Everyone’s a critic. This has been true for a long time. Probably the phrase originates, like everything else, with the Ancient Greeks; Sophocles or Euripides cursing on their way home after yet another bad night at the Dionysus Odeon. Certainly it stretches back a long way. But it has never been more true (if a true thing can become more true, I don’t know, but assuming it can) than these days, with the combination of the internet providing instant gratifying exposure for every one of everyone’s faultless and well-considered opinions and a marginally improved literacy among the general population, which means more people than ever have the capacity to etch their thoughts into posterity.
Stewart Lee knows a lot about how everyone is a critic. He’s seen it at work (literally). He spends a fair portion of his generous show reading out, in his stately manner, stately or possibly just very slow manner, a string of comments garnered by googling his name. None, it is fair to say, are anything less than critical. Some, you might consider, seem to be verging more on the personal, but still they remain pretty much critical. Such is the effect of hearing the myriad complaints within these mini-critiques that I began to doubt if I should attempt a criticism of Mr Lee’s show myself. It appears that all the angles have been covered. I, who hate more than anything the thought that I might be like someone else, feel obliged to not criticise Mr Lee at all. Which is perhaps what he was aiming at, in taking ownership of the comments (And actually I’d note that if you look him up on twitter, the vast majority of comments are complimentary). But, I’ll go further, because I’ll not criticise Mr Lee with negative criticism or with positive criticism.
You see there are two kinds of critical. Most people seem to be under the impression (an interesting concept, to be under an impression; the way an ink pad is when you reink a rubber stamp) that there is only one kind: negative criticism. But of course there are two kinds: negative and positive criticism. But I am so concerned with not being like anybody else, I’m willing to forgo the whole god damn caboodle of criticism altogether; to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to avoid the possibility that I might come across like some of the people Mr Lee quoted. Not because they were stupid, however. No, it was the fact that they were so literate that terrified me. Because they had well-constructed sentences, that they obviously thought were clever and this reminded me of myself, and I made a vow never again to write a sentence that I thought was clever, for fear that it should end up being quoted by a scowling Mr Lee as evidence in his general case that the world is a complete load of cunt.
On the other hand, the temptation is to construct a such a perfect reduction of Mr Lee that on a future googling mission (because he collects criticisms, or rather negative criticisms, and quotes them often in his shows, and on his books, like someone used to in the 1980s, I forget who, I think Douglas Adams probably, and it’s no irony, because so much of what Stewart Lee does comes straight from the 1980s) he might uncover it and use it in a future show, my internet nom de plume attached. Hero status! What joy could that bring!
Mr Lee does a two hour show. Generous. It’s a rare comedian that offers a two-hour show, and then sits in the concession stand afterwards signing DVDs and books, probably trying to scrape the bus fare home, but Mr Lee does it. Two hours! Most comedians do an hour and maybe a bit more. No more than you can fit onto one side of a CD. OK, so he had a break, but still, two hours! Doug Stanhope, who I saw at the same theatre a year or two ago, did two hours, with a break, but in the break they kicked you out and brought in another load of punters for the second half, so my guess is it was exactly the same as the first half. Stewart Lee does two hours! Admittedly, however, if Stewart Lee was to subtract from those two hours his commentary on and deconstruction of his show as it unfolds, if he was to lose that, and possibly also lose the refrain about how he hasn’t got any material because all he does is comedy gigs and look after a small child, if he lost all of that, his show could probably have fitted onto one side of a C90 tape; but that’s who Stewart Lee is, isn’t it. That is Stewart Lee, so that would be like saying if you took all the motherfuckers out of Richard Pryor’s act. Which would be a stupid thing to do, and also, truth be told, wouldn’t save you very much time anyway.
So Stewart Lee does two hours, a large portion of which is deconstructing his own act as he goes along. Now, Stewart Lee was today in the paper, the Irish Times to be exact (and it’s a funny concept, isn’t it, being in the paper, you know, as if there’s a land far away called the paper and you can be in it once in a blue moon, where was he? Oh he was in the paper, oh yeah, did he have a good time? I went once, oh yeah did you see the great columns? it’s a funny concept especially nowadays when almost no-one reads ‘the paper’ so being in ‘the paper’ really means I read it on the internet, but then saying Stewart Lee was on the internet this morning doesn’t make much sense, unless you were talking about him googling himself in preparation for his show) anyway where was I, oh yes, so Stewart Lee was in the paper today, the Irish Times, saying how all these young comedians are stealing his schtick. He wants to be able to retire, or at least work another 20 years, off his schtick, but all these pesky kids are stealing his schtick and making it seem trite. So he’s abandoned his schtick, but all he’s got to replace it is this deconstructionism. But here’s a problem: deconstructionism is just another gag.
That’s the first problem. What’s wrong with a gag? Well, gags are considered a low form of comedy nowadays. It used to just be puns that were beneath the pale for the sophisticated comedian, but if we’re really truthful the whole idea of gags is a wretched business. The best comedians don’t use gags: Richard Pryor never told a gags. Doug Stanhope doesn’t tell gags. Louis CK doesn’t tell gags. Nor Seinfeld. You might notice all these comedians are American. So did I. I think not telling gags is a more American thing. And the main problem with gags is that they’re nickable. You can half-inch a gag. But you can’t half-inch Richard Pryor’s schtick. Because it would be ridiculous. Eddie Murphy tried, and even he sounded ridiculous. So the first thing is, if people are nicking your schtick, it means it’s not really your schtick, it’s just a gag, of some kind or another.
So deconstructionism is a gag. Even I, on the few occasions I’ve tried stand-up, have done it; a bit of self-reflection, commenting on how I’m doing, Brechtian analysis, if you want to be flash, mainly when a joke falls flat, or just generally to make up for the fact that even on a good day my material is whisper thin. Am I to be accused of stealing Mr Lee’s deconstructionism schtick? I never did your honour. I hadn’t realised that Mr Lee had invented deconstructionism, if it was anybody I thought it was Derrida, but no, apparently it was Mr Lee, because Mr Lee never copies anybody, everything he does is completely original in all things, and he doesn’t tell gags either, because he’s above that sort of thing.
But he does a lot of deconstructionism, because he hasn’t got any material, but that’s ok, because he says that! That’s the great deconstruction gag, that you haven’t got any material but that’s ok because you come right out and say it. Leaving aside why you feel the need to do a 40-night run at the Leicester Square Theatre when you haven’t got any material (and it can’t be for the money, because Mr Lee spends a fair portion of his stage time, in fact some of the best bits in the show are when he curses other, lesser comedians, who prostitute their ‘skills’ in the low art of making TV shows, for money, the way that Mr Lee wouldn’t ever do), leaving aside that point, let’s just ask whether the deconstructionism gag is so hilarious and original (obviously original, or Mr Lee would never use it) that it requires to be drawn out at great length, well of course it is and does.
The problem for Mr Lee seems to be that kids have stolen his act, but he’s too old and worn out and a dad now to think of anything new, and yet time marches on so he keeps going, and tries to sort of brazen it out by saying: “Look I’ve got nothing, I’m not lying to you, I’m not pretending” hoping perhaps that something will come to him that will raise this 40-night run out of the philosophical manger in which it was born. Because when he says the show’s not really about nothing it’s about “idealised notions of society and the idea of how do you get ideas for a show when you don’t have any experiences”, what he really means is, I’m hoping a better idea comes along in the course of the show. Well he’s over 20 nights in, and it hasn’t yet.
On reflection, maybe if he brought in the stuff about the kids stealing his act, the really true stuff, not the pretend true stuff about how he hasn’t got any material (“No, no, I really don’t”) when he secretly he thinks he might do (“idealised notions of society… ok, ok, I really haven’t”) then it might have brought a touch more freshness in the room. Although a 40-night run could wilt the most blooming of sets. But I’m not here to criticise Mr Lee. I certainly don’t hate Mr Lee, like those other people seem to. I like him. He’s funny. I’m a bit worried he’s running out of material though.
Anyway, dragging this long and slow and tedious essay to its sad, unloved conclusion, it only remains for me to come clean. Because being as I’m called criticalbill, you know I couldn’t renounce criticism, not really. Not truly. I’d rather renounce my name, as the Chinese say, when they are really not going to do something. But the reason I forwent criticism of Mr Lee is because of a story he alluded to from his childhood. Mr Lee mentions briefly that he was an orphan, who was then adopted and the reason I won’t be horrible about him is because I happen to know that under the tubby, depressive, Morrissey/Phil Jupitus/Terry Christian/Gordon Brown-looking exterior, Stewart is as hard and mean and well-honed as his biological father, Bruce.