Dusty function rooms and faded TV stars in English seaside towns felt abruptly moribund when, in 1993, The Mary Whitehouse Experience (a comedy revue featuring Robert Newman, David Baddiel, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) sold out 12,000 seats at Wembley Arena [NOTE; This is the author’s error. Newman & Baddiel did this as a double act, after TMWE folded].
The event seemed to rubber-stamp the dawning of a loud, monetised era in UK standup, ready-branded with its Janet Street-Porter-appropriated sound-bite: comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll. In the midst of this boom, Stewart Lee, in his double-act partnership with Richard Herring, made two television series, toured nationally, and earned radio credits for Chris Morris’s influential current affairs satire On the Hour – and yet, it’s plain that he found most of the work in this period conspicuous and unfulfilling. Interest in performance dwindled, and in 2001 Lee co-wrote (with Richard Thomas, to initial acclaim) Jerry Springer: The Opera, which transferred to Theatreland premises, only to attract both controversy from the religious right and no money.
Success on his own terms came relatively late for Lee, well into the mid-2000s, materialising only, we learn, after a period of intense disenchantment. It’s a time eloquently rendered in How I Escaped My Certain Fate, which is the more substantial of the books here. However, Content Provider – superficially a cut-and-paste grab-bag of comment pieces, in this case written mainly for The Observer newspaper – is perhaps more immediately recognisable, playing as it does on the irascible, slightly dysfunctional relationship between Lee and his audience these days. Critics consider Stewart Lee synonymous with The Observer. He’s supposed to represent the whole idea of its archetypal, comfortably liberal reader, sniping at a system that sustains him. However, instead of cosying up, Lee alters this situation by writing either in self-parody or in the skewed on-stage character version of himself. Live, it’s a now-familiar but complex dynamic: Lee can grant tolerance to his ‘established’ audience while displaying intolerance towards newcomers, to whom he once wearily directed, “you’re going to have to raise your game.” It’s a struggling Grotesque that we’re seeing — the once-balanced entertainer mutated into a monster fuming at being denied the recognition that it deserves.
This shtick (which Alan Moore describes as the “innovative technique of spraying his own audience with caustic bile”) is certainly funny to witness; there are shades of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in its apparent truth. (It’s strange that Lee, also Oxbridge-educated, with a wide-reaching and authentic fascination for music, literature and the arts, felt unable to accept a role presenting a well-known culture show on BBC Television. But of course his irritable character, placed in the real world, in that actual job, would be unable to approach another artist without rancour and jealousy of the work under discussion. And for similar reasons of creative integrity, a kind of “what would I be doing there?” test, adverts and panel shows have also remained off limits.)
The articles compiled in Content Provider (on pretty standard topics such as William-and-Kate; Brexit; television; political pratfalls) were written – mainly, anyway – to plug absences in a regular Observer column by the comic actor David Mitchell. Lee is more inclined to include rudimentary, self-defeating errors in his copy, or toy with the rules of acceptability, than to provide Mitchell’s arch, wry, and distinctly echoing commentary on events of the week. Anyone who reads these things online will know that they unfailingly prompt a deluge of incredulous ‘below-the-line’ abuse, counteracted by Lee’s legacy fan base dutifully attempting to enlighten the naysayers. Lee uses the worst of the comments on his own website, and republishes some choice bile in Content Provider. It’s a typical acceptance of hatred, quoted on stage, promotional posters, and books (Lee “is not funny and has nothing to say,” boasts the front of Content Provider), which goes back to Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun spin-off book, with its ‘celebration of mediocrity’ sections.
Content has been provided, by Lee and (unwittingly) his detractors, but only half of the equation gets paid. No bones are made about this being an assemblage of disposable writing intended to space-fill the print media – in Lee’s own words, to be smiled at and then become “the lining of a cat’s litter tray.” This is slightly harsh: the new forewords to many of these articles add a lot of value, as does a revealing, angsty introductory chapter. All in all, Lee seems quite chuffed that the exaggerated replica of himself has wound up pulling this off.
A character is never wholly fictional, and it’s interesting, reading How I Escaped My Certain Fate, to map the development of the performance to a chronological autobiography. This is essentially what the book is: a highly (and at times, ridiculously) annotated account of the ups and downs of Lee’s work up to roughly 2008, including verbatim transcriptions of three key shows, ums and ers dutifully included. (In possible homage to Flann O’Brien, of whom Lee is a fan, the footnotes intrude on and disrupt the narrative with infectious glee.)
“I never wanted to be a comedian,” the book begins, inviting the obvious riposte. Indeed, it has been justifiably asked: is Lee really a comedian? Does he truthfully want to stand in front of people and make them laugh? To give folks an enjoyable evening out? The answer to all these questions is yes – Lee has no interest in “driving to Cardiff and ruining someone’s night” – but at the same time his comedy is like awkward, experimental jazz, hovering near the outer reaches of a circle whose epicentre is occupied by Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay. There’s room for all, of course, and one of the most charming aspects of Certain Fate is Lee’s admiration for stand-up as an art form, one for which he seems to have near-unconditional love. His description of the early 1980s movement known as Alternative Comedy is a high point, recalling Malcolm Hardee (who claimed to have invented the phrase), Arnold Brown, Peter Richardson, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French, Andy de la Tour and more.
Alternative Comedy, says Lee, had an ideological standpoint “for about a week in 1980,” which may be true, but sounds like the curmudgeon alone with his pint in the corner of the pub, and prompts the editor to warn in the footnotes that the book may come across as “the demented ramblings of an inexplicably bitter man.” It’s a description that sums up the development of the Stewart Lee character fairly well —intentionally or not. These notes are alive with anecdotal and heartfelt interludes, regaling us with tales of performers whose careers are mere footnotes themselves. They are particularly absorbing in their examination of the three transcribed shows, explaining the minutiae of each set-piece: its delivery, exactly why it did or did not work. We’re taken back to when Radio One had “weird bits,” when Channel Four was radical, and the NME had superb writers. There is sadness in the loss of those things; in fact, the presence of emotion may surprise those expecting blanket cynicism. Depressed in Australia, and rather absurdly, Lee buys Bovril and an Oasis record out of sheer nostalgia.
The book accumulates a roll-call of comedy personalities, some better-known than others, and is dedicated to Ted Chippington, a minor but cult figure in 1980s standup. Seemingly forever misplaced on an unsuitable bill, often supporting bands, Chippington’s act was to repeat, with minor variations, the same joke involving a tortuous misunderstanding of something’s name. Cue nods of recognition from followers of Stewart Lee, who, after first seeing Chippington live, made up his mind to strive for chiefly the same thing. Chippington and another obscure comic, Simon Munnery, are cited as major influences, as is a documentary named The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza’s film about a legendary US standup joke. Arcane and obscene, yet routinely performed by myriad comedians, the less said here about the joke itself the better, but as Provenza says, “it’s about the singer, not the song. Repeating the same joke allows us to get over the issue of content and concentrate instead on the thorny issue of aesthetics.” This provides an apt juncture to conclude the book, with Lee telling us “this was what I had been trying to do in comedy for nearly twenty years.” That aim has been achieved, as most who have seen his standup any time in the last dozen years would confirm. The story closes in a mode of tainted celebration – a long-sought solo BBC series, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, has been commissioned – as Lee finds himself in the Chinese restaurant of a Salford retail park, with a disinterested and preoccupied colleague, and ultimately drinks his champagne alone. “The me you see onstage,” he says, “is largely a construct, based on me at my worst, my most annoying, my most petty, and my most patronising.” It’s an act fronted up so well, people think that the monster is real. How I Escaped My Certain Fate could reverse that view, but books like this are for the converted: Lee’s decriers will have little inclination to read it.–Neil Jackson