Tuesday, 3 January 2012


It is an observation so obvious and well-worn that, were it to issue forth from the lips of some worthless low-brow comedy hack (or Michael McIntyre, but I repeat myself), the man himself would excoriate them for it, but Stewart Lee has always (or almost always) had a tendency to sharply divide opinion.

My good and dear friend, the mighty Dr L, for example, once told me she found his routines impossible to watch because of the arrogance she felt oozing from his every pore. And given that Dr L does not exactly lack for self-confidence or strong opinions, married a man who lacks those things still less, and is right now being described in these very words by a friend so entirely in possession of those properties he's only prevented from sinking into total narcissism by being too lazy to try not be fat anymore, one has to assume her understanding of and tolerance for bullet-proof self-assurance must be stronger than most.

As it happens, Lee is arrogant, by his own admission (though it's sufficiently obvious that fessing up to it is probably little more worthy of credit than his willingness to concede that he is white), and that's not the only reason some people dislike his work.  I don't think I heard a single word of praise for the first season of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle amongst my friends when it was broadcast (for the record, I thought it was fairly uneven, mainly because it really didn't play to his strengths, but frequently funny and occasionally brilliant).  His monotone, disinterested delivery, combined with his habit of endlessly repeating the same few phrases (which the casual punter could be forgiven for assuming was an attempt to make up for a lack of actual material, Dark Place-style), and there was a general feeling of bafflement as to why people (including me) spent so much time heaping praise on the man, even if everyone agreed that  - to paraphrase a paraphrase - no man who hates Richard Littlejohn can be all bad.

Of course, if Lee himself were here, he'd probably want me to search out the source of the original line, along with its first paraphrasing.  This obsession with ensuring everything is properly attributed is occasionally irritating (which is why I chose the title I did for this post - it's a blatant misappropriation of a Richard Herring riff, and thus amuses me).  Does Lee really want to moan about someone else using the "winning this award is not unlike being declared the world's tallest dwarf" line, for instance?  Hell. I've come up with that one, though it's possible "I'm the largest element in a set defined by conditions describing only small values" is a uniquely obvious joke to a mathematician.

Far more often, though, this search for the origins of jokes makes for fascinating reading.  Especially when combined as it is here with Lee's meandering (by footnote standards) tales of his experiences within the world of comedy which, due to the books format, which is chiefly comprised of three annotated routines, are mercifully untethered from anything so prosaic as chronology or coherent theme.  For people like me who have already seen these routines played out (multiple times in the case of the first two), these brief forays backstage are the real joy of the book.

I use the word "backstage" with some trepidation, because I realise what the phrase has often come to mean: gossip and bitchiness.  This is not the case here (Lee is almost never bitchy, though naturally he is frequently rude, curt and dismissive, and not always for the sake of comic exaggeration, I think).  Lee's interest is not in how comics behave behind closed doors, but how comedy itself is crafted, just out of view.  Whatever one's opinion of Lee as a performer or writer, his genuine love for the history and development of comedy is clear.  Put in this life, then even that arrogance that truly belongs to him (rather than being summoned on the stage as part of a carefully crafted act) can be partially understood - a man who has spent a decade studying the art of sculpting pottery, for example, could perhaps be forgiven for snorting at those novelty mugs that when warmed remove the underwear from the woman emblazoned thereon.  Whether or not said master of theory can so much as slap together an ashtray, of course, is a different matter.

In other words, then, there's plenty of reason to read this book [1] even if you know all three routines: Stand-Up Comedian, '90s Comedian, and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, by heart.  Even if you do, it's worth reading them on the page.  I'm not entirely convinced by Lee's insistence that doing so is a completely different experience to seeing him deliver it (on DVD, I mean, rather than live).  Whilst in general he certainly has a point, I'd argue that there's less reason to feel one's missed out having read a transcript of a Lee routine than there would be for almost any other comedian - so much of Lee's approach could be thought of as(simplistically speaking) "anti-delivery", I'm really not sure it matters to simply read the piece to yourself.  Of course, it's possible I'm sufficiently familiar with the material to mentally substitute in his rhythm in any case, though my comparative unfamiliarity with 41st Best..., which I've seen only once, during its initial tour, makes me dubious.

If you're familiar with Lee, it's a brilliant book.  If you know little to nothing about him, then it will be at the minimum a very interesting read (even if the angry, bawling mob of footnotes plays havoc with the flow).  If you hate his stuff (and not just because of Comedy Vehicle), then this probably won't change your mind. 

Everyone, though, should read the penultimate appendix, featuring a five thousand word poem written by Lee [2], which starts off as something seemingly semi-autobiographical and self-indulgent, becomes progressively more involving and character-driven, and finally becomes unexpectedly touching and poignant from entirely out of nowhere.  Brilliant.

[1] I haven't even mentioned the anecdotes that spring up from time to time, some of which are brilliant.  I'm torn regarding my favourite of the bunch; it's either the Cluub Zarathustra device employed on-stage which projects the word CUNT onto heckling audience members, or the occasion Lee wrote an extended rant about the mawkish, unthinkingly sentimental and suffocating nature of March of the Penguin's traditionalist Christian subtext in order to demolish it in front of a crowd at the Brighton Picture House, only to find the version being screened had cut all of the dubious stuff out, leaving him forced to periodically launch acerbic abuse at what everyone else in the theatre believed was an entirely harmless film about how penguins are cute, and sometimes fall down.

[2] Apparently the editors of the book for which he wrote it rejected the piece, purely because they didn't think poetry was going to work as part of the overall volume.  He therefore knocked out the commas and resubmitted it as prose, and was accepted.  Lee does not share what he believes this outcome signifies, but I'm left wondering if it is further proof that timing and delivery is not necessarily quite as important to his work as he believes it is.

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