27 July 2011

Stewart Lee, or When Comedy's Medium is its Message

I've been a fan of Stewart Lee's for a long time, ever since one of my closest friends introduced me to Pea Green Boat, that hilariously and horrifyingly mesmering blurring of the boundaries between comedy and nightmare. I haven't liked every thing I've seen or heard Lee do -- one routine in particular left me very uncomfortable, though I could see why he did it -- but on balance I find him the most relentlessly intelligent comedian I've ever experienced. And I say that having been to see him twice, and with five DVDs, two CDs, and a book of his work sitting on my shelves. I loved his latest TV series, which I think was even better than the previous one, and was fascinated to watch routines mutate from a full version in one live show into a much shorter version in another live show, into a briefer and highly modified version when performed in Ireland, and then be released, tuned to perfection, on television.

One of the most impressive things about his work is how he draws attention to the craft of comedy -- indeed, he does so to such a degree that a lot of his work is comedy about comedy, what I might, if I were feeling pretentious, call 'metacomedy'. But I'm not, so I won't.

It was odd to see him in the news in recent weeks, with a line from one of his shows being put -- wholly devoid of context -- to an obviously embarrassed Michael McIntyre. Of course, as every good Evangelical will tell you, a text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text, and it's utterly meaningless to rip one phrase out of a whole show, especially a show as tightly-written as Lee's tend to be. I was glad to see his response, forwarded to me by a friend a few days back. As one would expect, it's a scornful dismantling of the British media and its tendency to conjure up stories from little more than whimsy and bile.

Lee's fascination with the craft of comedy is at the heart of his superb 2010 book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, and it leads him to see others through the prism of the performance of comedy. For instance, starting on page 156 of the book, he says...
'I suspect, reluctantly, that the actual business of being a priest isn't that different in some ways to the business of being a comedian. My wife took me to her church in Gloucester. I always listen to the way the sermons are pitched with interest. It was a mixed audience -- old Irish fellers, lots of displaced Filipinos, Poles, general Catholic diaspora, many without English as a first language. Tough crowd. And the Father's out of the pulpit, down in the aisle, shouting, jumping around, working the room. The priest that did our marriage course in Stoke Newington faced a similar problem of playing to an incredibly varied demographic. His approach was to speak softly and calmly about some incident or personal story that seemed a million miles away from religion, then, having drawn the punters in, to clobber them with a theological right hook. Most priests are rubbish performers, though, and one wonders how an organisation as wealthy as the Catholic Church, for example, can't spare some money to school the poor sods in a few basics of stagecraft. That said, the good ones are an inspiration, and let's not forget a lot of them are turning over a new twenty minutes each week, which makes even the stalwarts of the Comedy Store's Cutting Edge Team look lazy.'
It's a book I really can't recommend enough, not least because its structure and mannerisms are impressively akin to his shows. We know that the 'Stewart Lee' of the performances is to some extent a construct, a distilled version of aspects of Lee's own character, but what of the 'Stewart Lee' who introduces and comments on the scripts of the three shows discussed in the book. We see the irony and the mechanisms, the repeated jokes and the call-backs that are at the heart of his work. How much of this are we meant to take seriously?

But then, I like the idea of a book about comedy being itself -- in effect -- a comedic performance, especially given that Lee's comedically dissecting his own comedic dissections of comedy and other comedians. It's probably not surprising that I'd like this, given my love for comics about comics, or of Vermeer's painting about painting. I like it when media discuss themselves; it just shows what they can do. I like it when the medium and the message admit that they're one and the same.

Lee's not for everyone by any means, but his latest TV series was a perfect example of comedy can be about comedy, and how it's perfectly possible to be extremely funny and deadly serious at the same time. I'll look forward to getting the DVD before the year is out.

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