'How much homage can one man take?'

Our second exclusive extract from Stewart Lee's new book

In this extract, Stewart is explaining a line in his show 90s Comedian which goes: ‘I was thinking about Joe Pasquale. And I’ve thought about Joe Pasquale once before in my life. And they say you think about Joe Pasquale twice in your career: once on your way up…’

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, when I was starting out on the circuit, I’d always be doing try-out spots on bills with the great Irish comedian Ian Macpherson, a spindly and romantic figure whom I was quite in awe of, and who is already mentioned in the notes to Stand-Up Comedian for the line ‘It is not for me to draw parallels between my own life and that of Christ,’ which I did not copy off him, as I have already explained.

However, Ian also used to open all his sets with the line ‘They say you play [The Balham Banana, for example] twice in your career. Once on the way up. Once on the way down. It’s good to be back,’ which this joke consciously echoes. To be fair, as an opening line Macpherson’s Gambit, as it is known to scholars of stand-up, is so perfect and classic I assumed it was an old music-hall lick or an American Catskills comics line from the fifties.

One almost expects to hear a snare drum and a cymbal crash after it. It is such a wonderful joke, not least because of its fatalistic optimism. The declining comedian knows he is on the way down and yet he says, ‘It’s good to be back,’ and is still grateful for the gig.

The comedian Simon Munnery, who got the highest A-level results in the country in 1985, pointed out to me that the joke is obviously relatively modern because (a) it contains within it the notion of upward and then downward career progression for an ‘alternative’ comedian, which he maintains is a relatively new possibility, and (b) it sees the comedian step outside his act to comment on his own role as a comedian, rather than as a pretend ordinary member of society, which is a post-modern device.

As usual, Simon is, I think, very wrong here, and there are so many examples of very ancient comedians employing similar devices that I am not going to do him the honour of even bothering to think of any and list them here.

Also, I’d heard the late, great Malcolm Hardee, the unheralded godfather of Alternative Comedy who built a three-decade career on two jokes and his willingness to expose his unfeasibly large testicles to paying customers, do it, and assumed it was a standard opening. But it turns out there’s a superb article on the internet about the genesis of this very line, by the comedian Robert Wringham, on the website the British Comedy Guide. I stumbled across it whilst trying to find any versions of the joke that perhaps pre-dated Ian’s by typing the phrases ‘they say you play’ and ‘twice in your career’ into Google.

In the pieceMacpherson says the joke was ‘an ad lib born out of terror: ‘It just popped out It was a great opener at venues like the Red Rose Club, The King’s Head in Crouch End, Banana Cabaret and so on, and for some time afterwards it carried some of my – how to put it? – more esoteric stuff. It used to fool them into thinking I was funny while I spent the next 30 minutes tinkering with their brains.’

According to Ian in Robert’s revealing piece, Malcolm Hardee came to use the joke by ‘nicking it. Simple as that. And, as he’d done it on some pap-for-the-masses TV programme, it looked as if I’d nicked it off him. So I had to drop it. He also put it about that he’d bought it from me. Which he hadn’t. He then offered to buy it retrospectively. “Fuck off, Malcolm”, I quipped. So I fined him a pretty modest sum for theft. I was pretty furious about it at the time, but he had his eye on other Stuff I’d written, so I was also warning him off. He ignored the fine at first, but he was just about to open Up The Creek, so I gather some comedians refused to play there till he paid up. Which he grudgingly did. I also made it plain in words of one syllable that I was not, repeat not, selling the line. He muttered something about six seconds of material but, as I pointed out, “It was seven-and-a-half seconds, Malcolm. You should have nicked my timing.”’

My own assumption is that part of the reason the audience laugh at the version of the joke in ’90s Comedian, where playing the venue twice is replaced by thinking about Joe Pasquale twice, is because they recognise it may be true.

Macpherson tells Robert Wringham in the interview: ‘Arthur Smith told me I’d written the most stolen line in British comedy. Not bad for a middle class white boy from Dublin. I was told that Simon Fanshawe did it on radio. I wrote to his agent at Noel Gay Artists three years ago but he must be a slow typist. No response as yet. I’ve now got back to the stand-up after some years of writing the obligatory books, and it seems that various people have been paying homage to my more accessible stuff. I mean, how much homage can one man take?’

I like to think that my rewiring of Macpherson’s joke was homage, but his comment ‘how much homage can one man take?’ is telling.

Whether something is a homage or an act of theft depends on the relative fame, status and wealth of the homager and the homagee. When advertising scum rip off Bergman or Wenders or some obscure Brit artist for a campaign and say that it was a homage, the real effect is that simply by virtue of the mass audience their adverts achieve as opposed to the minimal audience enjoyed by most actual art, it immediately renders the subject material a cliché by association, rather than validating it in some way. Or do advertising ‘creatives’ imagine it is some kind of homage, as I did when I pilfered from the greats?

That said, ‘They say you think about Joe Pasquale twice in your career’ doesn’t work as a joke unless you already know, or at least can intuitively guess, the Ian Macpherson joke that informs it. But it did work. So people either knew it or guessed that something else that made sense of my line predated it, like astronomers that approximate the position of unknown suns by the evidence of their gravitational pull on smaller and less significant, yet more visible, bodies. So it is a homage. And not a theft. And in a single bound I am free.

  • Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate is published by Faber & Faber on Thursday August 5, priced £12.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon for £7.99

  • Another extract will be published on Chortle on Monday. Click here to read the previous passage about Lee becoming an alternative comedian.

Published: 30 Jul 2010

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