'Ideally, I'd have not a single quotable joke'
My usual system for working up new shows was to start doing twenty-minute sets at little North London clubs from about May onwards. I could see what stuck, discover how the material fitted together and establish through-lines for the full show.
In addition to which, now that I had a child and less time to stare into dead space wondering about nothing, a lot of my stand-up writing was getting done onstage rather than at a desk. To anyone who queried it, I passed off this more improvisational, conversational style as a positive choice rather than a virtue drawn from necessity. However, in the pre-Edinburgh period of 2009, it became much harder to do all the normal London comedy-scene gigs that I’d done five nights a week in the Nineties and had played easily as recently as a year or two before.
There is an understood convention in listings for circuit gigs that if one of the people on the bill is described as ‘An Act Who Cannot Be Named’, it’s probably someone off the telly doing new stuff. I always found this arrangement questionable, as often the person who could not be named would be someone whose name I didn’t even know, and whose perception of themselves as someone who could not be named was revealed perhaps as premature, as they stood before a quietly baffled audience, all squinting as they tried to remember where they might remember the unnameable name from.
Insisting on being anonymous seemed self-aggrandising, so I was just listed under my own name as normal, because I am modest and saintly. But the TV series, and even the raised level of interest in me prior to it, had changed things at grass roots level. Expectations were significantly higher.*
More irritatingly, there was now Twitter, and portable internet technology, to monitor one’s every move. When I was running in material for the television series, I would come out of a gig in some Islington pub, and there were already people in the street outside using their iPhones to upload instantly their opinions on barely baked new bits on to comedy message boards and social networks.
By the time I got home, something tentative I had only dreamed up that afternoon was already being eviscerated online. Generating a new show under this kind of scrutiny proved to be a struggle.
Nonetheless, I was fortunate that during the run-up to a month of tryouts of If You Prefer... at The Stand in Edinburgh, various events suggested material that dovetailed with the overarching theme of what kind of comedian one should be. Like a believer who sees random phenomena as signs from above, it appeared to me as if events were organising themselves to suit my chosen themes.
It was in this period, for example, that Michael McIntyre and Frankie Boyle were emerging as the twin pillars of post-Alternative Comedy, both providing multi-platform content to presumably different but similarly large mainstream audiences. As comedians, McIntyre and Boyle defined each other in opposition; as market forces, they were strangely similar.
You could take Michael McIntyre home to meet your granny. You couldn’t take Frankie Boyle home to meet your granny because he would rape her and then callously wipe the blood off his penis with a dead kitten before heading off to a corporate Christmas do.
McIntyre articulated things you hadn’t realised you thought. Boyle articulated things you thought but didn’t feel you ought to articulate. A troubled and evidently conscience-stricken man, clearly concerned that he is meant for better things than panel-show sound bites, Boyle was nonetheless becoming popular with the sort of teeth-gnashing types who think political correctness has gone mad. A belated fuss over Boyle’s Mock The Week joke about the Queen’s vagina being advanced in years had meant that the BBC’s Emily Maitlis had recently been obliged to say the phrase ‘I’m so old my pussy is haunted’ over and over again in a cross voice on Newsnight. For this alone, Boyle may be forgiven most of his assumed sins.
But, conversely, Boyle was also to become a high-profile columnist for The Sun, which had somehow, on this occasion, chosen to accommodate him as the acceptable face of the unacceptable, rather than to demonise him, which would be their usual approach.
Was this what a comedian was supposed to be, a kind of tabloid-endorsed merchant of offensive jokes of 140 characters or less? Or was McIntyre the ideal archetype, a bundle of fun who would never posit the idea of a haunted royal reproductive organ, or of any reproductive organ at all, accursed or not, unless he were to happen unexpectedly across it, severed and oozing gore, in his man drawer? If You Prefer . . . ought at least to acknowledge these two, creepingly definitive archetypes.
And if I played to audiences of casual consumers, it was the McIntyre/Boyle models that they would have already accepted as the ‘correct’ modes of doing stand-up. Perhaps if I was seen to assimilate and then reject them, these punters would come with me as I moved sideways from them. (Note I said ‘sideways from’ and not ‘beyond’. We’re all part of the comedy brotherhood. There are no winners in stand-up. We are all losers.)
The McIntyre part of the debate was covered by the coffee-shop card idea. Helpfully for me, in early July – in other words, at the last minute – Boyle gave the following quote in an interview: ‘You know what it is – after forty, very few comedians are very good. Very few anybodies are good at anything. The focus really goes.’
I feel most artists improve with age, but then I would, as I am an ageing artist, and so are all the people I’ve invested in emotionally for the last thirty years. I can sympathise with Boyle’s point of view, though, and I doubt it was meant entirely seriously. The onstage Stewart Lee, however, afraid of his burgeoning irrelevance, could seize upon this comment and be desperate to prove the outrageous Frankie Boyle wrong. It offered the perfect opportunity to address the idea of the comedian as shock-monger, and to provide the show’s much-needed ‘jeopardy’. I would be a man fighting his obsolescence, taking issue with his perceived irrelevance.
Further opportunities to define myself in opposition to the anti-PC market, and to court a constituency of disgruntled liberals with money to spend, suggested themselves later the same month. The car writer and humorist Jeremy Clarkson had described the prime minister, Gordon Brown, as a cunt during an off-air studio warm-up for Top Gear, perhaps in an attempt to show BBC Two’s new controller, the duly present Janice Hadlow, who really ran things around here.
Hadlow subsequently criticised Clarkson for the comment, whilst praising Top Gear itself. (Top Gear is a huge money-spinner for the BBC and therefore is understandably allowed more leeway in these sorts of matters than less financially significant shows.)
Similarly, earlier in the year, while on a Top Gear jaunt to Australia, the car-liking trouser man had called Gordon Brown ‘a one-eyed Scottish idiot’ on live television. Clarkson’s right to mock a cunt’s blindness was vigorously defended by the usual suspects, and reluctantly accepted by right-thinking folk too, but it seemed to me to be a further outgrowth of the whole ‘outrageous’ comedy debate. (And for the purposes of argument let’s call Clarkson a comedian, even though I accept he also has a lucrative sideline in car books and borderline racist generalisations.)
And finally, throughout the summer of 2009, it was nigh on impossible to escape the pornographically baffled face of the young Welsh comedian Mark Watson, who was now hawking Magners cider in a series of self-consciously quirky TV ads. In Edinburgh in 2004, Watson’s 24 Hour Show had been quietly inspirational to me in its sheer idiotic audacity and the good-natured hysteria it created; watching Watson, the king foole, preside over it had been one of the things that made me glad to be part of a stand-up scene where such things were happening.
Watson also wore T-shirts with cool things on them, like weird slogans and pictures of dead philosophers, like I used to, so I had him pegged as one of those left-field alternative indie-type guys, like I imagined I was when I was young. Consequently I was surprised to see him doing an advert.
In the Eighties, if you were a vaguely alternative band or comedian, dallying with advertising would mean, to cite the oft-quoted Bill Hicks line, that you were ‘off the artistic roll call for ever’. But the values of today’s young alternative artists, for better or worse, are not those of my generation, who may, it is fair to say, have long been up their own backsides anyway, with their values and ideas.
Today, getting an advert is just another step on the career ladder, and I appreciate I may have been alone in being saddened by the young Celt’s good fortune.
(When I saw Mark Watson hanging off some scaffolding in Edinburgh’s New Town in August 2010, orchestrating a promotional happening for one of his books and wearing a yellow hard hat, I ran into The Stand to buy a bottle of Magners to spray over him. The comedians Alun Cochrane and Daniel Kitson were outside and I thought they’d come with me and join in, but they just looked at me as if I were an idiot and seemed to pity me for my pranksome idea. Times have changed.)
Was Watson right to do the advert? I bore him no personal malice – I don’t really know him, and tend to like all Welsh people enormously anyway – but the onstage, condescending, morally upstanding Stewart Lee would be furious with the Welsh Whore. And the whole Magners thing was too good to resist. It seemed like there could be hours of stuff in this.
Finally, in terms of form rather than content, the TV show had, as a result of its comparatively tight 29-minute time slot, pushed me back towards writing shorter bits. I found the process of grinding out a few minutes of punchy opening gags for the top of each episode especially draining, and had ended up renting all Simon Munnery’s best lines off him on a timeshare basis just to get the job done.
People who didn’t like Comedy Vehicle had complained about the lack of jokes. I resolved to meet their criticisms head on, by writing as few jokes as possible for the new tour and aiming to go in the opposite direction to the TV show, towards maybe just two or three ideas, explored at maximum length.
Ideally, If You Prefer ... would not have a single quotable line or joke, just vast textural blocks defined by their tone rather than their line-for-line content. I would try to take the casual TV viewer into an area of stand-up they would have been unlikely to encounter.
Hanging over all these ideas about content and structure, however, remained one disconcerting shadow: the sheer size of the spaces I would be playing. On the last two tours, for ’90s Comedian and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, I had had the fourth-wall-defying antics of Julian Cope, Johnny Vegas and the Russian clowns Derevo in mind when I experimented with leaving the stage.
I was aware that wandering around the auditorium was in danger of becoming a cliché of my work, but nonetheless I held onto it as an option at the back of my mind as the show developed. The punk painter Billy Childish has talked about his live work with his various garage-punk bands in similar terms: ‘The difference between us and the others is that we are trying to close the fifteen-yard gap between us and the audience,’ he said, ‘and they are trying to open it.’ Billy eschews the use of the house PA for onstage amps, drawing the audience towards him.
Similarly, students of variety will show you clips of Max Miller leaning conspiratorially across the lip of the stage, gesturing back to the space behind him as if the show is something separate from both him and the audience.
Perhaps I could trick myself into thinking of the stage itself, in these bigger rooms, as a cage to be escaped from, and go further out than I had before. Just as my response to the criticism that I had no jokes was to try and do none, maybe the correct response to an anxiety that in roving the aisles I was going over old ground was simply to do it even more.
So, in the run-up to If You Prefer ... Frankie Boyle had dismissed ageing comics, Jeremy Clarkson had ignited another debate about taste and comedy and cruelty, and Mark Watson had done a cider advert. All three seemed relevant to the idea of what comedy was and what it was for, and to the idea of what a comedian was supposed to be.
Perhaps If You Prefer... could expand massively the ground covered in the closing few minutes of 41st Best.., when I put a toy on my head in honour of my little boy and asked the audience to consider the gesture a sincere one. It seemed that today, alternative comedians could say anything they liked about anyone and even do adverts with impunity. In 2009, what was the last taboo? Perhaps it was saying something you really meant.
*Another laughable example of the assumption of anonymity is seen on a caption beneath a photo of a corpse-paint-faced Nordic rock musician in the book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind (Feral House). It reads: ‘“It” of Abruptum – Too evil to have a human name.’ The Australian foole Greg Fleet found this text especially amusing as, as well as ‘wool’, ‘human’ is one of the words he considers to have a magical comedy energie.
- Extracted from Stewart Lee! The 'If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One' EP, which is published by Faber & Faber . Click here to order from Amazon.
Published: 9 Jan 2012