How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

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.


Podcasts I listen to, part 1

Hardly a day goes past without nobody asking me what podcasts I listen to. So, in defiance of public demand, here goes. This is the first of two posts, in alphabetical order.

Adam & Joe

Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish have a radio show on BBC Radio 6; Radio 6 is a music channel, but because of licensing restrictions, this is their show with all the music taken out so that you’re just left with their chatter. Which is, clearly, a great idea, and I only hope that the BBC never manages to negotiate a version of the podcast with music on it.

Silly and reliably entertaining.

Answer Me This!

Even sillier, and also entertaining. People submit questions, Helen and Olly answer them.

Apple Keynotes

Videos of Steve Jobs doing his bit as the Freddie Mercury of the computer industry. Boom! Probably only one for Apple fanboys like myself.

Armstrong & Miller – Timeghost

Comedians Alex Armstrong and Ben Miller provide culturally-themed chitchat in the personae of art critics Craig Children and Martin Baine-Jones. I’m not really convinced that they’ve worked out how to get enough value from doing it in character, but after a weak start it’s now an entertaining show.

Arts and Ideas R3

A selection of highlights from BBC Radio 3’s arts coverage. Variable but worth a listen.

The Bugle

This is probably the single podcast I would recommend most strongly: John Oliver (that English bloke from The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman (English comedian) provide satirical comment on the week’s news. Very very funny.

CERN podcast

An occasional podcast from the nice atom-smashers in Switzerland. It has mostly been (interesting) cheerleading so far; now that the LHC has been turned on and then gone phut, it’ll be interesting to see if they do a podcast about the problems

The Collings and Herrin podcasts

Comedians Andrew Collins and Richard Herring. Funnny enough that I keep listening to it, but every time I find myself thinking that it could usefully be just a bit shorter.

Friday Night Comedy

Depending on the time of year, either The News Quiz or the Now Show, two current-affairs comedy shows on BBC Radio 4. The News Quiz has unsurprisingly lost some of its lustre over the past couple of years since the sad loss of Linda Smith and then Alan Coren — difficult people to replace — but it’s still worth listening to.

Front Row Highlights

Front Row is a daily arts programme on Radio 4; this is a weekly highlights package. 

Global Arts and Entertainment (World Service)

Selected arts coverage from the BBC World Service. Variable but worth subscribing.