Stewart Lee has spent much of his career as the canary in comedy’s coalmine. He cares so much about his art — and comedy is an art, at least when it’s done properly — that he is super-sensitive to its ethical shifts. A speech he delivered at an Oxford Writing Festival finally appeared on YouTube this week. In it, Lee compares comedians using writers, often uncredited, to sports stars taking performance-enhancing drugs.
For decades, if not centuries, comic performance was everything. Comedy writers churned out endless notebooks filled with jokes, and sold them to performers who could make the lines zing in front of an audience. Then alternative comedy came along, and creative originality was prized above all else.
Comedians were proud of writing their own material, especially on subjects which didn’t seem to be obvious comedy fuel. They wanted the right kind of laugh: one which rewarded audacity and originality as well as delivery.
Like so much of the alternative comedy legacy (political correctness being the most obvious other example) this passion for originality has gradually been lost. As the same few stand-ups dominate the TV schedules, their need for new material outweighs the rate at which anyone could write it. Add in a new tour show each year (which gobbles material and can generate millions of pounds), and it's easy to see why comedians might hire writers.
Lee told his Oxford audience: ‘I like to think stand-up comedians who rely heavily on writers will one day be stripped of whatever artistic awards or financial rewards they received in their careers, like disgraced, drug-taking Tour De France cyclists'. But plenty of comics have pointed out that many of the greatest comedians - Morecambe and Wise, for a start - had writers working for them.
But the point Lee makes isn't refuted by this argument. Morecambe and Wise were sketch comedians. No-one watched their show and thought they really shared a chaste bed, made breakfast each morning, then waited for Glenda Jackson to come round dressed as Cleopatra.
Stand-up is an altogether trickier proposition. Sure, some comics deliver jokes which reveal almost nothing about themselves. But plenty more are selling a personality. The acts which Lee singled out (among them Jack Whitehall, Michael McIntyre) are offering a version of themselves to the audience, alongside the jokes.
Perhaps it is only a naive punter who believes a stage persona is more than it appears, when the reality is that a comedian no more reveals their real character onstage than an actor playing Hamlet. But like Lee, I miss those comics who offer sincerity as well as laughter. Perhaps the answer is to turn off the TV and go to a comedy club instead.