If you’ve never seen Stewart Lee perform standup, what are you doing reading this? He is quite simply the greatest comedian working today. Come back when you’ve spent hallf the day following the link below and the subsequent links it will give you.
Part of what makes Stewart Lee such a good comedian is his ability to take a point and thread it through 90 minutes of material, a lot of it needs to be viewed in context of the whole piece. This makes it hard to show clips of him and is possibly the reason that he is not more successful, in our current culture of talking heads, panelists and “duck house” jokes. This is partially solved by his BBC show, Comedy Vehicle, 6 half hour sets, which is not only the smartest comedy the BBC has commissioned in a long time, but has also been commissioned for a second series.
A quick look at what’s available could lead you to think that Stewart has only been around for 10 years or so. Even looking at his home page you see his DVD’s from 2001 onwards. The truth is he has been around for about 25 years, doing Edinburgh shows, small tours, and most famously, working with Richard Herring (also excellent, and also touring/putting out DVD’s) on TV shows including Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard not Judy. Stewart helpfully provides download for these otherwise unavailable shows on his site here.
To the book:
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I pre-ordered this book. I guessed it was an autobiography from the title, and I was half right. What I got was not what I expected, but as is so often the case, infinitely better than what I was expecting. What Stewart has done is take the story of his life while he was being sued for blasphemy after “Jerry Springer: The Opera”, and how this bought him back to comedy and how he came to perform the three (to date) DVD’s he has and dissect them, until they are laid bare before you. These bits sit between full transcripts of the three DVD’s.
Now, Stewart Lee is known for not being afraid to throw a joke and then laboriously dissect what was wrong with the joke and why it isn’t funny. This is where he gets his laughs and it is brilliant to see.
When I started the book and realised what he was doing, the thought of someone dissecting and explaining his dissection and explanation of jokes was a bit off putting. I needn’t have worried. What we have here, is not only a story of how a failing career re-started itself and came to what it is today, but a deep insight to the thought processes and reasons for what he has done. The transcripts of the DVD’s (as well as the narrative parts of the book) are heavily annotated (I think there are more footnotes than actual transcript) and this is where the real insight is. He will tell you where he gets an idea from, why he’s phrased something very precisely, when and why he has lied or exaggerated, and loads of backstories and anecdotes.
For someone like me, the book is like a handbook, how to do comedy. From what I have seen on twitter and elsewhere on the internet, it would seem that most comedians in the country are poring over this book and loving it. It’s also very funny, adding another layer of funny over three already brilliantly funny DVD’s. It’s a bit like a directors commentary on the DVD, but as it’s written there is space to really deeply get into the subject.
You can buy the book here.
Stewart is currently touring, info and dates here.
A Perfect Fool Stewart Lee’s first novel, if you liked American Gods by Neil Gaiman, you’ll probably like this.