Stewart Lee


Mrs B says I look like an Indian Stewart Lee. I am not him, I can’t see  the resemblance really. I’m more a younger Salman Rushdie, or Keith Vaz, maybe David Baddiel when I have a beard. Or Carlos the Jackal. Not Stewart Lee. Although I do have a similarly receding hairline, my hair is greying in the same places and I could probably do with shifting a bit more weight.

I used to enjoy watching Stewart Lee’s TV series with Richard Herring, back in the 90s, on the television, when there wasn’t the internet and smartphones you have now. But I found his more recent solo series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle a little trying when they were first broadcast. When Mrs B and I went to the Edinburgh Fringe festival earlier in the year I was dubious about whether to book tickets for us to see SL’s preparatory show “A Room With Stew”.I felt there was a serious risk that, being unaware of what he was like, the reaction might have been ” what on earth is this boring and pedantic man boring on about ?”. As it turned out, we queued up for returns and in the end only Mrs B went and loved it so much that she has since hoovered up pretty much all the live footage she could find of him on YouTube as well as both series of Comedy Vehicle and his books, “How I Escaped My Certain Fate” and “If you prefer a milder comedian just ask”, which I have just read. I’m now going to write sort of about them at some length so don’t say you were surprised after clicking the “read more” link. In conscious stylistic homage there are footnotes which will digress from the main thrust of the piece, such as there is one and will obtrude into the page because footnotes don’t really fit as a concept in a continuously scrolling page. The might even be some end notes. But that’s a long way off.
Right, good, now we’ve lost the folks who haven’t the time or inclination to read four thousand words and are just down to those who are committed to the cause we can get going. Both books are devoted to transcripts of SL’s live shows with extensive footnotes. How I Escaped My Certain Fate also has a few chapters where SL describes how he started out, how he lost his appetite for stand up, his work on Jerry Springer The Opera and how he then returned to stand up. Along with that biographical information each show has an introductory chapter to provide some context in line with the broader narrative of the biography.

The extensive use of footnotes and appendices can be seen as like the director’s commentary that nobody ever watches on those DVDs you have today except done on videotapes by pausing the action for SL to explain what he was trying to do, the conscious or unconscious inspiration for a particular bit or going off on a tangent lasting at times a couple of pages. Alternatively it might be seen as a mechanism for bringing a degree of scholarliness to the books. The or a theme of the books is SL’s interest in stand up comedy as an art form and the theory behind it. That probably makes it sound more portentous or pretentious than it ought- I’d be surprised if anyone who made a career out of stand up didn’t spend a fair bit of time and thought working out what they were trying to achieve and considering how they’d set about doing it. That that process might not be articulated by many comedians doesn’t mean it isn’t there. As a student I remember an anecdote told in a lecture on jurisprudence, the philosophy of Law, by the late Ronald Dworkin in which the notion of jurisprudence was mocked in an article comparing it to baseball saying “there’s no theory of batting, batters just bat” only for someone to point out that books had been written by baseball players about the theories behind batting in baseball. The aggressive picking apart of his act in the remorseless way of a tutorial is one of the features of the segments in his TV series where Armando Iannucci (a former visiting professor of broadcast media at Oxford who gave a series of lectures on comedy) interrogates him about what the hell he was trying to get at.

However there is a risk that such scholarly ambition might rub up uncomfortably against the reality of being a practising stand up and work to distract from it being about performance. He mentions in a footnote that stand up shouldn’t work on the page and it is a mark of his own personal failure that his does. Which is a curious combination of humility about his status as a stand up at the same time as being somewhat self congratulatory about his writing.

This needs to be seen in the context of another of the persistent themes in the books and shows- the distinction between the persona of Stewart Lee the comedian and Stewart Lee. In an interview on Radio 4’s Front Row ahead of his last BBC 2 series and in numerous places in the books SL makes the point that his stage persona needs to be an outsider and appear a bit of a failure to be able to say the things he wants to say and that the critical success he’s received makes some of the things he’s said before not to fit later acts. Basically he wants to highlight the mistake of identifying the artist with the art too closely as we all learn when studying English lit at school and to play with the freedom that brings as well as the ability to admit how insufferable comedian Stewart Lee would be at times in real life. To add another layer to this SL’s wife, the comedian Bridget Christie also uses references to her husband on stage but paints him as a racist buffoon. While their acts are independent (although in a footnote SL mentions how his wife has agreed sole custody of tales of their ill considered winter honeymoon on the Shetlands for her act) this adds to the attempts to distance him from the comedian.

So does SL want the reader of the books to see him as a failure or in that context as a success at the form they are currently engaging with him in, namely literature? The existence of a third Stewart Lee, the author Stewart Lee might be adding too many layers but I’m not sure. At least the possibility should be considered to enable you to be wary of being lulled into accepting the veracity of his written accounts as being the real Stewart Lee behind the comedian Stewart Lee (the apparent meticulousness of the footnotes suggested to me that SL’s description of Johnny Vegas as another Oxbridge comedian was a very deliberate mistake). They could just be the author Stewart Lee commenting on the comedian Stewart Lee with the the real Stewart Lee being revealed a little more but still not completely or reliably. Some of the protective layers between reality and artist are certainly peeled away so the criticism that he’s an impersonal comedian can’t be levelled against his writing where we learn a lot about his ordinary life and his upbringing and also how he surreptitiously brings much that is personal into his act unnoticed by audiences. But crucially, we never know how much because we we don’t know where the author Stewart Lee (1) is holding back or being that cliché of literary  criticism, the unreliable narrator.

(1) Labouriously writing “the author Stewart Lee”, “the comedian Stewart Lee” and “the real Stewart Lee” over and over again (I don’t stop later) reminds me of how in SL and Richard Herring’s various TV series Kevin Eldon would always be referred to as “the actor Kevin Eldon”. 

In some ways this seems to me like the approach of a magician, like Derren Brown, who revels in telling their audiences that there is no magic to what they do and that there are simple explanations for the practically and technically complicated and demanding techniques they use to give the illusion of magic. SL spends large parts of his shows and the books telling his audience he is manipulating them, judging them and assessing whether they get what he’s doing and finding them wanting if they don’t. That, unlike a more traditional comedian who enters a room to make the audience laugh and who would fail if he didn’t get a laugh he’s there to play then for his effect. This theme is expanded on at length in the footnotes where he goes to detail how he looks to set parts of the audience off against one another to reward them for doing well or getting it, to dissuade the wrong people from coming at all. He deliberately uses odd and alienating introductory music to unsettle his audience so that those who hate the music realise that the act probably won’t be for them. He starts sets with an obviously inadequate and pathetic smoke machine to remove any expectation of superficially slick competence and uses different variations of words or lists each night so as not to sound rehearsed (eg Cafe Nehru for Cafe Nero). While being actually heavily rehearsed and with every inch of the act thought through as part of a whole work rather than merely a sequence of jokes.

While I am not him (2)

(2) Yes, if you have followed SL’s work (in particular the “90’s Comedian” set) and/or already read How I Escaped My Certain Fate you’ll have spotted that this is a conscious echo of his “I’m not saying I am Jesus” line. Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about vomiting into any of SL’s orifices. Perhaps surprisingly given the copious and apparently comprehensive nature of SL’s footnotes, there’s no reference there to the recurrent character of a fake Rod Hull in the series with Herring who protests that “I am him”. Not that Rod Hull was Jesus either. 

there is a lot in the biographical side of the books which chimes with my own experiences. Like the nerdy completist knowledge of semi obscure contemporary indie music from his teens and twenties. While I never got into comic books a couple of my friends from uni did and still are and I could imagine his horror when Jonathan Ross kept a comic containing a drawing of SL which he had only passed to him to have a look at. I could visualise SL being an enthusiastic if secret member of the university Doctor Who society and drinking ale in the Turf Tavern, grumbling about having to wear a gown for formal dinners and exams but being careful not to let it get too dirty or creased because he wouldn’t want to have to explain to his mum why he needed a new one. Oxford is another thing, or more specifically the experience of being at Oxford as an ordinary academically bright boy who was there because it seemed like a good place to go rather than being either their birth right or an intended step on a career path to glory that has a big presence in the books as well as bringing SL closer to the background of me and some of my friends (3).

(3) SL mentions that he chose to apply to Oxford because the doctor he was doing a Saturday job for had told him about his time there going to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and that it sounded like a fun thing to do. I applied largely because I really liked watching Inspector Morse (and more mundanely, that the application process at the time meant that if I got an offer I could avoid having to worry much about my A levels). Unlike SL, I didn’t go on to do what drew me to the place and become a maverick intellectual opera fan detective. Although I suppose there’s still time.

The theoretical approach and unforgiving analytical touch SL seeks to bring to his comedy are also I think very Oxford. For what it is worth my own theory about why so many comedians have come from Oxbridge (I understand that Cambridge University has many similarities to Oxford but despite having spent most of my childhood in Cambridge and my mum having studied there as a mature student while I was at school it still seems a bit weird to me ) is this:
(a) Comedy requires intelligence to be done well. This doesn’t have to be academic intelligence or academic achievement but can be. Contrary to appearances most Oxbridge students are pretty intelligent or at least managed to give a good impression of being so for a while even if they then decided to behave like fools.
(b) The nature of an Oxbridge Arts degree is basically doing two gigs a week for three years. Gigs where you have to perform to a tiny audience of one or two (if you’re lucky your tutorial partner will be helpful rather than sit there smugly silent in the knowledge that it is your turn to read out) while having acquired just enough mastery of a subject not to provoke cruelly accurate heckling from a tutor who may have spent twenty years thinking about what you’d cobbled together in a panic the night before (4).

(4) You could point out here that the crucial difference is that most people don’t go into tutorials aiming to make the tutor laugh. Then again, the comedian Stewart Lee also seems to be more keen (at least as the author Stewart Lee tells it) to demonstrate that he understands the topic set and to get this across well enough that the audience gets what he is doing. Laughs are a bonus and then only if they come at the right time. Laughing at the wrong bits upset him or are at best “interesting” in shedding light on where he has failed either in his act or in being ruthless enough at discouraging the wrong audiences to come.

Some people, including quite a lot who have endured three years of it find this appalling. Others find themselves getting a lot out of it despite the trauma (5).

(5) The worst example of trauma/heckling I know in a tutorial is from a friend of mine who thought he was getting an unusually lenient ride when the tutor didn’t interrupt or say anything for the first 10 minutes he read out for. Then she leaned across, swiped the essay from his hand and flung it in the bin, dismissing him and his tutorial partner and telling them not to come back until they’d written something that didn’t waste her time. He got the highest degree in the year. 

The Oxford approach does also lead to a degree of uniformity of style (seen perhaps disastrously in the identikit parade of politicians we have who’ve all studied the same PPE course). This is not so much in the use of “gobbets” of apparently insightful comment described in “The History Boys” but more in the style of expression. Some years ago, when the memory of being students was fresh, a colleague and I were asked to work on a large piece of legal research and advice which was split out into a number of sections we divided up between ourselves. We went off and did our work separately in the expectation that we’d later have a big job to knit the different parts we were respectively working on together to give them a coherent voice and to lead to a consistent line (yes, lawyers do this, like mathematicians, the more academically-inclined lawyer, as I once was, is usually very keen on the “elegance” of their solution to a problem). To both of our surprises, given that at the time we didn’t know each other particularly well and hadn’t worked together before, almost nothing needed doing. The various sections already pretty much read as if they’d been written by the same person. We had both done the same degree and post-graduate degree at Oxford and received the same classes of degree. 

I’ve now lost track of where we were or what I was trying to say or why. That’s the risk you take when you have explanatory footnotes that take you off in different directions. You could, or rather I could, try and write more clearly on a particular topic, preferably the one in hand, whatever that was and write about the other stuff somewhere else or at least on their own. If it was interesting enough for that. Which a lot of it isn’t as you can see from how dull this is getting and how dreary a lot of celebrity biographies are. But, strangely, despite going on and on about stuff until past the point at which the audience finds it as funny as it did a few minutes before and then carrying on until the audience is growing actively angry (6)

(6) This reminds me of tickling OMB. After a certain amount of tickling, any more will turn the laughter to tears. As the Stewart Lee of tickling, I’ve now got to a stage of son-tickling prowess that allows for fake tickling to have the same effect – at the right point in the tickle-cycle merely miming tickling at a distance from under OMB’s arm generates enough anticipation of tickling for OMB to act as if he really were being tickled still. 

and mirroring that in tangential footnotes which can go on for a couple of pages of How I Escaped My Certain Fate doesn’t get boring or lost. You see, I wasn’t really lost, it was just a way of wrenching us back on topic.

Similarly SL in the transcripts of his live shows puts in little sign posts saying things like “I go on about this for another 25 minutes and then talk about something else” so there’s something to cling onto and also notice of how much longer the “ordeal” will last and then sticks to his word. Because it was all planned that way. I should probably give a similarly helpful tip to you but if you’re still here you probably don’t need it.

Just writing this is inducing mild paranoia as I read bits back (7).

(7) SL doesn’t tweet and prefaces his rant about a “wrong” audience of England rugby fans in an Appendix to How I Escaped My Certain Fate with a pronouncement that it is a demonstration of why nobody should blog ever. Yet he clearly does “lurk” online and search for references to himself. the footnotes of both books have multiple references to blogs and online reviews of his work as well as those from newspapers. Although these aren’t always negative references as one of the other Appendices reproduces an online spoof of part of Tony Blair’s memoirs had they been written in the style of SL’s books, with footnotes explaining the motivations. It’s a lot better done than this. He also talks in his live shows about how Twitter is filled with people tweeting where he and his kids are so that it would be a handy resource for any stalkers. So I probably ought at this point, when there are probably no other readers out there say “Hi Stew”. 

Have I been manipulated by the author Stewart Lee into unconsciously echoing his style and then carrying on regardless even once I’d caught myself at it? Anyway we’re getting towards the end and the point of it all now so well done.

I don’t think I’ve been manipulated like that but what I do think might be is that SL is actually an observational comedian in disguise. But unlike most “hack” observational comics he’s observing something less tangible than the petty irritations of technology and bureaucracy and modern life in general. His repeated denial of interest in observational comedy can be seen as a mere facade- at one point in How I Escaped My Certain Fate he summarises observational comedy as the art of describing something from everyday life so perfectly as to remove the need to bother with any actual jokes. While there’s a superficial disdain for probably the leading observational comedian today, Michael McIntyre, to the extent of spending a large part of one of his shows available on YouTube skipping round the stage as McIntyre is wont to do, in fact it is that very old-fashioned jokesmith Lee Mack who describes McIntyre as “that skipping cunt”. Perhaps SL and McIntyre are not so dissimilar- the comedian Stewart Lee doesn’t really do jokes either.

SL is intentionally disingenuous as the author Stewart Lee (can one be unintentionally disingenuous?). His protestations of failure, his studiedly poor stagecraft and professed inability to act, while he is successful within the terms he values, is in control of exactly how he wishes to be perceived on stage and actually does a fair bit of acting in his performances (eg his imaginary conversations on the phone or with a second voice he puts on which sounds uncannily like Richard Herring’s).

When Michael McIntyre does a sketch about the imaginary conversation between the jars of spices in his kitchen cupboards bemoaning how rarely they are used there is a clear pang of recognition from the large audiences he plays to. This comes even when in fact the observation is in itself not an observation that is necessarily true for them – I use Five Spice regularly, along with most of the other spices in that sketch and I’m not an especially adventurous or regular cook. But still it is somehow funny. I can extrapolate it to my own acquisition of a jar of Sumac which I cannot imagine now ever using and which I have only really ever considered using in the brief moment it took to pick it off the shelf at Waitrose and put it in the trolley. Similarly, my broad political views are rather different to those of SL but can nod along when not agreeing with the political comment he’s making but recognising the observations on the shared general social liberalism of most educated early middle-aged middle class people that seems to be the nearest thing we have to the shared culture now that used to be occupied by the blandly unreflective Anglicanism of a generation or two ago.

So, ultimately, SL is an observational comedian whose subject is the interior monologue of the middle class, on things like belief, racism, political correctness gone mad and so on and taking it to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise publicly express or be aware of their own unreasonableness because they believe they are right. For example, he uses the formulation “I’m not saying [meticulously polite formulation of respect for religious belief]” or “an individual like Jeremy Clarkson might be a basically decent person who is just mistaken” and then ends it with “but in fact they are evil and stupid”. Looked at this way, SL is not so radical. Or perhaps, beneath it all is a different SL who is keeping his own real thoughts to himself for his own amusement or torment. Hiding in plain sight like a generation of celebrity entertainers before him.

Is that it? Yeah, probably a bit of a disappointing ending. Oh well, as long as it was better than the spreadsheet you were meant to be updating it’ll have to do. Thank you.

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