August 2011

Ben Hamilton


Refining the Audience


Last year the British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee published his first nonfiction book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian. In the book, comedy audiences are mostly treated with disrespect. They are there not only to provide the soundtrack to the routine, but to be manipulated, cajoled, berated, tricked, rewarded. They can be unworkable, difficult, completely dense. It turns out that the relationship between those standing up and those sitting down is quite complicated.

Audiences "can actually enjoy being insulted," claims Lee. "If they are abused with enough originality, confidence and verve, the time and trouble an act has taken to disrespect their core values actually appears flattering." They are like cats: "bored indifference" can win them over where desperate pleas for affection cannot. Alternative comedy grandmaster Simon Munnery crystalizes the attitude in a single sentence: "If the crowd is behind you, you're facing the wrong way."


He may be a lowly stand-up comedian but Stewart Lee believes he has something to teach artists of the twenty-first century, where the temptation is to expand, expand, expand. We in the digitized world live in a time where being opposed to mass appeal is seen as a rather square and uncool position. Money's place as the primary value in the arts may have wavered with the increase of piracy and digitization, but it has only been replaced by what was formerly the runner-up: populism. Hits, views, friends, followers. The Internet has shown us that if at least a thousand people aren't looking at our holiday photos we may as well kill ourselves. Writers and musicians have resorted to giving their work away for free -- or, what seems even worse, giving it away for a few pennies. They are less worried about money (because they have to be), but more worried than ever about being noticed by as many people as possible. This is helped along by an insane optimism about technology and its benefits, which spreads like an itching, tickling cobweb, too fine to scrape off the skin and always in the air.

Indeed, the cynic's viewpoint is buried so deeply in the crowd that conversations about, say, the future of the novel, are predicated not on the literature but on what Amazon, Google, and Apple are going to do next. Stewart Lee, an unlicensed fool, a middle-aged curmudgeon, provides one of the most cogent attacks on this position.


How I Escaped My Certain Fate chronicles Stewart Lee's career since 2004, the year he returned to stand-up after working on the controversial -- and loss-making -- Jerry Springer: The Opera. Before his years in musical theatre, his tours were at a dead end. No longer on television and unable to find an audience, Lee struggled to find venues not populated by indifferent hecklers. Upon his return to the circuit, however, things seemed to have changed. The comedic landscape had shifted and all of a sudden there was a place for Stewart Lee. His style was fashionable, helped by the popularity of comedians like Ricky Gervais, who was, at least during his initial forays into stand-up, heavily influenced by Lee's casually shocking technique.

Slowly Lee's reputation grew, with no dilution of his routines. If anything, the more uncompromising the jokes, the more critics seemed to like him. "Now that I had been ladled with theatrical accolades," Lee writes, "previously puzzled critics had to assume that my apparent inability to write and perform stand-up properly was in fact the result of positive artistic choices, rather than an indication of a basic lack of ability, and they adjusted their star ratings accordingly." Eventually even some normal people began to like him.

As if to test the solidity and dedication of this new fan base, his shows became longer, slower, and simultaneously quieter and louder (that is, more silent gaps and more off-mic shouting). During his 2005 "'90s Comedian" tour, the second half of the performance was taken up by a single narrative about a drunken, hallucinatory meeting with Jesus. People remember the line "I vomited into the gaping anus of Christ," but what's evident if you pay attention is something more profound. It's actually a story about the meaning of blasphemy (Lee had been accused of blasphemy in British courts), the boundaries of cultural or religious icons, failure, and redemption. It is possible I am reading too much into it, but this is what Lee would want. Nothing he says is to pass unexamined. According to Lee's account, the Jesus routine started off as an assault on conservative religion, but rage is rarely a funny emotion and he just sounded bitter. It wasn't until his wife suggested a more tender approach that the story became the highlight of Lee's career up to that point. The hackneyed, knuckle-dragging approach to anti-religious comedy used by so many other comics looked even staler after "'90s Comedian."

Since that seminal tour, Stewart Lee has returned his reassuringly daring stand-up to television for the BBC, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. His tours have become more ambitious and he is playing bigger venues. In short, he's at a point where, with a few handshakes, he could leap across to the pure mainstream, where the rivers flow with gold and the infinitely spacious fields of Average People await their harvest.


Lee frequently draws comparisons between the art of stand-up and avant garde music, which is in itself a tremendous act of bravery. In a recent essay for the Financial Times, he cites John Cage's Indeterminacy: "'If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.'" The piece includes an entire paragraph on the free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey. "It cannot really be used to soundtrack anything, or sell anything. These spidery solo guitar lines cannot be filleted or fragmented or remixed. The music was what it was at the moment it was made and that is all." He is opening himself up to accusations of pretension and elitism here -- one recalls the bit from his "If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One" tour, which peaked with Lee raving through the aisles about his favorite song being used in a cider ad. What saved it from being completely alienating was Lee's being aware of his own ridiculousness.

The FT essay is grumpy and unfashionable. It begins with an unsolicited e-mail that Lee received, asking if he was interested in "submitting content." "I was confused. The sender explained that I was a 'content provider.' Did I want to provide content? Eventually it transpired that the content-seeker wanted to know if I had any jokes that could be sold to be viewed on mobile phones."

Needless to say, Stewart Lee does not want to be a "content provider." Who would? By drawing our attention to such an unattractive label, we realize that "content providers" perhaps do exist, sometimes under the guise of "artists," but not always. "Content provider" suits Michael Bay like a tailored suit made out of dollar bills. Lady Gaga provides content. Simon Cowell is a content provider. James Patterson is an ocean of content. The raison d' tre of the content provider is to spray the world with an unavoidable shower of stuff, until the thought of being without it becomes unbearable, thereby duping the population into thinking the content provider is somehow relevant or necessary. This being the case, a content provider has to be flexible. There has to be a will to compromise.

"At the Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney," writes Lee, "an archaeologist lets you hold Stone Age tools in the palm of your hand and the frisson of vision and design as inseparable is palpable. But today content is king and form is mutable. Can the comic become a film? Can the film become a game? Can the book become an e-book? Can the song become a ringtone? Imagine if the Japanese super-robots the Transformers were suddenly put in charge of all human culture."

If staying true to artistic principles reduces one's potential for commercial expansion, so be it. In some situations even more active measures are necessary. Daniel Kitson, a fellow renegade stand-up comedian, realized he'd have to refine his audience after overhearing, from the cocoon of a bathroom stall in a Soho theatre, a couple of his audience members having a conversation about the faux-goth-rock band, Evanescence. Kitson did not like what he heard and decided it was time to do some refining. The next show would bleed out the excess fans.

Some people would view this as career suicide, or at least bone-headed, smug elitism. And it sort of is. But as Stewart Lee has written, "I need about 7000 fans. If each of them gave me about 5 a year after tax, agent's commission and travel expenses, I would be making a fine living, and probably never having to deal with sports fans coming to my shows... If I can find some way of operating at such a level whereby they never find me, I could have the most wonderful life."


At one point during his most recent tour, Stewart Lee describes his relationship with the audience as a "passive-aggressive war of attrition." We can laugh at this, but Lee leaves us room to not laugh. Built into all of his routines is an off-beat rhythm. He throws away some of his best lines -- or at least his more "jokey" jokes -- on these moments. By dropping punch lines with little fanfare, Lee is emphasizing the surrounding apparatus of the gag. Often he will fumble a punch line on purpose, or drain it of momentum so it lands with a thud instead of a whip-crack sting. He's testing us.

At the end of a Comedy Vehicle episode from the second season, Lee sings a song about observational stand-up. Toward the end of the rather forgettable tune, an audience member gets out of his chair and leaves, in full view of the camera. Lee stops the song. "You know what, mate, this is obviously the last fucking thing. That'll be right in front of that shot. You horrible man." We would expect a moment like this to be edited out. Typically, we think, the song would restart and the audience would be disciplined into passivity. But Lee doesn't start the song again. The episode just ends. A cynic would say this was a sham (and people have accused Lee of somehow staging walk-outs) but to what purpose? It wouldn't be worth it. It doesn't set up anything and the episode ends on an awkward and deflating note. So why leave it in? Because he is showing us we are free to walk out, to take or leave what this particular stand-up comedian has to offer. And it works for Stewart Lee, too. He has refined his audience by one.