How I Escaped my Certain Fate by Stewart Lee (Faber and Faber: 2010). One of Britain’s most acclaimed stand-ups explains how he became disillusioned with the industry and drifted instead into directing Jerry Springer the Opera. And then how he fell back in love with stand-up as he started to better understand his own brand of it and rediscover his audience. Includes transcripts from the three shows which marked his return to the world of stand-up.
Happy New Year chumps!! And welcome to a GBR 2012.
I (like you, I’m sure) have one or two rubbish New Year’s Day chores to do today. I’m supposed to clean out the fish tank. Also, I’m supposed to go for a run (which, after the December I’ve had, will be no simple thing).
And all after an evening which stretched into the small hours and was soaked in festive juice (otherwise known as gin, champagne, red wine, then champagne again).
So I’m putting it all off with a bit of fun first. Excuse me whilst I subject you to the first review of the year.
Stewart Lee is a bit of a hero of mine, for a few reasons that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say I’ve followed him for a young age (in a healthy fan, not a borderline stalker, sort of way). So I’ve been meaning to read this since the paperback came out in August.
I was expecting transcripts of some of his comeback shows, split up by some narrative direct from the man himself. I expected him to explain how he was dragged him from the obscurity of directing one of the most controversial and successful musicals/operas of all time, back into the glaring limelight of alternative comedy and a late night half hour show on BBC3.
I was expecting it to be funny, of course, but also to give a bit of a peek into how Stewart Lee works, and what parts are played by the people around him (especially his 90s sidekick Richard Herring).
For the most part, the book delivered on these expectations. I don’t want you to think it didn’t. But it delivered more as well. Largely through the extensive footnotes, Stew (as his friends and me call him) constantly keeps you on his side of the bar. He doesn’t treat the reader as a member of the audience, he brings you behind the scenes with constant explanations of his thinking. The result is a more intimate book than I was expecting, and more intimate perhaps than Stew had intended.
By the time I put the book down, Stew had turned from one of my favourite comedians into a real person; from someone on stage doing an act into a man whose way of thinking and motivations I could begin to understand. Not inside and out, but a little.
And he does this without losing any of the humour. He doesn’t weigh the text down with emotion or with an overdeveloped sense of his ‘journey’. There are no X-Factor style cut-aways where we learn more than we wanted to about some semi-manufactured sob story. But he does slowly tell us why he gets on stage, why he writes comedy, why he’s made the decisions he’s made, and why he tells the jokes he tells (though of course he’d deny that he actually tells jokes). He tells us who his heroes are and why. He tells us whose work he dislikes and why.
In short, he lets us into his world in a more real way than his stand-up act ever has. And his world is an interesting one.
The form he’s chosen to achieve all of this can be a little distracting. In the sections where his shows are reproduced, constantly flitting between the transcript and his footnotes (where the real story lies) can be disorienting in places. But it’s a minor criticism, and I’m not sure how he could have achieved what he has here without this format.
This is essentially a funny book, and one that successfully brings us behind the scenes of Stew’s act without ever leaving it behind fully.
I liked it. I think you would too.
Not a bad start to the year then.
I now have about ten books lined up to work my way through, finally following up on a few recommendations you guys have given me in the last couple of months. All made possible by a well informed Santa who seems to have worked out how to order vouchers from Amazon.
Next week, something Arthur Conan Doyle flavoured.