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Heroes: Jimmy Wales Meets Stewart Lee

| Comedy, Culture, Special Events | 11/07/2017

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Last Wednesday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales interviewed British stand-up, writer and director Stewart Lee in a fascinating conversation hosted by The School of Life.  The event was the latest in the organisation’s ‘Heroes’ series, in which leading cultural figures get to question someone they admire from a different industry – a format giving fascinating insights into both interviewer and interviewee.

Ian Cater was there for What’s On London to hear what Wales could draw from one of Britain’s greatest living comedians and contrarians.

In his many years of performing, the Emmanuel Centre must rank as one of Stewart Lee’s most unusual venues: a beautiful rotunda lecture theatre, which even Westminster Abbey’s shadow couldn’t shield from the early-evening rays beating though the glass dome.

And when Lee stepped on stage in black jeans and polo shirt, he looked uncomfortable and out of place.  Not that he’d been coerced into coming; when the founder of the world’s most famous website wants to parade you as one of his heroes, you don’t refuse – even if you’re not sure why you’ve been chosen.  “I thought you’d mistaken me for someone else,” Lee told Jimmy Wales early on.  “So I only turned up to see your face when you realised.”

Then as Lee relaxed and adjusted to the heat, the surrounds started to suit the self-styled pseudo-intellectual stand-up: a place of learning lined with liberal disciples drinking down his words as thirstily as they guzzled cold cans of Carlsberg plundered from the downstairs canteen.

The pair had never met before Wednesday, so Lee had no idea that Wales, 50, spent any time in the UK, let alone that the American entrepreneur admired his cerebral approach and commitment to freedom of expression.  Wales said that the first time he saw Lee a decade ago, he was immediately drawn in.  “I thought: ‘Wow.  This guy’s sure taking a while to get round to something.’  That interested me.  It was so different.”  This was the first of many affectionate digs about Lee’s deliberate delivery style and low joke count.

FullSizeRender“Fine.  I get that,” Lee replied.  “But I’m still surprised you didn’t try to contact me in a less elaborate way than this.”

Wales enjoyed the host role, happy to shine the limelight on someone else for a change.  In contrast, Lee – in the middle of his Content Provider tour – took his time working out who Wales wanted him to be: the man or his comic creation.  “There’s obviously some overlap between the two,” Lee explained, “but I don’t quite get which I’m meant to be right now.”

This dichotomy frequently fascinates Lee’s inquisitors and occupied a decent slug of the conversation – with Wales admitting after that he’d expected a terser interviewee.

“I’m not naturally like that,” Lee smiled.  “I wouldn’t have the confidence to take the positions my on-stage persona does.  As a younger man, I was more like him, although I’d always be surprised when reviewers called me a ‘smug know-it-all’.  But being a smug know-it-all, I’d then try to annoy them by exaggerating those traits even more.”

Self-induced sabotage

This was another subject that piqued Wales’ interest: how Lee delights in his contrarian approach, happy to take a commercial hit eschewing a style distillable into viral clips and panel show performances.

“I’m focused on the set-up; when that’s filleted out, it’s not funny,” admitted Lee.  “That’s why nobody wants me on panel shows.  Last time I did one, it went badly and I was a bit down.  Then I thought: ‘Well, of course the character Stewart Lee would’ve gone down badly on that sort of show,’ so my integrity remained intact.”

Wales is far more focused on output for the masses and mused interestingly – albeit inconclusively – on why ideas succeed or fail.  When discussing the consequences of failure, the difference between the men became most pronounced: Wales evidently hates failing, whereas Lee takes perverse pleasure in it.

“Just because something doesn’t work, that’s not a reason not to do it,” Lee argued.  “I enjoy building stuff into my comedy that fails in order to create a tension I can defeat by pulling it back.  Some people don’t get that, which was partly why I quit stand-up in 2001.  The Independent said, ‘Lee totally lost the room for 20 minutes, before miraculously winning it back’ as if it was a complete accident.  But I’d been working for months to create that sense of jeopardy.”

This moved matters onto Lee’s divisive work – Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote and directed between 2002 and 2006.  After initially piling up plaudits, the musical met criticism for its portrayal of Jesus, before being broadcast on BBC Two to 55,000 complaints.  When it went on tour, religious protestors disrupted shows, and brought a private prosecution against Lee and others for blasphemy.  Lee said the backlash had left him bitter and bankrupt.

JSO_pstcrd1But rather than licking his wounds, he returned to deliver his most controversial stand-up routine to date, known as ‘Vomiting into the Gaping Anus of Christ’, in which Lee discussed whether – if he felt sick – Christ would offer up his orifices for receptacles “in the spirit of forgiveness and love”.

Wales didn’t endorse this material, but praised Lee for pursuing free speech and gave him a platform to defend it.  “Look, that routine came from a fundamental principle of comedy,” Lee explained.  “As Cicero once said, comedy’s either something delicate put indelicately, or the other way round.  That’s all I was doing.”

As Lee beamed at the knowingly pretentious namedrop, Wales explained his approach to free speech.  “Turkey banned Wikipedia and we’ve pursued diplomatic means to address that.  But we’re a charity committed to freedom of information, so we’ve never complied with requests for censorship and we never will.

“However, we’re committed to facts – not pure expression – so the prevalence of distorted facts from once-respected institutions, or elsewhere, is something that really concerns me.  That’s why,” Wales added to whoops and applause from the left-leaning crowd, “we decided to ban the Daily Mail as a reliable source.”

Sourcing success

For someone so successful, Wales trod a decent line in humility, acknowledging unsuccessful ventures both before and since Wikipedia.  But while he touched on how resilience kept him going, Lee’s recipe for bouncing back featured a different ingredient.

“My change of fortune came from basically giving up,” he said, scratching his head.  “I used to want everyone to like what I did, but they didn’t.  So when I went back to stand-up in the mid-2000s, I decided to get about 5,000 people to like me.  That’d do.  Just 5,000 or so who already liked my stuff.

“Then – like Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption when he thinks his chance of parole’s over – loads of people started coming along, despite the fact the shows weren’t written for them, and the BBC commissioned four seasons of Comedy Vehicle.  It’s bizarre.  Even now, I tell my audiences I hate them and they’re only coming along to seem clever.  Yet they still lap it up.”

Success means that both men can give their children a comfortable, yet grounded, upbringing – although Wales explained how he’d disappointed his daughter when she’d falsely heard he was a billionaire.  Lee talked warmly of how he and his wife – fellow comedian Bridget Christie – had shielded their children from the peculiarities of their profession.  So much so, that the children are convinced their father isn’t funny.

“But you must still tell awful ‘dad jokes’ to your kids?” Wales asked.  “Yes,” Lee said, “but they’re a very clever parody of ‘dad jokes’ that my children will appreciate properly many years into the future.”

For Wales, the future involves consolidating Wikipedia’s success and developing WikiTribune.  In a laudable effort to combat fake news, the latter will provide a platform for journalists and amateur fact-checkers to produce reliable articles, “not just rabble-rousing or catchy viral headlines”.

contentprovider-poster-495Lee nodded his approval, before saying that his days on TV may have passed, other than a Brexit-based comedy drama landing soon.  “The BBC seems to like me again, but they’re not sure how to pay for me.  They go: ‘What budget do we use?  It’s not quite comedy and we’re not even sure it’s entertainment.'”

Focusing on live shows seems to suit Lee’s temperament, giving him freedom to craft longer sets, even if the current climate means material needs constant updating.  “The second half of Content Provider starts with Trump, so before going back on-stage I have to check whether he’s been sacked or assassinated.”

When that superb show’s 18-month run ends in April 2018, Lee said he’ll take a year’s break to spend time with his family and figure out what material to work on next.  Then it’ll be back on the road.

“I’m aiming to carry on doing a show every two years until I retire at 70.  That’s going to be hard,” he said, wincing for effect, “as it means I’ve somehow got to come up with 12 hours of material and 48 jokes.”

Stewart Lee’s performing ‘Content Provider’ at venues across the UK until April 2018.  For details and tickets, head to Stewart’s official website.  And for more information on The School of Life’s upcoming programme, including special celebrity events and classes dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, head here.

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