An act who can be named

Extract from Stewart Lee's new book

In his new 'EP-style' book, out this week, Stewart Lee describes the genesis of his show If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One, his first since he returned to TV with his Comedy Vehicle. A follow-up to How I Escaped My Certain Fate, the book features a transcript of the show fully annotated with footnotes – and over the rest of this week Chortle will be serialising extracts from the introduction, starting with this brief passage about how he worked up new material...

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.

*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.

Published: 3 Jan 2012

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