I’m on pretty safe ground making the assumption that stand-up comedian Stewart Lee isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s not just the fact that he’s got a naturally slightly smug face. It’s not just the fact he does vague, sometimes tediously repetitive performances where he has talked about “vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ”, the public’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana “the hysterical, overemotional, shrieking griefs of twats,” and Richard Littlejohn, “cunt”. It’s not just the fact that he is “tediously politically correct”. It’s a combination of all of these things.
Stewart Lee is committed to taking what we understand as stand-up comedy to an extreme, as far away from the likes of Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre and Frank Skinner as it is possible to get. Lee’s routines might, consist of a man with a microphone and an ill-fitting suit performing in front of an audience in a dark room late at night, but that is where the similarities end. Using the trappings of stand-up, Lee (who first shot to fame in the early 1990s as part of a double-act with Richard Herring) drives his comedy vehicle into places it shouldn’t go, and blurs the distinctions between comedy and art. Is it a performance piece? Are we supposed to be laughing now? Think Lenny Bruce. Without the deadness.
‘How I Escaped My Fate’ is Stewart Lee’s second book. His, first, a sporadically funny novel, ‘A Perfect Fool’ was published in 2001, and is now pretty difficult to get hold of. His new tome, is a collection of the transcripts of this three major stand-up shows (or at least the ones that exist on DVD) he performed since his return to the live comedy circuit in 2005 after his retirement from the scene in 2001. The scripts are supported with autobiographical pieces where Lee writes candidly about his career in comedy, the history of the UK alternative comedy scene (as well as his uncomfortable place within it) and the affair surrounding Jerry Springer – The Opera, which he co-wrote and was subsequently accused of blasphemy for. Lee is frank, honest – on occasion disarmingly so – and eminently readable.
One of the most satisfying routines in his 2009 BBC TV series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle surrounded the issue of ‘toilet books’ produced by the likes of Kay, Chris Moyles and Davina McCall. Books designed to help you pass the time when you are passing your dinner. Lee self-consciously seems to have created a book that is about as far removed from the toilet book as is possible (hence no semi-nude full page artistic shots of his naked torso), but is nonetheless perfectly appropriate for reading when one is on the crapper.
The book is scholarly and thorough yet genuinely interesting and not a little funny. This is down, first-and-foremost, to liberal use Lee makes of footnotes. Yes, footnotes. In a book you can buy in Waterstones. Footnotes, those little digressions beloved of academics that make a book instantly seem tiresome. Lee here raises the use of footnotes to an art form, worthy in themselves of the free-form improvised jazz he is so profoundly influenced by (1). In Lee’s hands, the footnotes in themselves are as compelling as anything in the rest of the book. They become the literary equivalent of a DVD director’s commentary without the in-jokes, purile giggling and backslapping that is typical of the ‘genre’. They are also genuinely illuminating, Lee gives interesting insights into the genesis of his routines, and is also refreshingly honest about what his influences for might, or might not be.
Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate – “Buy It For The Footnotes!”, Russell Williams – Urban Landfill, will not be appearing on any poster, any time soon, alas, but anyone with an interest in British comedy, where it went wrong, and exactly what is wrong with Ben Elton will find this an entertaining, intelligent read.
(1) Jazz is bollocks, irrelevant and nauseating, but I’m prepared to overlook that in Stewart Lee’s case. Just this once, he’s the only one who can get away with it.