While at Oxford, Stewart Lee took part in the Oxford Revue Group alongside Richard Herring, with whom he went on to establish the 1990s comedy duo Lee and Herring. The pair wrote and performed the radio and TV sketch shows Fist of Fun, Lee and Herring and This Morning with Richard Not Judy while then and, throughout his career, Lee continued to pursue his own successful solo stand-up career.
Lee is best known to theatregoers for Jerry Springer - The Opera, which he directed and co-wrote with composer, and fellow comedian, Richard Thomas. A cult hit in concert form at BAC and the Edinburgh Fringe, the full-fledged version of the musical premiered in April 2003 at the National Theatre, before transferring seven months later to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre, where it closed in February 2005. Amongst its many plaudits, the show won four Best Musical prizes at the Olivier, Critics’ Circle, Evening Standard and Whatsonstage.com’s own Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.
Promising "triumph, tragedy and trailer trash as high art meets low", Jerry Springer - The Opera was based on America's most lurid talk show host who has broadcast programmes such as "Pregnant by a Transsexual", "Here Come the Hookers" and "I Refuse to Wear Clothes". In the expletive-laden musical, Springer suffers the worst day of his career, during which he's taken from his studio to both heaven and hell, confronting some of his bizarre guests. Along the way, he meets a foolish God and a nappy-wearing Jesus who admits he’s “a little bit gay”.
Despite its critical and popular success, Jerry Springer - The Opera became notorious for the Christian outcry sparked off by BBC Two’s unedited broadcast of the stage show in January 2005, generating a record 45,000 complaints as well as several reported death threats. The same group behind those protests, Christian Voice, succeeded in significantly curtailing the musical’s 2006 UK regional tour.
In his subsequent stand-up show 90s Comedian, Lee recounted some of his experience encountering the religious hatred provoked by Jerry Springer. In his new one-man play, which he has written and performs, Lee tackles another subject potentially sensitive to the religious right. In What Would Judas Do?, he portrays the betrayer of Christ as a disappointed revolutionary who’s also “slightly overweight”, and invites audiences to experience the final week of Christ’s life from his point of view.
Stewart Lee is also the author of the novel The Perfect Fool, an occasional television presenter, and a frequent contributor and music reviewer for titles including The Sunday Times and Mojo. In August 2006, he returned to the Edinburgh Fringe, where he’s performed regularly throughout his career, to direct several other comedians – including Phil Nichol and Will Adamsdale (who’s directed him in his new monologue) – in the Eric Bogosian play Talk Radio.
Date & place of birth
Born 5 April 1968 in Solihull.
Lives now in
Hackney, east London
First big career break
Well, I got into Oxford university in 1986, back in the days when you still got grants. I don’t think I’d have gone under today’s circumstances, I’d have been too frightened of the debt. And back then student theatre still had money and the Edinburgh Fringe was cheap. I went to the Fringe in a little play in 1987 and it totally opened my eyes.
Career highlights to date
Probably working at the National Theatre on Richard Thomas’ Jerry Springer - The Opera. Everyone was so supportive and nice and helpful and professional.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Jerry Springer at BAC and the National, but it became very hard work after that.
Will Adamsdale. He’s a great artist with the best ideas but doesn’t perform as if he has anything to prove. And all those bald people in the Russian physical theatre group Derevo, who just keep coming up with amazing things, year after year.
Shakespeare. He’s the best. Then there’s a big drop off to Beckett. I don’t know much about plays really, or musical theatre. I prefer other kinds of theatre. Are Derevo playwrights? Is Will Adamsdale? I go to the theatre about 40 times a year, but I tend not to see many plays. I don’t like things where there are pretend buildings on stage with people wandering in and out speaking. Also, I’m a bit deaf and I can never hear what anyone is saying. The best play I’ve seen for decades was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (in Liverpool directed by Leigh Beagley). But I didn’t go and see Caroline, Or Change (for which Kushner wrote the book) because I don’t think I can ever face seeing another musical, no matter how good it is.
I don’t really understand what directors are. I didn’t really realise what I was doing to Jerry Springer was directing it until fairly late on. Rob Thirtle and Julian Crouch at Improbable, who I’ve worked with, are really loose about the whole idea of what directors are. Julian designed Jerry Springer, but in doing so, he directed it too, by deciding on tone and spatial relations on stage. I didn’t ever really want to direct. It keeps happening because I’m working on things and there’s no money, so I do it. I directed Bogosian’s Talk Radio in Edinburgh to learn how to direct a script, rather than devised things I’d co-assembled, because people sometimes offer me that kind of work and I thought I could do with the money. It’s okay, but I’d rather make stuff up. I was up for a director’s Olivier award and I was really relieved I didn’t get it. I don’t really have a philosophy other than that people should speak up and face the front.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The best theatre-ish thing I saw last year was the San Geronimo Feast Day in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, where the pueblo clowns of the Tewa Indians are given free rein to run riot in the village. It was superb and gave me loads of ideas and made me think that comedy was a wonderful thing. My wife and I had Morris Dancers at our wedding too in November, The Forest of Dean Morris Men, who did this amazing thing with a giant stag-headed man. The best play I saw last year was that National Theatre of Scotland thing, Black Watch. Like the pueblo clowns, they used the entire space of the performance really well. I’m trying to do that in What Would Judas Do? at the Bush… get off stage and have people looking at an empty space.
If you hadn’t become an entertainer, what might you have done professionally?
I don’t know. Teaching probably. I wanted to go into law but could never have afforded the fees. I wanted to be a journalist too. I suppose I sort of am now. I subsidise my loss-making art by writing about music for the Sunday Times, Wired and Mojo.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Ben Elton. I would like to know where he gets his amazing ideas from.
The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, The Woman at Otowi Crossing by Frank Waters, The Green Round by Arthur Machen, and Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy.
Favourite holiday destinations
The Orkneys, Languedoc, North Wales, Arizona and New Zealand.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
From Richard Thomas: “If you don’t try to fit in, you’re not in competition.”
Why did you want to write What Would Judas Do?
Over the years, I realised there were literally dozens of literary explorations of the story of Judas, and what a versatile tale it was for looking at other ideas. I wanted to write something about the way fans relate to people they idolise, often with a weird angry contempt, and about also being let down by the people you idealise in your childhood and teens. Judas has a kind of absolutist attitude to Jesus, like I might have had as an adolescent towards Ben Elton or REM or something, or even Tony Blair in the last ten years. But over the years they don’t live up to your high standards. You can’t understand why this is. This is how I thought Judas would feel about Jesus. Also the story is interesting because it is told so many different ways in the gospels and apocryphal gospels. Which, if any, is true?
Did you always intend to perform it yourself?
I wanted someone else to do it, but I couldn’t make it work. So I did it myself. People who like me as a stand-up might think it’s boring. I need to do stand-up to make a living, so I hope they will still come back and see my more regular stand-up shows if they hate it.
Is What Would Judas Do? a play or stand-up comedy? What’s the difference?
I dunno. Neither. Who cares?
Famously, Jerry Springer - The Opera provoked Christian outcry. How did you feel about that?
Angry, depressed and bored out of my mind, all at the same time.
Were you worried – or perhaps hopeful – that What Would Judas Do? might rile the same people?
I have absolutely no interest in riling any one. I don’t want anyone mad or bigoted to come and see it. Luckily, doing it at the Bush, it will probably fill up before psychopaths find out about it. I just want to be allowed to get on with my work without being harassed. I also need to make a living and the Christian right succeeded in wasting a vast chunk of my life in trying to keep Jerry Springer going on no money after they wrecked its commercial chances with their threats and pickets. Audience reaction has been great and the reviews so far have been pleasingly mixed.
What’s your favourite line from What Would Judas Do?
One from the apocryphal Gospel of Judas, about the idea of Judas relieving Jesus of the burden of his flesh…. The notion that ideas exist in a perfect form when they are disconnected from their mortal source.
You directed actor-comedian Will Adamsdale in Talk Radio last summer at Edinburgh and now he’s directed you in What Would Judas Do?. Why did you want him involved?
I like Will and I wanted someone I trusted to look over the thing. Also, Will isn’t hung up on all the dull ideas about what theatre is supposed to be. He just makes interesting shows and allows other people to decide what they are.
What are your future plans?
On 5 February, I'm curating Tedstock, a celebration of the 1980s cult comic Ted Chippington, at the Bloomsbury. I'm script-editng a proposed pilot of a great sitcom about the Brontes for Tiger TV. I've a meeting on Monday about getting a deal with BBC3 to write a sitcom pilot about the Norse God Thor. I'm directing-co-devising a site-specific piece about D-I-Y for a famous celeb for the Manchester festival in July. I'm working on a new stand-up set, March of the Mallards, for Edinburgh in August. I'm in ongoing workshops for a folk musical about William Blake and the Napoleonic wars at the National Theatre Studio. I might be involved in a site-specific art-happening in a Suffolk village in summer 2008. And I'm about to start a weekly funny column, written in the characters of different London types, for the relaunch of What's On magazine.
What Would Judas Do? - presented in a double bill with Mark Ravenhill’s one-act, one-man play Product: World Remix - opened on 11 January 2007 (previews from 9 January) at the Bush Theatre, where it continues until 3 February.