Stewart Lee’s introduction to How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian is by far the best written history of modern British alternative comedians. I keep buying all these books like Sunshine on Putty and British Cult Comedy written by writers but they don’t it anything close to what Lee accomplishes by (a) having been there, (b) having a high level of writerly sophistication, and (c) describing his comedy colleagues in a way that suggests he’s not afraid to laud or offend.
If you ever wondered why Lee quit standup, what he did in his lost years besides Jerry Springer: The Opera, you get that story, told in a no-holds-bard, colorful description only Stewart Lee could effect. But more than “I did this, then I did that,” he has a pulled-back view of the industry at the time, as it was the changes in said industry–audience expectation, television, costs, management companies, Janet Street-Porter calling comedy the new rock’n’roll–that drove him out. Lee is not hesitant to name game changers by name, and who influenced whom. He pinpoints Ted Chippington, Simon Munnery, and David Baddiel all as being either extraordinarily influential or even “genius.” You get a real sense of circuit comedy and club life and what awards really mean. The big piece of proof that the comedy industry had changed was when, during Lee’s absence from the scene, Ricky Gervais became wildly famous doing essentially the same schtick that no one wanted to see from Lee back when he was touring. What people had wanted from comedy had shifted, and Gervais was there at the right time to cash in on it, while Lee had gotten in too early and got out before it became commercially viable.
Stewart Lee is a standup comedian, writer and star of the TV series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and the author of the novel The Perfect Fool, as well as several non-fiction books like Content Provider (Faber & Faber 2016).
Lee says about his book:
“Ideally, my ambition is to get to the point where none of my stand-up works on the page. I don’t think stand-up should really work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian.”
I have highlighted a few quotes from the book of Stewart Lee talking about his fellow comedians. Take into consideration that some of these should be taken in the spirit they are meant, often as a joke but sometimes flatly honest. Buy the book from Powells to read the whole segments in context.
“In the year 2525, the futuristic supa-comedian in his silver suit will have developed an act so distinctive and steeped in his own individual specialized world view, that his lines would be incomprehensible in the mouth of anyone else, and we can see the beginning of this evolution in the work of Harry Hill, Simon Munnery, and, er, Eddie Izzard. In the meantime, most jokes are still viewed as part of the public domain.”
Richard Herring writes comedy in the vocabulary of a sexually frustrated Methodist preacher…
“I am reliably informed that Michael McIntyre doesn’t actually have a ‘man drawer,’ and invented the concept in order to ridicule ordinary people, for whom he has nothing but haughty contempt.”
The Actor Kevin Eldon is always a great comedy problem solver, a good person to ask why something is or isn’t working, but he is a Buddhist, and conceitedly believes that he has lived a good life and so will be reincarnated as a rich king or a pop star or something.
“It puzzled me that Eddie Izzard was always reviewed positively in the nineties for his supposed improvisational abilities, when in fact his real skill was to make his prepared ideas look as if they were utterly spontaneous, thereby involving everyone in the room, even in massive stadiums, in a succession of beautiful moments of apparent conception that all seemed to be unrepeatable.”
…Josie Long, a young comic who talked about paintings and the wonder of science onstage, swore loudly and pathologically in tea rooms, and appeared to make most of her own clothes. Josie was one of the acts I’d been impressed by when I started back on the circuit.
“Peter Kay and Matt Lucas…may seem more generous, but secretly, Jimmy Carr is little short of a living saint.”
Support Anglonerd.com by buying this book from Powells.
Jaime Pond is the editor of Anglonerd. She lives and works in NYC. Follow her on Twitter.
Originally published Jan. 18, 2016