Deconstructing the deconstructor

Dave Cohen thinks Stewart Lee is being disingenuous

I realise there is a danger, in critiquing Stewart Lee’s critique of the Daily Mail critiquing his dissing of Michael McIntyre, of ending up with a poor facsimile of a typical Lee monologue, but Stewart’s piece for Chortle requires the kind of deconstruction familiar to viewers of his BBC2 series.

In a recent Telegraph interview, Michael McIntyre said he was shocked at the ferocity of attacks levelled at him by fellow comics. Stewart was mentioned as an example, and this article was followed by a typical Jan Moir hatchet job on him in the Mail. I’ve always enjoyed Stewart’s shows, but much as I admire his stand-up, I believe his response to the newspaper attacks is completely misguided.

Let’s begin with the criticism quoted by both newspapers, that Stewart talked in his set of McIntyre ‘spoonfeeding his audiences warm diarrheoa’. Stewart goes to great lengths to explain that this quote has been taken out of context, and is at pains to distance the stage self who said it from the person he is. While the likes of Paul O’Grady and Steve Delaney may be able to refer to their stage personas Lily Savage and Count Arthur Strong as character creations, it is a little disingenuous for Stewart to talk of ‘Stewart Lee’ as a character completely at odds with the person who writes and performs under that name.

I’ve looked at this phrase ‘spoonfeeding his audience warm diarrheoa’ from all angles. I’ve tried to put it into a different context, to make it sound like anything other than an insult, and I’ve failed. If someone described your material as ‘warm diarrheoa’ how would you feel? That you were being complimented? If we can accuse McIntyre of anything, it is that he is being over-sensitive to criticism. But that’s what I also take from Stewart’s attempts to justify ‘feeding his audience warm diarrheoa’ as anything but an insult.

Stewart mentions Jerry Springer The Opera, a show which led to the most hideous campaign of bile against him from thousands of unpleasant idiots whose vitriol probably helped to bring on his subsequent illness. But once again Lee distances himself, describing it as ‘a show to which I contributed’. To the best of my knowledge, no one complained about the music, or the sets, or the actors, but about the words, and the actions, and the depiction of God, Jesus and Satan in a comedy entertainment that at best displayed great antipathy to Christianity – all created by Stewart.

To understand that the fury the show spawned was utterly despicable and caused him great distress does not take away from the fact that this must have been, in part, the show’s intention, however much he protests otherwise now. (I saw it, by the way, so this isn’t a second-hand opinion).

Stewart doesn’t pretend to be a fan of McIntyre’s, of course we all have our own tastes and prejudices, and to many comedians McIntyre’s routines seem old hat, or shallow, or weak material bolstered by a studiedly energetic performance. They’re entitled to their opinions.

But he continues to snipe at McIntyre in what seems to me an ill-informed manner. For instance, he admits he doesn’t know the man, adding that he has never seen him at any of the 60 or so charity gigs he performs at – which can only be taken as a rather cheap dig implying that unlike saintly Stewart, miserly Michael holds on to his mountains of cash. Like Stewart, I don’t know Michael McIntyre, so I don’t know if he may have another way of giving to charity. But if he chooses not to appear on a bill with ten comics, eight of whom probably hate his guts, I wouldn’t blame him.

I’m sorry if Stewart is the victim of a 3am prank call, but my sympathy is tempered by his admission that he made a prank call himself, deliberately trying to catch out a famous comic who may have dissed McIntyre in private. I was once, after several pints, vaguely loose-tongued about a comic to another comic, next time we met I was metaphorically pinned to a wall for 20 minutes and asked to explain my comments. It was not pleasant.

At one point Stewart is cornered in similar fashion by McIntyre’s manager Addison Creswell, who has a go at Lee for insulting one of his acts (yep, still can’t find a way of making that ‘warm diarrheoa’ comment seem like a compliment). I’m sure when Stewart was with Avalon, he would have expected his own manager Jon Thoday to have done nothing less, had he bumped into someone who had accused Lee of spoonfeeding his audience warm diarrheoa.

One point Stewart wants to make is ‘as McIntyre’s observational shtick becomes a gold standard, ... young comics think their only chance of success is to get a slot on his roadshow.’ Not true. I’ve spent a lot of time recently at the start-up end of the comedy scene, and what I’m seeing more than anything at the moment is ‘the deconstruction comic’. Yes, these people are watching stand-up on the telly. The stand-up they are watching happens to be you, Stew.

You are a TV comic now, whatever else you are, you are a stand-up on the telly. You’ve had more screen time than just about every comic in the country, and while your late-night BBC2 audience may be considerably smaller than McIntyre’s, it means you are fair game to the kind of journalists who will never like you.

I think the vitriol against MM has gone way beyond what I’ve ever seen of comics’ rantings against the success of their peers. But it is difficult to see it as anything other than jealousy. There is room for other types of comedy, as Lee’s own six hours of stand-up on BBC2 has proved.

Of course the Mail are whipping themselves into a mob-baying frenzy to sell newspapers, but Lee is no longer an obscure Nineties comic playing to 50 punters in a sweaty basement in Crouch End. He is rude about a nice clean comic and he does it on the BBC. Anyone who does anything on the BBC is, in the Mail’s swivel eyes, fair game. It’s not nice but that’s the price you pay for success with licence payers’ money (and I know McIntyre is also on the BBC, I’m not trying to defend the Mail’s twisted logic, just explaining it).

Actually the key Mail agenda here comes from the one error I think Moir does make in the article, which is to describe Stewart as ‘left-wing’. While Stewart’s targets are similar to those of many left-wing comedians – Littlejohn, the Mail itself, religion – I’ve never heard him described as such.

There are many ways to respond to the Mail, the only newspaper whose readers’ comments are more reasoned than those of their journalists. But I’ve yet to hear a better one than this from the brilliant blog of Alex Andreou: ‘These people are as they are because of the hatred that surrounds them. In a twisted way, they probably feed off it. And so I say: Melanie, I love you. Jan, I love you. Liz, I love you. Daily Mail, I love you. I put my liberal, tree-hugging, petition-signing, metrosexual, hairy arms around you and have nothing but forgiveness, tolerance and undestanding for you. Suck on that.’

Published: 21 Jul 2011

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