Tuesday, 7 February 2012

More about laughter - from Langston Hughes to Stewart Lee



In the last post I wrote about Langston Hughes' short novel “Not Without Laughter” (1930). The quote in the book's title turns up in my copy on page 180. The narrator, Sandy, has taken to visiting a local pool hall (against the wishes of his serious aunt) and he likes to watch and listen to the old men who frequent the place:

"Then, often, arguments would begin – boastings, proving and fending; or telling of exploits with guns, knives, and razors, with cops and detectives, with evil women and wicked men; out-bragging and out-lying one another, all talking at once. Sometimes they would create a racket that could be heard for blocks. To the uninitiated it would seem that a fight was imminent. But underneath, all was good-natured and friendly – and through and above everything went laughter. No matter how belligerent or lewd their talk was, or how sordid the tales they told – of dangerous pleasures and strange perversities – these black men laughed. That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long – because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter."

I guess, these days, you could pull that paragraph to pieces if you felt so inclined (clichés of poor people laughing through all their suffering etc.) but I'd really rather not. It was written nearly a hundred years ago and it is a great book. Plus we all know what he was talking about – the human spirit, the urge to find enjoyment and good humour whatever our circumstances, the simple, straightforward desire to laugh and feel good. Also how attractive laughter is – how we are drawn towards it, how we want to be part of it so often, how we look for it, work for it and, these days more and more, pay for it.

After finishing “Not Without Laughter” I read a very different book, but one that is also about, if you like, the business of laughter from a different viewpoint (and written in a different era). That book was “How I Escaped My certain Fate – the Life and Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian” by Stewart Lee (2010). Its various covers are above.

Some of you will know comedian Stewart Lee... and some of you won't. He's been around on the comedy circuit (in the UK and beyond) since about 1990, he's been on the radio, he's also had a few TV shows (though nothing especially mainstream), he turns up writing in “The Guardian” a lot these days...and he was one of the writers behind that “Jerry Springer – The Opera” business (which you might have heard of... I've not seen it... but then I've never watched Jerry Springer either come to that... or much opera...).

I am interested in comedy, generally speaking, though so I don't really know how my life has managed to remain so Lee-free up to this point (because it has). It might be partly to do with that one year (somewhere around 1989/90) when I was the cabaret/comedy reviewer for a West Yorkshire what's on magazine and I went to see so many comedians that I was quite put off them for the next few years or so. Instead I just made do with my friends and nearest and dearest – if you pick them carefully they can be much funnier than the “professionals”, I think... plus you don't have to hear just the same routines over and over again (well, on the good nights). It might also be that my TV watching has been fairly erratic – there have been years here and there when I've had no TV at all and other times when I've only watched what feels like one genre, or even one show, for whole years at a time. Plus there was those ten years when I hardly left nightclubs...

Lee is an Edinburgh Festival regular too but I haven't even seen him there because I've only ever seen one Edinburgh fringe show in my life (and that was a poet...). I think now maybe I would like to go to Edinburgh Festival some time – see lots of totally-unsuitable-for-children shows, stay up late, drink with abandon... but I don't see that happening for at least another couple of years. And by then all the comics will seem really young! I may even have got to the stage where younger people feel the urge to stop me in venues and tell me how nice it is to see someone of my age still “getting out and about” (that did once happen to a friend of mine in a nightclub... she was in her early 30s...). So on second thoughts, maybe it doesn't sound so great. Plus it'll cost a fortune (have you ever stayed in Edinburgh at festival time.. crazily expensive).

Anyway... for all these (and, no doubt, many other) reasons I've only really come to know Lee's comedy over the past year or so via youtube clips (they're free, you don't have to leave the house, they don't go on too long... comedy in a cheap, little box, it's perfect). I have laughed (probably many times) at Lee's Harry Potter feature (available here... along with many other good clips about Top Gear, tabloid journalists, “Braveheart” etc. etc.) and although I might call myself a minor fan I'm still not sure I like him enough to go and see a live show (though he's on in Aberdeen in May and I'm thinking about it).

So the book? What about the book?

Well, I laughed... repeatedly... and I'd recommend it... unless you hate the very idea of Stewart Lee (and quite a lot of people do, judging by all comments online related to him and his work - there is a selection of them on his own website... presuming they are real ones...). Things you need to know:

A lot of the book is transcripts of Lee's live shows (“Stand-Up Comedian”, “ '90s Comedian” and “41st Best Stand-Up Ever”). These bits are OK most of the time... and very good in places. Non-fans say his shows are just “not funny”, “not enough jokes” and so on... but that is part of his style (it is a very rambly delivery... much more Dave Allen than... well, Dave Allen really... kind of Rick from “The Young Ones” doing Dave Allen maybe..). And it's quite challenging stuff throughout – he is trying to be different/awkward/tricky (and he is). And sometimes he is just boring.

A lot of the rest of the book is very long notes related to parts of these live shows (explanations, background material and so on). Some of these bits are very entertaining... again rambly for sure but sometimes rambling just is the best way to talk about something. There's quite a lot about word choice in his routines, for example, which will either tickle your fancy or untickle your... (what shall I choose) teapot? And so on. A lot of his point with this book really is to let us know what it has been like to stay an alternative comedian (when many others from that genre crossed over to mainstream long ago). Lee has never really taken the panel shows/big bucks road that so many other comics have opted for (though he has hopped onto it now and again) and so this account is made partly, I'm sure, to provide contrast to all those other comics' books (the thick, cheerily-titled tomes that appear around Xmas time every year... and then in charity shops a couple of months later...). This, in comparison, is quite a dirty, grotty book at times. It can be annoying, repetitive, whingey, small-minded (or small-worlded perhaps)... but then at other times it is absolutely joyful and piercingly spot-on and just really funny. I liked it overall.

Lee gives a lot of detail about the early days of alternative comedy, the comedy business from the 1990s till now and other comics (past and present). Sometimes I was surprised by the well-known comics he doesn't lay into (somehow I expected him to hate Ricky Gervais but he doesn't – has only good things to say about him). And then other times I was surprised by the ones who did get a knife somewhere painful (Alan Davies – I never knew he'd done anything to upset anyone... but then I don't read tabloids...). He even has a go or two at radio DJ Stuart Maconie... and I never knew Maconie had haters (I'm so naïve.. but then I never read the “NME” either...). Comics who get the most aggro (and I might have got some of these wrong... apologies if so..) include cuddly Peter Kay, Ben “We will rock you” Elton (Lee really didn't like that musical... again I've not seen it... why would I?), Jack Dee, Russell Brand and there are quite a few digs at Eddie Izzard too (“ 'I'll improvise like Eddie Izzard... pretends to do' “... and there's a hooray from me for that one). Successful/mainstream comics who he seems to think are OK include Harry Hill, Jimmy Carr, Mighty Boosh, Johnny Vegas (the latter I've hardly ever seen but Lee makes such a longwinded plea for his canonisation that I feel I must put this right at some point...). And some I really couldn't tell what he thought of them (like Frank Skinner). Sometimes it is hard to know when he's taking the piss and when he isn't... I don't suppose it really matters. It's only one opinion...

And in fact you can't always be sure how straight Lee is being with us (the readers) about anything anyway. He makes quite a lot of stuff up (about the history of comedy, about other acts...). He also repeatedly tells you how the Lee you see on stage (and in the book) is a persona... but then there are twists to that too – “here... I am sort of in character as a smug, stuck-up, politically correct, holier than thou leftie, a character I have researched so fully I often feel obliged actually to behave like it in my own spare time, sometimes for years on end”. Basically it's just not a one-way-street kind of a book and there are a lot of lines like this one “Having sat in on the edits of three live DVDs and a TV series, I have nothing but sympathy, generally, for people who find my work intolerable.” Yes. And no. And then yes again. Nothing's easy and you have to keep your brain switched on whilst reading (easy for all you clever poetry types, no?).

Does he sometimes get a bit grand in his ambitions for stand-up comedy? Yes. Is it sometimes a bit cringey (the whole New Mexico bit)? Yes. But is it understandable? Well, yes... because comedy does get pushed aside (it's not real art, not to be taken seriously and so on). And aren't such accusations usually uttered by folk whose art just can't reach the kind of audiences that comedy (and say, popular music, TV drama and movies) can? Yes (damn those popular artforms). Plus comedy is hard (much harder than, say, abstract painting...). Well, it was "Official Worldwide Say Something Controversial" week recently, wasn't it?

Unlike a lot of his vintage of alternative comics Lee went to Oxford University and he makes interesting reference to this (well, it's interesting to me anyway... but then he's about my age... and has been about the same disappointment to his longsuffering mother... so there is some common ground in this area... oh, why didn't we choose Manchester and not get their hopes up so much..?). If I were to live over again I would teach myself one thing – don't peak too soon...

There is much talk of performers you might not have heard of – some of them are Lee's influences (like Ted Chippington, Greg Fleet... there's a film about Lee meeting Chippington here... presuming they're not just making him up too) and others are people he has worked with and obviously has much admiration for (Richard Herring, Simon Munnery, Daniel Kitson, Josie Long*). You do get the feeling that he wants all of these performers to get more recognition than they do but knows they probably won't (well, maybe Long will – I seem to have seen her on TV now and again of late). But overall our comedy scene makes big names via TV and big, much-viewed TV at that... and most of these people are not mainstream TV artists... some out of choice, some because of their material, some... just because it hasn't worked out that way, I suppose (I'd have quite liked to have the Nobel Prize for Literature by now myself but it's not looking good either). Lee just says of TV that it is “insane” and I should think that's probably about right. He also raves about Jerry Sadowitz (as people do) but I saw him once in Leeds and can't tell you much other than I got bored of the incest jokes (and how often can you say that?).

Lee calls poet John Hegley his “teenage comedy hero” and there is a good little section about Hegley's advice (“you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away”.)

He writes quite a lot about that “The Aristocrats” movie (the one where they all tell the same joke). I just couldn't get through it (the movie). Maybe it works if you're in the business.

He really doesn't like sport or sports fans. Meh. I have one sportsfan I like especially so I have learned not to be so small-minded in this area.

There is good stuff about how people routinely mix up political correctness with health & safety legislation. But then, as the Daily Mail has recently recognised, right wing people are thick. Either that or they are quite the opposite and the whole Daily Mail thing is a trap to show up their opposition as smug, know-it-alls... Well, we knew that too.

There's quite a lot of talk about music in the book... and none of it anything that I like very much (The bloody Fall - always the Fall...) but I still found it interesting. I guess that makes me a fan (of Lee, not the Fall... not yet... but there's always time...).

Although Lee tries to stress that this book is not about him (“you will notice there is precious little personal information in this book”) of course this isn't really the case - there is plenty about his life and how he has spent his years if you're a person who's interested in such things. There's stuff about being adopted (it's wrapped up in theories about comedy and language but it's still there) and scraps about family and illness and so on. I really liked all these bits (my favourite section is probably the trip to his Mum's house... I love all that “but how can you be famous if I've not heard of you” stuff... though that is not an actual quote... ). Lee won't like this maybe (it's about the work not the person, I know, I know...) but you can't actually tell people how to react to you or your work no matter how clever you are. Plus maybe I am just a bit of a clichéd girl in this regard and more interested in people's lives than in theories of comedy (or the Fall). Certainly academia suited me like a knighthood would suit Stewart Lee. Maybe I should just get a subscription to “Heat” magazine and be done with it (“irony”... I think).

There is quite a lot of material in this book that could shock some readers, I suppose (many holy cows dragged in and milked... is that possible..?)... what with the Jesus references, poo references, “Scotch” jokes, 9/11, even Princess Di pops in at one point (“I don't really believe that there's such a thing as dated subject material, or clichéd subject material. There are only dated and clichéd approaches, and even some of them are still funny”). But none of it is used lightly or without giant amounts of consideration. And I would refer you to the quote from the Hughes book at the top of this post as a kind of guide (“belligerent” is OK, “lewd” is OK... as long as under it all you feel that the comic is “good-natured and friendly”)... by which I mean that I suppose it comes down to personal taste (and taste in people). I'm not saying I'd ever want to hang around for Lee's autograph or anything but he does seem, to me, like an OK guy... like a writer and performer who really is more interested in ideas than money, who wants to do something with the medium, not just regurgitate the same old stuff, or take the easy routes. And he is clever – painfully so at times – and probably usually right (but then I agree with him a lot so I would say that).

Or maybe I'm wrong and he's just a wanker and it's all an elaborate con trick and I have just been played like the sucker I am. It's possible. Take this from Lee's book:

“Audiences, in my experience, are like cats. They don't respect you if you seem too desperate for their affection, but disguise your desperate need for their love as a kind of bored indifference, and soon they will be eating out of your hand.”

Well, whichever... I really enjoyed the book (and what else can you ask?). You can buy a copy via his website here, if you like (the website itself is worth a look too).

*Yes, not many women mentioned in this article (or indeed in the book). Miranda Hart sneaks in, as does Lee's wife Bridget Christie but there aren't many others... so once again we come to the (eternal) question of why comedy (stand-up especially) is so dominated by male performers. My theory is simple – I just think that not many funny women (and of course they exist... sometimes in the unlikeliest places...) like the idea of repeating themselves over and over and over (ad nauseum) and stand-up does largely require that. There are women who want to repeat themselves (hell, we all know some of them) but they are the BORING women, the ones we all run to avoid when we see them coming down the street (over the playground, to the front door). We wouldn't pay to go and listen to them! And yet men somehow manage to turn being boring and repetitive into an artform**. We could learn from that sisters, we really could.

**But is it an artform (haven't we already covered this)? Here is one of Lee's favourite performers on a related question:



For me, I think maybe the whole idea that stand-up comedy has developed into a separate genre (and one we expect so much of) is a bit weird. It's such a pressure to be funny on stage all night (and that's why the likes of Lee really refuse to do that and spend a lot of each night not being particularly funny at all... and I've an old poem about comedy performing here). It's a pressure on the audience too (we must be amused and only amused ALL NIGHT LONG) and it's not natural (no matter how drunk you are... in fact especially if you're drunk... drunks are only happy briefly, on the whole). Maybe that's why I don't go to comedy gigs any more ... because it's just not right. More controversy... and now my eyes hurt. This post wasn't meant to be this long!

x

8 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

Maybe it's the "all things are relative" thing - something can only be perceived funny by virtue that it comes after/between something not particularly funny/something sad/serious...
it's the contrast that causes the reaction to something as being funny when, perhaps, it's not...hmn...

Rachel Fox said...

Not quite sure which bit you're referring to there? I went on too long, didn't I? Confused everyone..?
x

Eryl said...

I find Stewart Lee utterly hilarious, and at the same time serious, which is quite a potent combination. And now I have Simon Munnery, who I'd never heard of but am already, thanks to the clip here, ready to dive into an all night youtube frenzy with him. I think it was you who introduced me to Lee, too, I'll have to buy you a pint one day. X

Rachel Fox said...

I remember Munnery's character Alan Parker Urban Warrior, Eryl (that is I never saw him but I remember seeing the name a lot...). There's a bit of him here
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrf-PRYPxr8
It's lasted well - not dated really and that clip is from 1993.
As for Lee... I somehow missed the Comedy Vehicle TV show - we can't have been away both times - but I watched this bit yesterday
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqTvPn82qLU&feature=share
and now will never hear the words "property developer" without seeing something else...
May buy the DVDs... may go to the show in Aberdeen after all...
x

Ronald R.Phillips said...
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Rachel Cotterill said...

Stewart Lee has been recommended to me a few times; I need to check out his stuff.

Rachel Fox said...

There's plenty online to dip your toes in, as it were. Not sure that's a good image...

Edinburgh Flats to rent said...
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