For those of you who don’t know, Stewart Lee is a stand-up comedian. This book is built around the transcripts of three of his shows, each heavily footnoted with his own technical comments: why he thinks things are funny, notes on delivery, where jokes came from, his comedic influences and so on. Preceding each transcript is a chapter explaining that show’s genesis which inevitably involves a lot of stuff about his personal life and the state of his career. The result is a book which combines autobiography with a lot of thoughtful commentary about the art of stand-up.
I was going to say that the book serves as a record of the stand-up routines, but perhaps that’s not right. To quote one of the footnotes, on the subject of the video embedded above:
The chiselling here, where I tapped the mic stand with the mic, went on at some length, sometimes uninterrupted for minutes at a time, with me varying the rhythm and intensity of the tapping. This doesn’t work on the page, and ideally, my ambition is to get to a point where none of my stand-up works on the page. I don’t think stand-up should work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian. The text of a stand-up set should be so dependent on performance and tone that it can’t really work on the page, otherwise it’s just funny writing. You don’t have to have spent too long thinking about stand-up to realise that even though critics and TV commissioners always talk about our art form in terms of its content, it is the rhythm, pitch, tone and pace of what we do — the non-verbal cues — that are arguably more important, if less easy to identify and define.
So the DVDs are the record of the performance; the book is a critical commentary on the DVDs.
It’s certainly a slightly odd experience reading the routines on the page. They have relatively few clearly defined jokes in them, and although you can see where the humour is, they feel anaemic and formless without a performance to hold them together. And I’ve only seen some parts of the routines, on YouTube, and I know that they’re funny, but it’s hard to recapture that on the page. Even more so for the bits I haven’t seen before.
It’s a fascinating form, stand-up. Lee draws a comparison with fooling and clowning traditions, like the pueblo clowns of the southwestern US, who are given special licence to behave in disruptive, socially transgressive ways. And I can entirely see the strength of that comparison. The comparison that occurred to me, though, was with oral traditions, whether the verse traditions of Homer and Beowulf or non-verse oral storytelling traditions. You have one man standing up in front of a crowd and entertaining them by performing long stories from memory, but with a degree of flexibility and improvisation, varying from performance to performance. And one reason that stories from oral cultures often seem slightly odd when you read them may be the lack of performance. Of course in many cases, not only do we have a recording of the actual performance, we don’t even have a verbatim transcript of one particular telling of a story; instead we have some well-meaning anthropologist’s version of what the story is about.
Anyway, I have wandered off topic. It’s a good book.