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Do look back in anger
Calling in at more regional theatres than a second-rate psychic, comedian Stewart Lee is a man raging against the dying of the light. Age 44, the one-time darling of the student stand-up circuit is teetering on the brink of middle age and with two pre-school children in tow.
"I'm past the midpoint and it's a source of concern," says Stewart. "The weird thing with me is that I was an extremely good looking young man. When I was 23 people didn't always get it but now I look grey, heavy and defeated I fit my material more. As a comedian it's good to look as if you've lived a bit, but I'm visibly a bit destroyed.
"As a self-employed person I just hope I can earn enough to look after the kids before I die."
If he sounds melancholic, don't be fooled. To journalists, Stewart speaks about himself in the third person opening his sentences with the words "the comedian Stewart Lee thinks..." and he frequently bursts into self-mocking bouts of laughter, so you never quite know if he is joking or not. There is an exception, when he talks about home life the trademark caustic edge softens somewhat.
"When I was younger I found cynicism quite funny whereas now I've got to force myself to be a bit more optimistic as I've got a stake in society."
His latest show Carpet Remnant World sees Stewart navel-gazing and peering at life through a glass half empty. His material talks about the depersonalisation of Britain and the rise of vast wayside retail outlets. Once he lived on the pleasure planet. Now he is trapped in Carpet Remant World.
Scooby Doo cartoons are a way in to writing stuff about being a dad without it seeming like a mawkish clicheStewart Lee
"The name of the show is based on an actual chain but they've all closed down now. Retail is becoming centralised. I went into a small branch of Mothercare and it was more like a showroom with no stuff in stock just to order."
A Fringe favourite, some of his younger fans may baulk at the idea that Stewart now shops for baby clothes and occasionally frequents Toys R Us but there's fight left in him yet.
He's been in the comedy business for 25 years now and shows no signs of slowing down. He's also more than halfway through a 50-date preview tour before heading up to Edinburgh in August.
Stewart tries to arrange his tour dates so he can have weekends at home with his family.
"Yesterday I was up at half six with the kids and then had a show at 8pm, which felt like midnight. It gets to the point where I'm shocked to wake up at home - not knowing where you are is really jarring. Our one-year-old is at the stage where if I go away for four days, she's learned to walk and when I come back she views me with such suspicion."
For solace Stewart watches Scooby Doo cartoons with his five-year-old son. "I'm very grateful to Scooby Doo. These cartoons are much better than they need to be and they give me a way in to writing stuff about being a dad without it seeming like a mawkish cliche."
Despite exposing his human side, Stewart still attracts the vitriol. On national newspaper websites he has been called 'evil and hateful', 'a small, sad man' and 'a sneering tosser' - does it affect him or is the diatribe just grist to the mirth mill? "Initially I was quite upset by that stuff, not on a personal level, but when my routine was taken out of context. The amount of hatred on the internet and on Twitter becomes hilarious when you think about how these things are supposed to be great tools for social good."
So what's next for the comedian Stewart Lee does he think?
"Over the past ten years my method has been touring and writing a new show every year and I've got two more TV series scheduled for 2014 and 2016 but by the time my children are teenagers I'd like to be an extremely obscure figure. I wouldn't want to be on telly at all by then as it's not fair on them."
He'd still take to the stage however - though he's not sure tomorrow's audiences would still have him.
"I'd love to be doing this age 64, 74 or even 84 but if I were 18 now I wouldn't want to be a comedian. Young people are much squarer in terms of their music and politics, they're disconnected from experience in some ways. Where is the John Cooper Clark or Iggy Pop of this generation? People from the punk era were much stranger and more radical than today's young people."
Saturday, June 9, 8pm. The Alban Arena, Civic Centre, St Albans. Details: 01727 844488, www.alban-arena.co.uk
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