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Thursday 28 October 2010

Stewart Lee's "How I Escaped My Certain Fate" (Faber & Faber)

"The worst comedian in Britain, as funny as bubonic plague." - The Sun

"I never wanted to be a comedian." writes Stewart Lee in the introduction to his brilliant book. "When I was very young I wanted to be a writer, first of all a writer of philosophically inclined thrillers like Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury or Stan Lee," he continues, "and then later a writer of thrillingly inclined philosophy, like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett." - I dare say he has succeeded on both counts!

First of all, it is impossible to read this book on the toilet. It doesn't have a handy wipe-clean cover. It is slightly too large to hold comfortably in your hands while emptying your bowel. However, it is - to borrow from the Goldilocks story - 'just right' for a prolonged and hungry single-sitting read on a rainy Wednesday night. But I'm getting ahead of myself! Before I move on to the subject matter of this must-have piece of genuine writing (as opposed to page after glossy page of recycled "scenes we'd like to see" jokes from Mock The Week), I want to tell you about the trouble I had buying this book in an actual shop.

The plan was my parents would buy this book, along with Stew's recently released and just as long windedly-titled DVD, "If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One", for Christmas. But I couldn't wait. I had the money in my hands, in coins, which I planned to spend on the book and just get the DVD from Father Christmas. I went to Waterstones in Cardiff, who told me that they had one copy in stock but couldn't find it anywhere. They even checked the "Celebrity Hardbacks" section - against my many protestation. What an ignorant man he was. Anyway, they couldn't find it anywhere. So I went to W.H.Smith's to see if they had it. Again, there were two in stock. One was missing completely and the other's cover was torn to shreds. Worse still, it was shelved between "Richard Littlejohn's House Of Fun: Thirteen Years Of (Labour) Madness" and some mini-book about Justin Beiber, in the Entertainment section, no less!

I wanted a pristine copy in the hope that I would get it signed by the man himself when I saw his new live show, "Vegetable Stew" at the postponed St David's Hall date (I shall keep the book safe until March). So I meandered toward HMV - I got my copy of Disgusting Bliss there a few weeks earlier, so you never know - and asked the purple-haired young chap with eye-liner at the counter if the store stocked it. He didn't even know who Stewart Lee was! Using my eyes I looked in the "Book" section for my prize and discovered, to my amazement - and that of the camp man behind the counter - the last copy they had, in perfect condition.

And I think that word - perfect - sums up the content of the book fairly well. Comprised of extensively annotated transcripts of his three Stand-Up shows, Stand-up Comedian, 90s Comedian and 41st Best Stand-up Ever, interspersed with detailed and informative - and very funny - autobiographical intros to these shows, How I Escaped My Certain Fate (or HIEMCF, as I shall call it in homage to earlier Lee masterpieces) speaks always honestly, sometimes brutally and often emotionally about Stewart Lee's rise and fall-cycle, which has led to him being known in the trade as "The Comedian's Comedian". I found that I couldn't put the book down! 

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph above the "real life" stories he tells read like a personal diary more than a celebrity autobiography - which, of course, it sort of it. Filled with open and occasionally shocking revelations (£600 for an appearance on HIGNFY?) and the sort of anecdotes that actually interest people (there's nothing in here about "that time I was at Elton's place on Brits night and Cilla Black was in the pool...") the chapters between the transcripts are beautifully written, witty, clever, honest and filled with references to comics I had never heard of; comics I have now looked up and fallen in love with. 

The whole thing reads as a kind of love-letter to the art-form of stand-up. Reading of Lee's ups and downs, from glass-strewn Bangor stages to the National Theatre, via Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh (every year bar one) and every other sticky-carpeted, brown-walled pub back room on the way, you can't help but get swept along by his enthusiasm for an industry that he clearly loves. If you're not a stand-up fan then it's very unlikely you'd have heard of Stewart Lee, let alone bought his book. But if you are a fan of stand-up comedy, this perfect-bound stack of 378 pages is everything you've ever wanted to read about. 

It's a rare thing. I want to talk about what's in it, but I REALLY WANT you all to read this book. Since reading the book a second time I've decided that there is more to Stewart Lee than most give him credit for. He's not just the most intelligent and interesting stand-up working today, but a true artist. People say he deconstructs comedy and that's his trick, but I think they're wrong. I think Lee sees comedy. Stew gets that what he does is clever; he sees that there is an audience he will never win. And I don't think he wants them. Much of what he does he talks about in terms of "losing a room and then winning them back" which is daring. He speaks of his wish to make form and rhythm the most important aspect of his comedy, even over material! Again, daring. Stewart Lee does what most comedy audiences - and this isn't arrogance, here - simply don't understand: he takes a joke and tells us why it's funny. 

Sidestepping actual punchlines, even when they present themselves blatantly, in favour of a turn-of-phrase or even just a look, Lee provides more seasoned comedy fans with something better. His book is a must buy, then you'll all know what the hell it is I've been talking about all through this post. 

To me, in the nicest possible way, Stewart Lee is like going to the cinema while taking A-Level Media Studies. I have found myself watching Lee Evans in his stadium shows, huge and sweaty on 30ft screens, and getting ahead of him. I've watched mainstream comics like Michael McIntyre and his "Comedy Road-show Massive" telling jokes that have already been explained to me by Lee and others like him. I was appalled to hear Noel "The Mighty Boosh" Fielding telling a joke on Comedy Roadshow (BBC) last week which Stew had made in his 90s Comedian, and made much more effectively, about the audience making the jokes in their heads, thus rendering themselves and only themselves responsible for their possible lack of enjoyment. I saw this joke retold, not verbatim, granted, and thought to myself "this isn't theft... this is influence". Stewart Lee. A name that is known by those who know it, and those alone. My Mother hates him despite never having seen him at all, simply because he's "so slow". She doesn't get it. But then again she's seen the best stand-up she'll ever see; she was on this Cruise once...

Stewart Lee's book, "How I Escaped My Certain Fate - The Life And Deaths Of A Stand-Up Comedian" is available to buy from Stew's website, here. If you only read one book... etc.