'Fighting my own obsolescence'

The second extract from Stewart Lee's new book

In the second extract from his new 'EP-style' book about the genesis of his show If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One, Stewart Lee reveals the comedians who inadvertently inspired him. Yesterday’s extract is here.

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.

  • To be continued tomorrow...
    Extracted from Stewart Lee! The 'If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One' EP, which is published by Faber & Faber on Thursday. Click here to order from Amazon.

Published: 4 Jan 2012

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