IF Stewart Lee had already guaranteed himself a place in the eternal post-death inferno by co-writing the controversial Jerry Springer: the Opera, his subsequent stand-up routine probably had Satan and his minions excitedly constructing a whole new Circle of Hell for the comic’s exclusive accommodation.
While JS:TO gently mocked the Christan messiah by making him swear like a trooper and publicly admit to being “a bit gay”, the Stewart Lee 90’s Comedian tour contained a dream-like sequence in which a drunken Lee utilises the willing Son of Man as a multi-holed receptacle for his piss and vomit.
Stewart, who like most discerning atheists is a Freethinker subscriber, kindly took time out from a busy touring schedule to answer a few questions about this and that.
FT: You are an honorary associate of the National Secular Society and a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association. What do you think comedy can do for these causes?
Stewart Lee: It’s important to engage with people who use religion as a covert way to curb our freedoms using powerful tools like protest and lobbying and campaigning. It’s also important to point at them and laugh.
FT: You have been described as a “militant atheist”. Are you?
SL: I was described as a militant atheist by Stephen Green of Christian Voice at a point where he was trying to have me sent to prison for co-writing an opera he imagined was blasphemous. It’s not surprising if I seemed militant. I thought it was a fight for survival. My wife is a church- going Catholic. We manage to make it work.
SL: Not really. In fact, you probably have more common ground with someone who has thought about religion than with someone who hasn’t at all. Also, it’s quite interesting for a relationship to have to think our way to solutions around conflicts of belief.
FT: Have you ever been religious?
SL: From about the age of 13 to the age of 16. The usual story. There was one of those proto-Alpha course youth groups knocking around our area and they had meetings where you could argue about things. I did Religious Studies A-level with a marvellous Church of England priest called Peter Wren, and then when I went to university in 1986 the unhelpful response of student religious groups to Michael Howard’s Clause 28 legislation made me think that, even if there was a god, it was best to ignore him.
FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?
SL: Live and let live, really. I’m less interested now in whether there is on isn’t a God, and more interested in how you stop the belief that there is a God curtailing people’s personal freedoms and impinging on science and education, for example.
SL: Yes. But part of live and let live is to point and laugh at the people who don’t want to live and let live.
FT: At the moment, a Christian group is trying to prosecute an art gallery for displaying a statue of Jesus with an erection. “You wouldn’t insult Muslims in this way, so why Christians?” is one of their arguments. The same question was asked of JS:TO. How would you respond to this?
SL: Well, I haven’t seen the work. Politically, one thinks there needs to be a clear one-size-fits-all decision on things like this. Artistically, it is of course more blurred. The image of Christ went fairly swiftly into the public domain. If Christianity allows plastic Jesus ashtrays to be sold at holy shrines, it’s a bit late to take the moral high ground when artists reappropriate the image. When missionaries aggressively introduce Christian imagery into cultures where it has no history, it’s also then difficult to worry about it turning up in zones of culture where it may not be appropriate. My understanding of Islam is that it has rigorously policed its own use of the brand of Mohammed far more forcefully than the brand of Jesus has been protected. If your theoretical artist has a theoretical point to make about sexuality in Islam then, given that the figure of Mohammed is not visually associated in physical form with the embodiment Islam’s beliefs in the same way as Jesus is with Christian beliefs, there is probably a way of making the theoretical point you are envisioning in a way that is more direct, more appropriate and probably more offensive, but without stepping on the concealed landmine taboo of depicting the prophet. An artist of an Islamic background would probably know what it is. There are so many theoretical aspects to this criticism which, yes, you do hear many times, that it’s hard to know how to answer really.
FT: If a non-Muslim artist educated himself about Islam and became fully conversant with Islamic philosophy, would he have earned the right to point and laugh?
SL: Chris Morris is grappling with this very issue at the moment for a film he is trying to write about Islamic suicide bombers. As usual, I expect he will be amongst the first to report back from this new cultural front-line. We are living in interesting times.
FT: Do you regret writing JS:TO?
SL: I co-wrote the words with the composer Richard Thomas, whose idea it was. I am very proud to have been invited to contribute, but the pride I had in the work at The National Theatre is lessened by its subsequent descent into the grubby world of commercial theatre, and by the fact that it will be remembered principally, thanks to Christian Voice, for things that aren’t even really in it.
SL: I was forced by the producers of JS:TO to go on a panel with him at the Edinburgh TV festival in 2006. I felt very sorry for him. He is obviously not well, genuinely, and I think in many ways it was cruel and irresponsible of the press to give him such a high profile. It is clear from a cursory read of his website that he is quite possibly unhinged. I don’t think anyone emerges from the whole thing very well really.
FT: Why do you hate God? Don’t you know that He loves you?
SL: I don’t hate God. I find the idea rather attractive.
FT: How long have you been a Freethinker subscriber?
FT: Finally, what slogan would you like to see posted on the side of a bus?
SL: Success in a zoo is still failure.
Stewart Lee is currently touring with Simon Munnery, Miles Jupp and Owen Lewis in a semi-scripted event he devised, entitled Elizabeth and Raleigh, Late but Live.