If writing comedy is hard, writing about it isn’t much easier: there’s nothing more likely to kill a joke than trying to explain why it’s funny. As a result, books about comedy tend to be either collections of jokes, which are funny but unilluminating, or po-faced analyses of technique, which can be illuminating but only if you can stay awake while reading them. Many comics, too — like many actors, writers or artists — actively avoid analysing their own work, for fear of losing whatever spark brings it alive. In this book, Stewart Lee does the opposite: he pulls apart three of his own shows, forcing himself to reinvent his work, and in the process delivers one of the best books ever written about the craft of comedy, and the state of comedy today.
Lee returned to stand up in 2005 after almost five years away, during which he had, most famously, co-written and directed Jerry Springer: The Opera, which made him simultaneously more hated (it still has the record for the most complained-about programme ever broadcast on the BBC), more respected and very, very little money. It had also kept him off the circuit during the launch of the The Office and the arrival in the mainstream of Ricky Gervais, whose second stand-up show Politics Lee then went to see:
At some point during the show I experienced an emotion I rarely feel. It was jealousy. I honestly had never been jealous of another comedian … there were lots of friends and acquaintances of mine who had been much more successful than me — Al Murray, Steve Coogan, Harry Hill — but I didn’t ever feel like I was in competition with them because they are so different to me, and the choices they have made are theirs not mine. And there were also people whose talents far outstripped mine, who produced work I thought I’d never be capable of in my life — Daniel Kitson, Simon Munnery, Jerry Sadowitz, Richard Thomas, Johnny Vegas, Kevin McAleer — but I didn’t want to be them, because I could never be them. But watching Ricky I felt myself thinking, ‘This is the kind of thing I used to do. And all these people in this massive room are loving it. Whereas in the dying days of my stand-up career, I was reviewed as if I didn’t know what I was doing, and found myself playing to fifteen people in Dundee.’ I hadn’t minded not being popular when I’d thought that what I did could never be popular, but seeing something not dissimilar to what I might do being enjoyed by 500 people, already sold on the strangest bits by virtue of Ricky’s celebrity, was bewildering.
I love that paragraph. It’s a primer on contemporary British comedy, a reflection on the power of celebrity, a painfully honest self-analysis, and a personal call to arms, all in 200 words or so. And for Lee it was a transformational experience. Buoyed by support from Gervais himself, who’d called him ‘the funniest, most cliche-free comedian on the circuit’, Lee wrote a new show, Stand-Up Comedian, and took it on tour. And this is the heart of the book: three transcripts of three specific performances of Lee’s last three stand-up shows, Stand-Up Comedian, ’90s Comedian and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, annotated by Lee in a series of footnotes that take up at least as much space as the material. Here’s one section of Stand-Up Comedian, and Lee’s footnote to it:
This is the first routine I ever wrote, I think, where I began to stretch the silences, the lack of laughs, the tension, to the point where I’d be worried about ever winning back the room … There’s always a clear end in sight, and lots of little handrails to grab onto in the midst of all the uncertainty, but at the time it felt like a nightly leap into the void, acting out the grief of the people in the story to the silent onlookers. Today I’d go much further away from the shallow end.
This, it’s fair to say, is an understatement, given the climax of ’90s Comedian, which involves a drunken night, copious vomiting and the welcoming mouth of Jesus Christ — a moment of shock that Lee, typically, then deconstructs within the show itself:
Now, right. I’ve been doing stand-up for seventeen years, okay? And I can sense when there’s tension in the room. And I know why that is and I un — I understand it. Basically there’s a performer-audience bond of trust built up. We have worked on that together over the last hour. And, and, and you think, ‘Yes there is, Stew, but you’ve broken that bond of trust. Because we weren’t expecting to be made to visualise that image. There was no warning of this, it wasn’t flagged up … It’s like fingering someone on the first date, you wouldn’t do it. Even at arm’s length, wearing a mitten, through the shattered window of a rural bus shelter, at the end of an otherwise pleasant evening, as an inappropriate gesture of thanks. You wouldn’t do that, Stew, so why are you doing this? Why? Why?’
Why is the theme of the show: what are the limits of aesthetics, what is the relationship between artist and audience, and what should we really be shocked by and why. In his most recent work, Lee combines a dedication to exploring the boundaries of the craft with a genuine moral rage, the two elements perhaps best combined in his assault on the thoroughly deserving Richard Littlejohn. It starts at 5″20′ in this clip:
How I Escaped My Certain Fate is a terrific analysis of Lee’s own stand-up, but it also looks at acts that he has worked with, like the Mighty Boosh, whose shows he has directed, and many little known, even forgotten performers of the past. Until Daniel Kitson writes his own deconstruction of comedy, this is the best we’re going to get for a long time, and we should celebrate its existence. Lee’s show this year in Edinburgh sold out weeks ago: it’s coming to London in October but until then, if you care about comedy, read his book.