Longer version of my Stewart Lee article

Stewart Lee
By Richard Herring
The comedian Simon Munnery summed up my erstwhile double act partner when he introduced him thus: “Stewart Lee, who isn’t as clever as he thinks he is…. but then who is that clever?”
Which isnÂ’t to say that Stewart does not possess a keen and provocative intellect: itÂ’s just that, outwardly at least, he has breath-taking self-belief and an almost religious faith in the infallibility of his opinions. Even when that opinion is about something like which kind of music is best, which some might put down to personal taste, rather than discernable fact.
The annoying thing is that he is usually right. Not as right as he thinks he is, but then itÂ’s not actually possible to be more than a hundred per cent correct.
On stage he manages to maintain this air of superiority without being punched in the face, partly because he says it like he sees it and partly because he treats his audience as if they are (almost) as smart as him, refusing to dumb down, avoiding the crowd-pleasing clichés and comedic formulas which many of his contemporaries will at least occasionally fall back on. Yet beneath the bravado, there is an endearing fragility, revealed almost by accident. The funniest thing about him is that he is the ultimate victim of his own intellectual rigour.
Despite his fundamentalist atheism, he is a deeply moralistic man with a hatred of hypocrisy and a barely concealed disgust at humanity’s baser nature– a similar credo to Christianity, but crucially without the forgiveness that Jesus favoured. Stewart is most insistent upon ethical consistency, so any change of mind or heart is anathema to him. In one routine he argues that Osama Bin Laden is preferable to Ben Elton, because at least the terrorist has stayed constant in his beliefs.
Having witnessed the transformation of Elton from spangly-suited socialist to Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-collaborating culture-whore, any audience worth its salt will applaud the satirical validity of this jibe. Yet, not only does Stew genuinely believe this to be true, he is also revealing his own worst nightmare, that one day he might be branded a sell-out himself. . It sometimes seems that he lives his life constantly worrying about how his every action will be judged by some anonymous ethereal jury made up of his coolest peers. His own foray into musical theatre with Jerry Springer: The Opera only added to his sense of unease.
He is wrong to think the two shows are comparable: whilst We Will Rock You is a cynical money-making exercise - which would have been packed every night even had Elton just written a story about a mute man who shits on stage, as long as every five minutes some other people came on and sang another Queen song (it would have been better if he had) - Jerry Springer is a brilliantly constructed, hilarious, shocking satire of modern-day culture, which above all is genuinely entertaining and surprisingly celebratory of human foibles (which must be down to co-writer Richard Thomas).
Because of this zealous quest for integrity, he is a man who sometimes seems prepared to cut off his face to spite his nose, as when justly indignant at clueless executives shelved our last TV series, as well as stiffing several other Lee-led projects, he openly declared that he would never work for the BBC again. Presumably feeling that even though they hadnÂ’t recognised his greatness, he would still punish them by keeping it from them anyway. A pyrrhic victory of some magnitude which only makes you admire this perfect fool all the more. Ultimately he went back on his word, but with a televised version of Springer which not only proved how clever he had been all along but also led to death threats against those hated BBC executives (not the same ones that had slighted him, but in a way that makes it more satisfying).
Stewart is at his happiest in the autonomous world of stand-up. After a couple of years in the wilderness he has returned with increased vigour and an appealing new playfulness (which is much truer to the real Stewart, who I so clearly love and hate). He is now actually as good as he believed himself to be ten years ago. In another ten years he might be as good as he thinks he is now. But then only Stephen Hawkings will be clever enough to understand him, so go see him now whilst thereÂ’s still hope.
And on his death bed, I am convinced the ethereal jury of cool will appear before him, throw back their hoods and reveal that all twelve of them have his exact Stewart Lee face (or more probably only the noses will remain) and he expire saying, “Ah, no wonder you were never satisfied.”