I recommend the book How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee to anyone interested in the mechanics of stand-up comedy. I wouldn’t recommend it to the lecturers who taught the drama side of my degree. They have all as good as read How I Escaped My Certain Fate already because I crow-barred it into pretty much every essay I wrote. One lecturer handed back an essay which was meant to be specifically about writing stage plays with the words “it’s not really about theatre, is it?” it was called ‘An Analysis of The Use of Silence in the Stand-Up Comedy of Stewart Lee.’ I also cited Simon and Garfunkel as eminent theorists on the nature of silence.
27 grand that degree cost me.
Television briefly attempted to court the unseen side of stand-up with talent shows and the like, but presumably gave up when it found that the inner workings of such an independent art form couldn’t easily be condensed or dramatized. This book, however, gives you a real insight into a comedian’s thought process.
The book contains three annotated transcripts of Lee’s stand-up shows: Stand-up Comedian, ‘90s Comedian and 41st Best stand-Up Ever. It’s like a director’s commentary, explaining the genesis of some of the jokes, how they developed, and how the audience reacted to them. Onstage, Lee plays with the construction of stand-up. This takes that one step further, delving into the mechanics of stand-up, unrestrained by the need to be funny or to further the narrative. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny though. The rhythm of Lee’s writing is inherently amusing, as any regular readers of his Guardian column will know.
It blends memoir and craft in the same way as Stephen King’s On Writing – in which the memoir sections are used to give the reader some context that explains the decisions the author made and the advice he gives. This is important, because context is all. The very specific circumstances of Lee’s bankrupting disagreement with the Christian church is crucial to understanding how he came to be onstage saying the words “vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ”. Because I have just said that context is all, I will assume, dear reader, that you will not instantly dismiss Lee as a blasphemous shock comic.
Like the aforementioned On Writing, How I Escaped My Certain Fate is not pretentious. It takes comedy seriously, but doesn’t claim it to be an elevated form of artistic expression. This is a crucial difference which Lee often explores onstage with his bitter, comedy snob persona ridiculing the audience for not laughing quicker at a joke. The only thing excluding people from enjoying this book or Lee’s other work is context. Lee’s stand-up requires a knowledge of stand-up to understand which conventions he is playing with. It also requires the context of the surrounding material and his persona. You can’t just catch a bit of his TV show or watch a clip on Youtube and hope to fully appreciate it. That’s not because it’s too high brow, it’s because the jokes rely on that pre-existing knowledge. It’s like opening a novel at a random page and hoping to completely understand what’s going on.
All of the above also applies to the ‘If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One EP’ which contains the transcript to his 2010 show of the same name. Hopefully a big batch of Comedy Vehicle transcripts are also in the works. I want to know why he pluralised UKIP.
I’ve just found out that one of my reviews has been posted on Stewart Lee’s website. Wowee. http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/room-with-a-stew/a-room-with-a-stew-demontfort-hall-12th-february-2015/
I did an interview with him too:
Oh, and you can buy that book here: