Possibly the coolest thing to be in contemporary culture is a “stand-up comedian” although it certainly wasn’t always so. Surely the artist, musician, poet or novelist was the coolest thing to be. Of course comedians have always been popular ever since they were called court jesters, I suppose. I can remember way back when I was a young man in London – some 40 years ago – and comedy clubs were starting up all over the place. I would go to the one in the Bedford Arms in Balham and see all sorts of acts that subsequently became famous often enjoying long careers. For example I used to see Harry Enfield with various mates doing skits parodying ’50’s police dramas well before he began appearing on TV and he was still doing that sort of thing quite recently in one of his TV shows. We may live in a TV age in which material is only new once but it is surprising how much mileage there can be in some material.
Nowadays there are so many “stand-ups”, so many comedy competitions and open-mike nights and everyone wants to be, or thinks that they could be, a “comedian”, that the once risqué aspects of the humour and performance has in many ways been diluted by the mainstream success of so many of these entertainers. Very large incomes and fortunes can now be made. TV contracts can be huge and a tour in which large theatres or auditoriums are filled on an almost nightly basis mean very large sums of money can be earned. Having just seen Stewart Lee’s new show at Bath’s Theatre Royal that he is currently touring called “A Room with a Stew” calls into question exactly what all this “comedy” is actually about or as the “observational comics would say “have you seen all this comedy they’ve got now?” which is my steal from Lee’s own jibe at so-called observational comedy’s take on Islamophobia: “Have you seen these Muslims they have now?” Almost uniquely among contemporary comedians Lee never shies away from critiquing his fellow “stand-ups”, something generally regarded as taboo.
No performer can expect to be liked by everyone but clearly some are going to have a wider appeal than others and that must come at some cost to the nature of their material. There has to be some lowest common denominator effect in this. Stewart Lee is clearly in the business of cultivating a more niche audience to the extent that he builds a degree of contempt for certain perceived sections of his audience i.e. those that don’t realise what he is up to and have come by “mistake” as it were. He is at pains to point out that it is “not for you” and that he “just doesn’t care” what they think about him or his work. Is this real contempt or is this part of an elaborate post-modern irony? To emphasize this confusion he displays a running ticker of critical comments, mostly derived from Twitter, on his web site. A sample of which reads like this:
“The most overrated smug twat ever.”
“Stewart Lee is not funny and has nothing to say.”
“the worst comedian in Britain, as funny as bubonic plague” (the Sun)
“I tried to watch Stewart Lee but had to stop due to him being shit. He addressed an insular cadre of socially challenged, prematurely middle-aged, pseudo-intellectual men, I thought.”
“Genuinely can’t stand him, he comes across as the sort that thinks that live comedy should just be kept to smoky art student union clubs and that any comedian that plays in arenas is destroying the so called “artistic integrity” of stand up when we all know stand-up comedy is not an art form it’s a form of live entertainment. P.S. Just because your TV show is terrible doesn’t mean you have to rip into Russell Howard and ‘that Roadshow”.”
“This has to be the most unfunny stand up I’ve ever seen. I’ve not laughed, smirked or grinned once at Lee’s quips. What an absolute waste of time. 0/10.”
“Self consciousness in comedy doesn’t make it better, or more intelligent. It makes it much worse. Give me Michael McIntyre any day.”
“An abysmal ‘comedian’. He’s unable to pick up Brownie points for being funny and so instead flaunts his politically correct views to try to get audiences’ and critics’ sympathy. While this works to keep him a cult following of der brains who enjoy playing the game of ‘I’m holier than thou’, it’s the reason why he’ll never be mainstream (you have to be funny to do that) and why critics who like him always have to apologise for his contributions to high profile charity gigs in venues when the punters don’t laugh. Garbage.”
This is pretty high-grade vitriol and these are some of the more temperate comments so one would have to wonder why a performer would be comfortable using them in his own promotional material if they were not illustrating some sort of point for him, which is what I am sure they are. They are almost a vindication of his work and a badge of honour. Why this might be can perhaps be found in the jester tradition in western culture lasting from medieval times until about the Civil War in England. It is said of jesters that:
“they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her” (From Wikipedia.)
“Their role was more than pure amusement; they were the original “truth tellers,” whose job was to mock typical human vices of vanity, venality, snobbery, petulance, laziness, carpetbaggery, and fatuity. The court jesters aimed their humor at the usual targets: religion and the hypocrisy of its authority figures; pompous and self-serving scholars and grandiloquent artists; knavish and sycophantic court officials; and indolent, mercurial, or incompetent rulers.” (From: The History of the Court Jester by Magda Romanska.)
To imagine that all “stand-up” acts are there simply to entertain and to feel that if you have paid good money to see someone that they have a duty to entertain you is the miss the point entirely. Indeed Lee himself is aware of the delicacy of this as demonstrated by this response to the suggestion that he is just not funny:
“Yeah, absolutely. If you trust it and go with it, you find it funny. If you don’t, it becomes annoying and unbearable. In 2007 I was put on in Edinburgh in this big tent in the middle of town where the funny people are on. I had a sense that at weekends there were these people who had got babysitters and were coming out and they saw this strange, problematic act and they were often annoyed and disappointed. I didn’t take any pleasure in that.”
To judge from the reviews of this show the fault line is clearly one that runs through British society in general. Those in favour are the left of centre broadsheets and those against the right of centre broadsheets and the tabloids. For those who want to look into this further here are a selection of reviews. (For any non-Brit readers The Telegraph is a right-wing broadsheet. The rest are either centre or left of centre.) The Telegraph, The Independent, Manchester Evening News, The Reviews Hub, The Guardian. To be scrupulously fair this is The Telegraphs review of Lee’s current show which is surprisingly favourable.
I would say that Lee is undoubtedly an acquired taste. I like him though Kate was a bit unhappy with this particular show finding it a bit lazy and haphazard. I am not sure about that as I think that everything that he does is meticulously worked out even when it appears to be shambolic. Either way an evening with Stewart Lee is not necessarily going to be a barrel of laughs but is likely to get you thinking about and discussing it. It is certainly not just an entertainment.
For anyone interested there is, unsurprisingly, a wealth of Stewart Lee material available on YouTube. Here is a taster: