Comedy's last taboo?

The final extract from Stewart Lee's latest book

In the final extract from his new 'EP-style' book, Stewart Lee considers the performance aspects of his show If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One. The first extract was here and the second here, and the third here.

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.

  • Extracted from Stewart Lee! The 'If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One' EP, which was published by Faber & Faber yesterday. Click here to order from Amazon.

Published: 6 Jan 2012

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