‘Ricky Gervais stole my act’: Stewart Lee interview

STEWART Lee talks about artistic responsibility, writing a sitcom for Ant and Dec, and why he doesn’t want to be Ricky Gervais.

Ahead of returning to Yeovil on January 26 with his show Basic Lee, the comedian spoke with your New BVM

AL: Basic Lee is marketed as you returning to ‘typical’ stand-up after the more alternative shows you’ve done. Is this all a ruse to play with the expectations of the audience?

SL: Most of the shows I write announce their intention at the beginning. They normally have some kind of set or design aspect to complement that, whereas in this one, “he” [Lee’s onstage persona] says he’s going to take stand-up back to basics.

But the subtext is he’s unravelling mentally in some way, and he’s trying to hold onto what he knows – which is how to do his job in the face of losing it.

I think that’s because normally in a good novel, the first-person narrator might say what they think they’re doing but to the reader they have a different agenda they’re not really aware of.

So it looks like stand-up, and sounds like stand-up, but it’s actually a kind of character piece about a desperate person who’s frightened and trying to organise the world in a way that puts them in control.

And I guess you could argue that’s what a lot of stand-ups are doing anyway.

Ricky Gervais to me looks like a very frightened man. He’s frightened of transgender people coming after him, the act is a defensive wall.

I feel as if I’ve got an artistic obligation to do something new with every show, but I also have a very loyal audience who deserve to get a version of me they’d recognise.

AL: So is the trick to keeping it mixed up putting “him” – your character – in different situations?

SL: Yes exactly, that’s dead on. Basically, I try to apply pressure to him and see when it gives. Sometimes I’ll do it on stage, on a good night I’ll try to improvise my way into a place I can’t get out of.

The worry about that these days is people have camera phones.

Sometimes when you’re genuinely improvising you might make what in retrospect you consider to be an error of judgement or taste.

I think that’s why all the American comedians have security guards that essentially beat people up if they heckle, because they’re trying to control the situation as much as they can.

They have a lot of money riding on their work, and if they think they’ll get cancelled for saying the wrong thing, that’s a worry.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

AL: When you start working on new routines, do you have to dumb them down to connect with the audience more easily?

SL: No, I’m very lucky the crowd that comes allows me to be better.

I’m under no illusion that a lot of the things I eventually manage to get over the line in front of the people that come to see me, would not work in a comedy club above a pub.

He wouldn’t mind me saying; the first few times I saw James Acaster in Edinburgh was after he’d been on Mock the Week a lot.

He was in the big room at the Pleasance and every time, his best bits would get heckled and interrupted because at that time, a lot of the people that were going had seen him on those shows.

He was prevented from developing as fast as he might have done by the low expectations of the audience that had come to see him.

AL: Would you want a bigger audience?

SL: Sometimes I become bitter and think ‘I get all this good press, why can’t I get 10 million quid for a TV special like Ricky Gervais?’ But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want that audience, it wouldn’t allow me to be better.

The people that go to see me help me. They play the game with me, and sometimes they act in character as an audience.

Sometimes they goad me, sometimes they boo me for a laugh. They’re an uncredited part of it in improvisation.

I don’t quite know how it happened, they’re affectionate but they think I’m an idiot as well.

I’m very lucky.

AL: You write a weekly column in the Observer, what makes you choose a subject?

SL: I try to choose things I can tie into a real or imagined personal story, so it gives me a reason to write about it.

I also look for something that overlaps with the perceived sensibility of an Observer reader or writer.

So I try to write them slightly as a parody of the worthy left, obviously at the same time as I think the things I’m saying.

AL: Is that because you feel you can’t share your opinions without the worry of being criticised?

SL: Yeah, it’s that, like, imposter syndrome, where I can’t really believe I’ve been asked to write for this paper in real life.

The character of me in stand-up thinks he’s better than stand-up and is frustrated that he has to do it. The character that writes for the Observer can’t believe he’s allowed to so tries to give a good account of himself and make out that he’s clever, using allusions and stuff like that.

I can’t cross-fertilise much material between the stand-up and the columns because a slightly different character’s writing them, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

AL: Your column on Nigel Farage entering the I’m a Celebrity Jungle was excellent. It expressed the public’s anger and let them know it was okay to feel that way. Is this what you intended?

SL: I thought it was really bad, and also 20 years ago I knew Ant and Dec a little bit.

When I was in a double act with Richard Herring, we had them on our show. I can’t remember exactly why but they were in a kind of crate and jumped out of it – they were really good sports.

At the turn of the century, they decided they wanted to do a sitcom and I wrote a proposal. I may have co-written it with Richard, I can’t recall.

The idea was they were lighthouse keepers and lived together, it was going to be a kind of Samuel Beckett thing. Really weird things would be washed up on the shore and once a week Cat Deeley would arrive in a rowing boat.

They really wanted to do it but in the end they did a remake of The Likely Lads, which was a classic 70s sitcom about Geordie blokes that liked football.

And I think that’s the dilemma they always had; art or commerce.

They probably wanted to do a sitcom where they lived in a lighthouse but management were going ‘no, you should do a remake of The Likely Lads’.

I think they’ve been a mouthpiece for this awful thing, and they must know that it’s terrible what happened there.

They were basically forced to endorse fascism. I think in the future, if the country gets back on its feet and we kick this lot out, and we stop having such obviously racist policies to inflame passions and we manage to disentangle the privately-funded think tanks from policy making, then we’re going to look back on the fact ITV reality television had Nigel Farage on it with utter disgust, and they’ll be caught up in it.

That was kind of the catalyst for me, I felt annoyed at them. They can always withdraw their labour, they could have done something about it, they don’t need the money.

Don’t print that in Yeovil, I remember the UKIP baked potato shop. The sad thing was, the potatoes were really nice. I would go in and guiltily eat a racist potato.

AL: What is it about the Leicester Square Theatre that makes you spend so much time developing a show there?

SL: It’s a 400-seater and I’ll do basically six months of each show there.

I could do a month at the Hammersmith Apollo or a week at the O2 and it would add up to the same number of people I do at Leicester Square but the tickets would be three times as much and the experience wouldn’t be as good for the audience or for me.

You can still run it like a club gig, you can interact with people in real time. Also, you wouldn’t get better at the show because you wouldn’t have done it as many times.

You can see this with an act like Gervais.

Those shows have not been run in, they’re not fluid, they’re a succession of inflexible statements that would snap like twigs if the pressure of an unforeseen event was applied to them.

Stand-up is a live artform, those shows are like monologues.

AL: Are they monologues or a collection of 30-second monologues?

SL: Yeah, a succession of 30-second monologues, all stitched together.

The thing about stand-up is there’s no shortcut around the fact you have to do it a lot and get used to being free.

If you write something and it sounds written, you have to do it enough so that you can work out how to distress it.

There’s something about those guys who do 10 days for warmups and then 60 days in stadiums – it’s never going to be great stand-up.

Everything starts feeling like a rally once it gets beyond a certain size.

I get frustrated sometimes – a lot of my own family don’t know that I’m a successful stand-up because I don’t really have one of those profiles.

I also appreciate it’s absolutely the sweet spot, to be viable but still do it in rooms where it can live and breathe.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne.

AL: Gervais was a fanboy of yours 20 years ago, and now look at the difference between your styles. How did this happen?

SL: He still kind of copies me though, which is the weird thing.

There’s still a lot of cadences of what I do but they’re used in the service of evil.

In Star Wars, he’s Darth Vader and he’s taken the force, which is me, and used it for evil purposes.

He was a fanboy, he was actually the booker at University of London and used to book me and Sean Lock all the time.

And when he became famous for the Office, he wrote an hour-long act that was so indebted to us it was awkward.

I remember talking to Sean about it, but at that point he wouldn’t be drawn on it.

He’d written a really good sitcom with Mark Lamar and Martin Trenaman called 15 Storeys High.

It was great but it was treated very badly by the BBC who shunted it around.

I think Sean had decided at that point he was going to do lots of panel shows, get his head down and not rock the boat.

He was so broken by how badly the BBC had treated this great piece of work that he’d done.

But I remember talking to him about how Gervais’ act was like a Frankenstein’s monster of me and Sean.

If he’d come up through the circuit that would have been rubbed off him because you find your own voice doing club gigs.

It took me two years of gigging five nights a week to come through the mesh of things I liked.

But he didn’t have that experience in the same way.

AL: How different was the you Gervais saw to the you that returned to stand-up in 2004 after your break?

SL: Yeah, it was the mid-90s when I was a circuit act.

Funnily enough, in his first show there were bits I’d never recorded that he’d do almost verbatim. He’d clearly remembered them.

I went to see him at the Bloomsbury – on his invitation actually – with my then girlfriend and she was very concerned for me.

I’d given up at that point due to lack of interest, and she was concerned for what it felt like to see my act being done to hundreds of people, it was quite weird.

On the other hand, that sort of did make me think I don’t want it to be consumed into someone else’s vocabulary.

And also, I think because he had a residual sense of guilt, he would always credit me in interviews as being an influence – that helped me in 2004 to get the audience back.

It must be strange to have that level of financial remuneration and those audience figures but not really a single good review.

And I expect what that does for you is create a cognitive dissonance where you have to manufacture a worldview by which the whole world is wrong and you’re right.

Which can’t necessarily be very good for your mental health, although I expect the money’s nice.

READ MORE: The unusual way Dorset towns shaped renowned artist’s latest creations…

Basic Lee is at Westlands in Yeovil on January 26. Tickets are available at


  1. Simon Reply

    Wow, that comment is either the actual Ricky Gervais or a shockingly credible approximation of how insecure he genuinely seems – nice!

  2. Sean Lock Reply

    Er…hello to the still alive club, “OooOh look at me I’m still alive” Whatever. I was a massive Ricky Gervais fan. Never heard of this Sally Leg person.

  3. James Acaster Reply

    I could grow a beard if i wanted, just like Ricky. Can we not talk about my slow development in public, please dad?

  4. Stephen Merchant Reply

    Ricky, you need to stop Googling your name to comment on stuff. It makes me even more embarrassed of all the work I did with you.

  5. Mike Stanozolol Reply

    Wow! It’s like Stella Street in here! Just remember, horror and moral terror are your friends. You can have that one on me👍

  6. Big Keith Reply

    Boring isn’t it, coming to articles from a few months ago and leaving contents to try and get a few laughs?

    Not for me, I like it

  7. Richard Hammond Reply

    Equally as self-absorbed as your school days. Ricky knows what the people want and that’s why you will remain a sour plum in dark rooms that smell like hops and scampi fries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *