Stewart Lee is a stand up comedian and writer. He first came to prominence in the 1990s as part of a radio, then later TV, duo with Richard Herring. He went on to co-write and co-direct the Oliver Award winning musical ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, before returning to stand up. His subsequent live shows, including the currently touring ‘Much A-Stew About Nothing’, and television series, namely ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’, have been some of the most lauded in the UK in recent years.
People are getting increasingly sophisticated at giving us marketing and propaganda disguised as information.
On first memories of science
My first memories of science I suppose would be doing it, well, would be, in the ’70s watching things like Horizon on BBC2 and learning about the planets and whatever and I think that in the household that I grew up in, um, it was sort of slightly forbidden. My gran didn’t like us watching BBC2 because she thought it was a sort of hotbed of pretentious, subversive, leftist thought, so that only made you want to watch the science documentaries even more, that there were forbidden. I once said to Andrew Neil – the former editor of The Sunday Times who now does those politics programmes on the BBC – that, um, we weren’t allowed to, we were forbidden from watching, we were discouraged from watching BBC2 because my gran said it was dangerous in some way. Dangerous, like liberal. And he said, ‘Well, I think your grandmother was right’, which was really funny but, yeah, I suppose those first memories of science was watching it in those sorts of programmes, right, which seemed very exciting and then doing it at secondary school. I went to, I was very intimated by it at school and, you know, the people taught it to the best of their ability and they taught it well. We had a biology teacher called Mr Tanner who was very good, but on the whole, I think the sort of wonder of science that a lot of the people see on these shows capture was, um, a bit scared out of you by the need to learn the periodic table and that kind of thing. So I was intimidated by science because I wasn’t mathematical and I think that later on you come back to it, where you see it tied up with the arts or when you have people like Brian Cox or Carl Sagan who are very good explainers and have a feel for the poetry of it as well as the maths of it.
On how a scientific outlook influences my act
I don’t think that science has a massive impact on what I do but I think that where it does nudge up against what I do is when it becomes political and weirdly at the moment, something as, or that we take for granted like the validity, not necessarily the validity of the theory of evolution, not necessarily meaning it’s correct, but it’s definitely worth entertaining, something as simple as that, seems to be under threat politically, when you franchise out education to specialist interest groups or when you try to discredit it because people have a particular financial or political agenda against thought, and against science and against understanding, it’s at those points that science impacts on the comedy that I might write because those situations are absurd and they’re funny and you might get something out of it. But, I’m not someone like Robin Ince who, I don’t have the intelligence or understanding, or the interest or the will, ha ha, or the spare time or the patience or the sort of audience that’s interested enough, to put together a show that would just deal with that alone.
On science as a form of faith
I think if you can’t know it empirically I think you should appreciate that it’s a leap of faith and treat it as such and not confuse the two. I don’t think there’s a problem with that, I mean, I don’t have a problem with people saying ‘I’m religious’ or ‘I believe in ghosts’, so long as within that is accepting the fact that you can’t really prove it and in fact the Catholic church response to the rise of rationalism in Europe is actually a very interesting one. You know, the head of the Catholic church in Ireland said ‘We’ve taken the wrong tack. Instead of, like, trying to come up with facts to defeat science, we have to say this is a whole different set of rules and it’s about faith and belief and symbolism and whatever’, and that’s fine if you bracket it like that but it’s when you get fundamentalists mixing it up and saying that it should have the equal weight, legally or socially or morally, as something which is provable empirically.
Now science isn’t just another form of faith because you can use microscopes to examine scientific things in incredible detail. Obviously it’s a leap of faith for me because I’m not a scientist, so I do take on trust what scientists are telling me and I also appreciate that scientific theory changes over years, but at some point that has been assembled from analysis and study and religious truth is a different kind of truth. It’s a truth about, you know, what symbols mean and what feelings mean and what beliefs mean and they’re not the same thing whatsoever so, you know, that is a leap of faith because at the end of the day you cannot prove any of the things in it.
On the joy of science
Well, everything about it is amazing and the funny thing about having little kids – I’ve got a two year old and a six year old now – is they ask you questions about gravity or the alignment of planets or reproductive cycles or the seasons or weather and I can’t remember the answers and I have to go away and look them up and I find them faintly terrifying. It’s such a massive idea. The great thing about having kids is you don’t want to lie to them and you don’t want to fob them off with some half measure, so I feel like I have to go back into it all and then you rediscover your sense of wonder. Funnily enough, tonight I was watching Howard Read‘s animation about evolution; about two years ago, when he was four, my son started asking questions about where does everything come from and I’m not so angry that I would be especially put out if he were told a creation myth but I did want him, and indeed I’m happy to read him them, but I did, I did want him to know what the facts were. So I did a search online and I found a book, The Story of Everything by Neal Layton, it was a kid’s pop up book about evolution and I thought ‘Right, he’s got that now and I can read it to him’. And if we want to talk about the Midgard Serpent or Adam and Eve or whatever then we can do that now because he’ll be able to make the distinction between the sort of poetical appraisal of the idea of creation and evolution and about the facts as we known them, or the theories as we know them, so having kids that ask difficult questions reawakens the sort of wonder of science to you on a weekly basis because they ask you things you don’t know about. It also scares me. I’m really scared about gravity now and how it can’t possibly hold us all in the right place and what would happen if it just changed a bit because I’ve had to talk to my, and when my son’s going, or just having to push his bike or scooter up a hill, because we talk about it such a lot he actually goes ‘Oh gravity, I hate you. Making it hard to get up this hill.’ So he’s involved in a hostile war with gravity now as a result of science.
[And he] asks me questions about stars and black holes and suns and light and time so you do have to reach back into what you remember from school or go and look it up in a kid’s book or like an idiot’s guide to time and to try and find yourself explaining it a child, I mean, I am, really, I am in a constant state of wonder at the moment with gravity. [The other day] he was spinning around on a little roundabout in a playground and it was all about the centrifugal force and we were trying to talk about it in those terms and it’s actually, you know, having to talk about, trying to explain the world in scientific terms to a child has actually given such an incredible sense of wonder about our existence that I suspect trying to explain existence to him in terms of religion might not have done in such a profound way.
I think that science helps happiness. I also think a breakthrough thing for a lot of, sort of, rationalists is actually the realisation that you’re irrelevant you know, in the grand scheme of things. It’s not that god knows the name of every sparrow, it’s that it may not exist, and if he did he probably wouldn’t the know the name of every sparrow anyway. And actually you need to, sort of, pass through your existence doing the least amount of damage and harm because you’re not a significant figure, you’re not individually known to anyone and actually that’s a very liberating feeling, so I think there’s a sort of egotistical delusion that is encouraged by faith, sometimes, that is actually a very damaging one and to free yourself of that through rationalism is actually good for everyone.
On the importance of being curious
People are getting increasingly sophisticated at giving us marketing and propaganda disguised as information. My son was sent home from school with a booklet called Digital Parenting which was about how to use the internet safely. And it was full of all sorts of good advice. And it was produced by and provided to the school by Vodafone, the tax evading multi-national, who obviously, you know, when you then look at it more closely you can see that it’s full of advertising disguised as editorial and they obviously have a vested interest in encouraging people to continue using all their hardware irrespective of whatever dangers there might be involved in it. And big companies and government and all sorts of nasty people are getting better and better at disguising opinion as fact and disguising their financial objectives, their political objectives, as common sense. And I think you have to ask why about everything and, ah, people need to have the tools to do that and one of the things I think that’s great about Robin’s sort of shows is he normally manages to send audiences away just a little tiny bit more equipped to prevent themselves from being lied to and conned even if they haven’t really noticed that’s what’s going on.
On ghostly experiences
I love going to old archaeological sites and stone circles and stuff like that and I do get close to a mystical feeling at them. I think it’s about age and a sense of time and place and history. I’ve had, to the amusement of my wife who is a person of faith, I’ve had two experiences with ghosts and I don’t think for a moment they were ghosts. I went to the Tomb of Napoleon where, having mocked Napoleon on the way into the tomb for his arrogance, whilst I was looking over the tomb, alone, some force gave me a kind of wedgie and tried to tip me over the balcony and I assumed it was my wife but she wasn’t even in the building when I looked round, she’d stayed outside with the kids and, of course, she does stand up about it, about this, and her angle is that I mocked ghosts, I mocked Napoleon so Napoleon’s ghost got me. Mine is that, on some level, I must’ve had a memory of being given a wedgie and I sort of misfiled it somehow and it popped up at that moment and made me feel like I’d been lifted up two foot off the floor. I still don’t believe that, um, the fact that I made fun of Napoleon and then was nearly thrown over a balcony by a wedgie giving force in Napoleon’s tomb means that ghosts exist but on some level there is leap of faith required for me to deny that!