by Stewart Lee
378 pages, Faber & Faber
Review by Marc Nash
Stewart Lee's 2008 routine (one of three of his own shows he dissects and provides transcripts of in the book), is called "41st Best Stand Up Ever", prompted by Lee's bemusement at being placed so high in a TV all-time comedian chart. As Lee himself points out, such shows are just cheap screen time-eaters constructed of archive clips and talking heads prostituting themselves out of anything but a sacred feel for what they're intoning about. He also points out that the order of the list is shaped by the necessity of having the rude comics on after the 9pm watershed, hence inflating their position, plus they reflect the hot current performer who would almost certainly have disappeared from sight within two years. For this is what Stewart Lee, my personal Number 1 Best Stand Up Ever does; with his comedy and with this book, he deconstructs his act, comedy and himself.
Now I realise many of you, especially Americans, may not be familiar with Stewart Lee. He is very British and very niche. Half of the chapters are transcripts of three of his live acts in the Noughties. I'm already familiar with them, so they lose a bit set down on the page in terms of their entertainment. Readers can familiarise themselves with the acts as they are on YouTube, maybe before you read, or after, or even during. But this book is so much more than just reading some comedy scripts and their genesis.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate starts at Lee's disillusion with stand up during the early part of the new century. Psychologically and financially flayed raw by the furor surrounding the "Jerry Springer - The Musical" which he partly co-wrote but was fully swept up in the cries for prosecution under Britain's superannuated blasphemy laws. In one of the appendices Lee gives a trenchant critique of the art form of musical theatre, reflected in the early chapters by his own disbelief that he ended up being part responsible for possibly the most infamous one. A wounded Lee retires to lick his wounds and gradually the flame to return to stand up flickers back to life. But he is striving for a purity of the experience and the book takes off from this point. If Lee can at times make his audience uncomfortable, it is nothing that he himself isn't also feeling towards himself.
We see the serendipitous events in his life that he is able to weave into thematic material. Those he tweaks for comic/artistic purposes and those he leaves untouched. One can marvel at the connections he finds to link them up. But he goes so much further. This book is a supreme study in the use of language. Lee says he tells very few jokes. What he does is pitch a stage character to the audience. Fully conscious of how to bring them along with him, how to alienate them. He plots his routine like a musical score and everything revolves around the telling. The points that he challenges the audience. The points that he lulls them in. The points when he deliberately keeps them at arm's length. Then points where he flatters them, or divides them against themselves. Even the points where he is free to extemporise to overcome his confessed boredom at performing the same routine over and over again night after night. He considers and structures the minutiae of the flows in power and status relationships between his stage persona and the audience. He is plucking the stringed instrument of our emotions like a virtuoso.
How does this offer insight to a novelist? Through the crafting of his act. Through the precision of words chosen, of inflections and sounds. Every word of his routines, even to the 'ums' and 'ers' are deliberately laid down. But they look so conversational and natural that it is an art. And art is a key word in this book. Lee considers the mass commercial entertainment of any art form that is concerned with audience numbers which it then panders to reaffirming their preconceptions and values. And then there is awkward, challenging, subversive art that demands the audience to work. Lee is ambivalent at different times as to whether comedy is high art, but his is certainly literary; not through his references and allusions, but through his appreciation of language. He also offers his seeking out of the traditional comic forms of the Bouffon in France and the shaman-clowns of Pablo Native Americans. Their concern with mocking established communal values as a way of both reaffirming them and providing the possibility of what lies beyond such conformity. Lee comes away with the notion of a sacred, ritualistic space on stage and draws a chalk circle around himself in one of his acts, as talismanic protection before the crowd. It's that attention to detail, that complete and wholesale hallowing of his craft that makes Lee top of the contemporary comedy tree.
If I have a criticism, it's that he doesn't quite show us all his art. While the material is faithfully excavated for its sources, I wish he would relate the process of the writing itself. Since every word is honed, it might have been interesting to see early drafts of lines. Words rejected, or cuts made for rhythm purposes. He also sells himself short I feel, by not taking us into the process by which he commits his act to memory, working out the gestures and the movements across the stage. As writers, we read in public book in hand. Imaging having to learn a whole hour's worth of your own text in order to be able to deliver it word-perfect from memory to an audience. Now that makes it art.
I urge you to read this book, but not necessarily for the laughs.