Sequence in I Am Alan Partridge. I remembered the time Alice Glass punched the Roquefort I was trying to get her to sign in Leeds centre, or the time Brian Molko got sick of me asking to sign a Blackpool vending machine dildo and yanked it away from me; only returning it to my repeated shouts of “Brian! Brian! Give back my dildo!”…

This wasn’t anything like those days though. I’ve matured. I’ve got a masters degree. I respect people’s space, however famous or high status they are (or make themselves out to be or not as it suits their punchline); however much I want to meet them and just say hi. I literally wanted to give him my business card to arrange an interview another day at his convenience. He just looked through me, as though his hearing aid was overcompensating and reducing his vision. I let it go before it could get weird, walked along the cobbled street to the venue. My responses came in the following order: leave now, and it doesn’t get weird, or “f*** that guy, can’t even say hello to a harmless fan”, quickly to ‘don’t overthink it. He’s probably got his reasons and maybe just before the stage door is like the scariest part to get beyond to safety, so close to failure. Whatever, just go see the show and enjoy it. It might be different. It was actually pretty cool how smoothly they dealt with it, just using the force rather than any words or facial gestures. I’d just checked the buses home and could have got the invitation out of the way without anyone getting needlessly fucking spooked by my polite actions; but whatevs.

The night was indeed different. All the usher ladies and barmaids remembered me from the night before, welcomed, topped up my G&T the way I like it.

I sat for the show and was immediately glad I’d not gone home or got a refund the day before; no matter how socially anxious I was at being alone. The show began with the same quip, no crumpled Morrissey or squashed Albert Finney. Just “Stewart Lee’s let himself go”. No audience criticism warm up. Maybe he wasn’t inventing the hostile persona after all. Maybe he was happier tonight. A few things he continued to criticise, even though they were better than the night before; he still said the night before was a better crowd. When he joked about not having celebrity friends, when last night this was met with indifference, tonight, many cooed aww in sympathy. He still judged the fxxk out of them, as he did with the Venn diagram passage that was more heard of this evening. Alan Bennett, same. At least the collective ‘Awe’ got a classic “No, not awe’ from the Fist of Fun days; these resonances, however subtle, are like his greatest hits for the older fans, under the wire for people that know him from after the catchphrase epoch of his career. Mate.

The main difference, and I’m hesitant to give too many spoilers here, was the part where he asks the audience to clarify the fallacy of a younger comedian’s set up line. I had already had this moral dilemma earlier of do I help out and see the show progress differently, or see if the failure is the same again tonight? Before I could decide, somebody in the audience called out the important info response, and Stew was momentarily pleased; until the guy called out the name of the comedian, followed by “Oh fxxk”, as he realised his error. Stew referred to him as a wrecker, ‘like a Terminator robot come from the past to fxxk this up’. After the chicken drip tray sequence, Stew later ad-libbed that he didn’t have a security staff like Dave Chappelle, then, “Maybe I have, they shout out *spoilers* and fxxk it up. Then they shout out *comedians name*, and the name of the comedian corresponds to a code. If he says Ramesh Ranganathan, that means there’s been some threats on Twitter. If he shouts out Nish Kumar, it means he’s identified someone outside that’s an obsessive fan…”

I found this personal coincidence a little odd, but amusing. I felt like Stew had broken the ice, and was being a good sport about the misunderstanding. I relaxed a little. It wasn’t easy to relax being  masked and sandwiched between three lads and a middle aged couple, and though I’d not worn it the night before, I felt uncomfortable at the adjacent  risk factor; so I put it on and tolerated the midsummer heat in relative safety.

During the interval,I asked an usher if I could perhaps sit a few rows forward where I’d seen empty seats; so I could take the mask off and enjoy the show. They said no problem at all and even offered me one of the three seats at the front Stew had already pointed out to make out the show was going badly. I’d seen the seating plan, I would have bought these seats if they hadn’t gone in seconds leaving me at the back. Nice upgrade, I thought.

As I sat down, waiting for the second act to begin, I had a flash of cringe. the whole time, I’m thinking I just want to do an interview with him; then I remembered the King of Comedy where DeNiro holds interviews with cardboard cutouts and tries to get on the show. And here I was at the front all of a sudden. I remembered the super fan episode of I Am Alan Partridge where he meets a fan with posters of Alan all over. I remembered that this was based on an anecdote that happened to Stew IRL; only in his version, there were two posters for his gigs, and the people letting him crash over the night were watching the porn of Animal Farm. 

I’d just texted my friends to cringe that I’d been given the front seats and that Stew was bound to notice and rag me for it. My anxiety mounted. The act started, and Stew never looked my way, which I found odd. I saw the skinny minder in the stage doorway, and even a radio siren went off briefly, with Stew noting this from the stage. After the security code Nish = stalker gag earlier, I just felt uncomfortable; when all it would have taken was a no from the press agent or a quick hi beforehand. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. Stew once said he’d heard from a clown (probably Philippe Gaulier) that the next thing you do should run the risk of getting you arrested. I didn’t think this applied to the audience.

Aside from all this, he didn’t bat an eyelid, lose pace, or fluff a line. Aside from ad libs, the show went more smoothly than the night before, and even seemed a more responsive crowd. Even the ‘Ricky Gervais trying to say all the things that can’t be said’ segment took on a new beauty, like with Mr Pastry the audience sees a man failing to do a thing, failing utterly at doing a thing, so much so that they can’t believe what they’re seeing. The first night, I thought I was going to have a heart attack; so I worried for the man performing this trick. Here, again, it made more sense, after addressing the issues of historic progression from working men’s chauvinism and intolerance, through PC and alternative comedy regurgitating itself to be less PC, then further into a blanket of impossible failure like the video static Psychic TV used to recommend for deprogramming society…and the piece goes on just a little longer than it should, as the Mumsnet reviewer pointed out; but all to allow the bad comedy of the past to wash over us, allowing the audience to awake, fresh to a new world of understanding and acceptance; with the en filade doorway forever welded shut behind us. Not to mention seeming to fail, yet utterly succeeding in a worryingly accurate mimicry of Gervais both nights.

What a pity, then, that after the show, the merch table is nowhere to be seen. I’ve heard Stew talk about how Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth likes the way Stew has his merch; and that he’s traditionally hostile to the audience and runs away through the theatre doors, only to be sat ready to happily chat and sell them a DVD as they then emerge from the auditorium. I even booked my solo seat with this in mind, to quickly thank Stew before I left and give him my card to arrange an interview another time; not realising that the exits don’t work like that in this venue, and that the merch is covered by a black cloth on a trestle table next to a poster advertising what isn’t already sold out – though it does say “Stewart Lee” a lot.

After the show, I thought I would just hand my card to the assistant I saw earlier who was selling said merch the night before, clear the air, and head home to hopefully one day hear about conducting an interview over Zoom or whatever.

But no. The fully prepared merch table was not to be opened today. After a friendly chat with the usher who looked concerned that the merch store wasn’t open yet, she called out to stage right and found they weren’t selling merch tonight.

I don’t know what to think. Did I spook him by politely trying to say hello twice, and twice accidentally calling his catchphrase to him? 

Surely it would have had to get weird for that to happen?

But nothing weird happened, aside from an understandable dispassion for meeting fans in a potentially risky and quiet street; followed by the same fan sitting closer to the stage to reduce infection anxiety and hell yeah to an upgrade; then a bewildering lack of merchandise sales. This, even though Stew is on record in various interviews for how important it is to have 5,000 fans that give you a tenner a year by buying something to remember you by…

Is it possible that since then, he’s had enough expensive medical emergencies, he’s paid off his mortgage, and his manufactured status to balance punching up from a lower position has finally got to his head?

I met Dave Grohl and Björk when I was fourteen, and they were really cool about it!

I used to go to all the dirty gigs at the local toilet venue and meet the bands after the show, from Melty Bananas to Lightning Bolts, Andre Eveready to Wolves Eyes. Regardless of status, real or manufactured, the majority were pretty cool to meet, happy to acknowledge their fans – not like Jim Wheeler from Ash who was too busy sexting somebody other than his wife to sign something for my pal who died of leukaemia. Not like Stew, who scared off his most timid fan: I got a stitch from trying to leg it up the main drag after to get away from the night drinking public and find a late bus. I felt so awkward. What was he scared of? Perhaps if the press agent had replied in the generous three week slot to say they don’t do this kind of interview, I would have got off my erse and refunded the ticket for the second night.

Stew, mate. If you’re reading this, I hope you understand I’m just a scholar of your work who wants to learn more about how your work does what it is, and why you are the you of that.

After my tutors here briefly found a pulse and taught us about Vito Acconci, they had no argument when I pointed out all they do is sedentary onanism – that’s a chair based activity; and I’m sure that’s not what you’re about. Prove you’re a stand up guy and I promise it won’t get weird.


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