Observer, 26 September 2010

Book Review: Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee is the most enigmatic of comedians: a thoughtful, softly spoken man who somehow managed to become a hate figure for the 65,000 people who complained to the BBC about his musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera. And they didn’t just complain, they complained in advance, anticipating their inevitable fury and disapproval, and making it known before the show was broadcast, presumably on the off-chance they were so appalled by a musical that they subsequently lost the ability to type. It’s that very fear which has always held me back from watching Mamma Mia.

But although Lee is perhaps most notorious for this debacle, he is most renowned for being one of the best comedians alive. His slow, measured voice, his sulky, hectoring manner, and his relentlessly logical fury make him a compelling stand-up. In an industry where bland is often rewarded above all else, Stewart Lee is an oasis of intellect and originality. He may not appear at the Royal Variety Performance any time soon (unless the Queen expresses an interest in material about the professional ethics of Joe Pasquale), and nor should he. It may be bad for his bank-balance, but Lee’s audience see him as the king of counter-culture. If he sold out, became smiley and easy-going, their sad hearts would surely break.

His new book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian, will be required reading for comedy fans. The book contains the transcripts of three of his critically-acclaimed shows, heavily annotated as Lee explains how he chose a particular joke, or how this section was improvised differently each night, or why this line needs to be in this spot to prepare the audience for the next section. He is analytical, critical and perfectly willing to say when he finds himself proud of something he wrote, or occasionally ashamed. It is a fascinating insight into the process of creating comedy, and making months of work feel like a fresh, spontaneous show each night.

But the risk with trying to record a stand-up performance in any medium – audio, video, prose – is that it loses some of what makes it good. Stand-up – at the risk of sounding like a total ponce – is an ephemeral experience, that occupies the space between comic and audience. Every gig is unique. The venue, the start-time, even the day of the week make a huge difference to the experience: the celebrated comic Daniel Kitson simply doesn’t perform his solo shows at weekends because he doesn’t like the audiences that turn up on Fridays and Saturdays. A complicated show needs a focussed audience, and those tend to come on week-nights.

So although it is a pleasure to read Lee’s shows, it is ultimately a frustrating one, because they cry out to be performed. It’s something he knows, too. In a footnote on a routine about Richard Littlejohn, he writes, ‘This doesn’t work on the page, and ideally, my ambition is to get to the point where none of my stand-up works on the page. I don’t think stand-up should really work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian.’ Quite the reverse: the book makes you long to hear him rather than read him.

Far more successful are the sections of the book which link the shows, where Lee talks about his early career, his health, the birth of his son. The description of his victory in a comedy competition in 1990, for example, is glorious: ‘My prize for winning the Hackney Empire and City Limits magazine’s New Act of the Year competition was £500, a booking at the Hackney Empire, a booking at the Comedy Store and a slot on a TV show I can’t remember the name of. I received the money on the night, but the Hackney Empire slot took a decade to materialise, The Comedy Store hasn’t booked me to this day, and the TV show never called. And the winner’s certificate was made out to ‘Steward Lee’.’ Ah, welcome to show business.

If Lee is hard on himself, he is heroically vicious when it comes to those whose pretensions or artistic choices he dislikes. ‘I do appreciate,’ he writes, while explaining over three pages the use of an Evan Parker saxophone solo as his pre-show music, ‘it’s always dangerous and potentially shaming, for comedians to claim inspiraton from great musicians, or indeed any legitimate artists. When TV’s Russell Howard cites, in an interview, Bob Dylan’s mantra ‘every great artist meeds to be in a permanent state of becoming’ as an influence, one wonders what relationship this profound phrase has with appearing on Mock The Week and making fun of Susan Boyle for having a hairy face?’

He’s no kinder about James Corden, Michael McIntyre and others, and it’s difficult not to agree. Stewart Lee could easily come across as smug or judgemental – and by his own admission, plenty of critics have interpreted his act that way. But he is so utterly unforgiving about his own flaws, long before he starts on anyone else’s, that it is foolish to think his laser-sharp mind is a place where he could ever be comfortable enough to be smug. This book should win him some new fans and cement the dislike of old detractors. And it’s impossible to imagine he would ever choose to do anything else.