I bought Stewart Lee's book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, to help myself through a hangover last weekend. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be to read transcripts of three shows that I'd already seen, but the book includes some massive footnotes discussing the routines and Lee's life, all of which proved fascinating.
Stewart Lee interests me since he is someone who obviously cares about his craft. He talks in detail about his work, and how it relates to the comedians he loves, many of whom I'd not heard of before I read references to them in Lee's interviews. Lee also has some fantastic set-pieces, my favourite being his attack on Richard Littlejohn for Littlejohn's disgraceful comments on the Ipswich murders
Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Lee talks about his career and its current status. Inspired by Daniel Kitson, Lee has deliberately aimed for a smaller audience of people who love his work. He's a good example of someone with 1000 true fans.
A few favourite quotes from the book:
"…my teenage comedy hero John Hegley told me you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away. And I thought about all the musicians I like – the folk singers and free jazzers and alternative country cowpokes and persistent punk veterans who all hang on in there, on small labels, selling self-released CDs for cash out of suitcases after gigs and operating within viable margins, tour, rest, tour, rest and sell some CDs. They survive" [p31]
"I am arrogant, I admit, but when I say things like this onstage I have chosen to be arrogant for comic effect and hope, in part, that the comments reflect badly on me, creating a distancing effect between me and the audience. I hope they admire the comedy, but I'd rather they didn't enjoy the show just because they liked me as a person. It seems cheap." [p68]
"For the middle part of my thirties I'd been barely earning a living. I was like a punch-drunk prizefighter with no other viable skills who thought there might still be a battle to be won. And I realised that stand-up was just one man on a stage in the room. And so stand-up was infinite. And I had been a fool to doubt it." [p39]
I like that last quote because it reminds me of something Harvey Pekar said about comic books, which is often quoted by Warren Ellis: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list
2 thoughts on “How Stewart Lee escaped his certain fate”
Excellent… I’ll go get a book and be one of the thousand… I have a special interest in Stewart – I was working as an intern at City Limits mag in 1989, which had a New Act of the Year award – which Stewart won… I kept bumping into each other over the years, we booked him to DJ at an Indie club night on Tottenham Court Road and he cleared the floor with achingly obscure tunes! I interviewed him about this weird new device ‘the internet’ at a cyber cafe just before I left for Brighton in 1996… He’s still one of the smartest, funniest, most daring and genuinely innovative comics on the circuit. Just like he was when he was a New Act… Love him.
I’m still waiting to get around to reading his other book ‘The Perfect Fool’. Shout if you’d like to borrow it, read it, and tell me if it’s any good. 🙂