17 May 2011
Stewart Lee appeared on the radio last week to promote his latest project. While talking to Richard Bacon on 5 Live, he said something that intrigued me and simultaneously troubled me. To this moment, I still don't quite know what to make of it.
In expressing his professional admiration of Michael McIntyre, arguably the most high-profile comedian in the UK, he said thus:
"He's proved you can be popular without being awful."
He wasn't chased up on this opinion, but at first glance - and second, and third, and so on - he essentially seems to be saying that anything that catches the attention of the wider general public must be bad.
I'm trying to find another interpretation for it, but I can't. I keep telling myself that there must be one.
McIntyre is the exception to Lee's rule, it seems. But other popular comedians - ones who get plentiful media exposure and fill arenas and theatres - seem to be equally as bad to Lee's crowd as they are good to the wider public.
It's snobbery of a quite stunning kind.
There are loads of great comics who remain underground and undiscovered, it's true. But it's quite a generalisation to suggest that, until McIntyre (who I think is very funny) came along, any comic daring to be successful and popular automatically becomes less gifted or less relevant.
It's a chattering class viewpoint, isn't it? It's about being cool rather than being good, about putting artistic integrity ahead of mass appeal. Yet I'm in no doubt that if you are very good indeed, then you can achieve artistic integrity and mass appeal together, and there is no avoiding public acclamation, even if you are of Lee's mindset. Eddie Izzard tried this, courtesy of a massive live reputation which he refused, for years, to enhance further through television. Eventually, though, telly got him and without it, his varying political and charitable crusades wouldn't have happened.
It's a very British thing to do; to knock success and somehow downgrade it when it happens. It might be borne of jealousy. I don't have a beef with Lee as a comic, but I think what he said, even though he was acknowledging a rare exception in McIntyre, is staggeringly pompous, and something of an insult to ordinary people.