January 13, 2012


The Life and Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian
by Stewart Lee
304 pages, Faber & Faber

Review by Bill Kirton

Stewart Lee is either hilarious or mind-numbingly boring. I’ve heard both assessments of him by people who’ve been to his shows. I’ve only ever seen him on TV (but will be at one of his live shows in February) and, for me, he’s very funny and one of the most daring stand-ups around. He’s a highly articulate (and literate) man of strongly-held political and artistic ideals and he treats the business of comedy with intelligence and respect.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate consists of the scripts of three complete shows performed in 2005, 2006, 2008. But the scripts are interspersed with Lee’s own background in the business, his reflections on their genesis and development, and long explanatory footnotes, some of which are mini-essays in themselves, on various aspects of humour, audience manipulation, good and bad taste and anything else which might arise from the bizarre tradition of stand-up. The whole thing is a fascinating tour through the history of the medium (primarily in the UK), Lee’s own attraction to it, and the values, meanings, limits and liberating effects of laughter. He investigates topics, techniques, styles, intentions and is totally honest about the choices he makes in terms of material and presentational method.

For him, an audience is an organic whole which needs shaping, leading by the hand, dividing then reuniting. His relationship with it is a constant source of fascination for him. He sets out to stretch and test the limits of its tolerance, learning about others but also about himself in the process. From Bergson and beyond, theorists have recognised that laughter is an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction and Lee uses his onstage experiences and the reactions he provokes to analyse its components, study the uses which other comedians have made of it, and ‘explain’ his own challenging material. He suggests, in fact, that “Within a few years, these ‘jokes’ as we comedians call them, will have been entirely purged from my work in favour, exclusively, of grinding repetition, embarrassing silences, and passive-aggressive monotony”. He’s joking, of course, but, paradoxically, there are already signs of such a progression in his act. He’s joking – but he means it.

In one show, his theme led him to a particularly explicit situation which combined elements that, on the surface, couldn’t possibly be part of a comedy routine. He knew this was coming and so he had to prepare the audience for it and keep them laughing rather than stamping out of the theatre from anger or disgust. This is part of how he did it:

“I was trying everything I could to isolate individuals in the audience, or pockets of people in the audience, and make them think about their responses. By dividing the audience into those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t, eventually, usually, the ‘don't gets’ wanted to be part of the ‘do gets’, and gradually a strong enough coalition of the willing was formed to support the unacceptable stylistic and narrative thrust of the last half of the show.” (Interesting that he used the word ‘unacceptable’ – showing how aware he was of the transgressions he was about to make.)

His words are those of someone for whom stand-up is a way of exploring things beyond ‘jokes’ and cheap laughs. They’re written by someone with a facility for language, a sharp, perceptive intelligence, and a real interest in people. The book asks many questions, gives stand-up a new perspective and, yes, is still very, very funny. Anyone interested in laughter and where it comes from will find this a provocative but rewarding, enjoyable read. It’s much, much more than a celebrity memoir.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to see him in February too... looking forward to it, but I am a bit troubled by parts of his act, which boils down to: "I've slapped you in the face... I want you to think about why I've slapped you in the face." Suspect he's fun on stage but probably a ballache in real life.