Comics who use writers are like sports drug cheats | ...says Stewart Lee

Comics who use writers are like sports drug cheats

...says Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee says stand-ups who employ writers for TV routines should be shamed, like athletes who take banned substances.

Singling out Jack Whitehall, Andi Osho, Frankie Boyle and Michael McIntyre, he said: 'I like to think stand-up comedians who rely heavily on writers will one day be stripped of whatever artistic awards or financial rewards they received in their careers, like disgraced, drug-taking Tour De France cyclists'.

Lee made the remarks earlier this year at the Celebration Of Writing At The Hall event for English graduates of Oxford University's St Edmund Hall, where he studied. However, his talk, entitled On Not Writing, was only uploaded to the college's YouTube page this month.

As part of a potted history of UK stand-up, Lee laments: 'I already feel like a relic in what I do. I think the idea of a stand-up as a writer, as a sort of auteur, is already on the way out: the lucrative opportunities to fill hours and hours of television with stand-up comedy in little bite-size bits have pushed the writer-auteur-comedian aside'

Last week, he complained that UK comedy was being 'stitched up' by a comedy elite. And in the talk, he attacks the shadowy practices used in acknowledging gag writers. 'They don't often admit to it' he said, after citing Whitehall, Osho, Boyle and Mcintyre. 'Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, sometimes there are these strange credits.

'You'll see something called Programme Associate, blah, blah, which is a sort of television language for “there is a writer but we're going to give him this name because we want to preserve the idea that the comedian is ... hermetically sealed … you're getting this person's individual vision.”'

Indeed, when contacted by Chortle, agents for all the comedians Lee mentioned declined to comment on their use of writers, or did not return calls.

Lee points out: 'You can see that writers are being used in the shift of tone that you get with these kind of acts, where there are often mutually incompatible observations in them, or the point of view seems to shift, it doesn't all add up. You also know it's the case because no one could fill the amount of space that they occupy without assistance.'

However, he reflects that the practice is unlikely to become 'an issue' beyond 'something an old man like me would worry about.

'The marketplace, for want of a better word, has changed what my generation and the generation of comics before thought was a given of stand-up comedy, that it was partly a writers' game. It was, or aspired be for the first time in the eighties, just when I was getting into it and that was what caught my generation's attention.

'Of course, we carried that perception of it through into the Nineties, just as The Beatles gave bands of the Sixties and Seventies the idea that they had to be performer-creators too, rather than manufactured singing groups performing material provided by Tin Pan Alley songwriters. This is an assumption that's also disappeared from popular music as well, as surely as it's disappearing from stand-up.

'Because we were young, then in the 80s, and it was what we grew up with, we assumed that idea that the comedian as a writer was a norm. But it wasn't, it was a kind of blip, it wasn't true before, it's not true again now.

'As well as defining themselves in relation to comedy's immediate past by not being racist, sexist or homophobic, the alternative comedians in the Eighties and the late Seventies defined themselves by being writers of their own material. Today, in the post-politically correct era, none of these defining considerations remain especially significant, but the notion of the comedian as a writer has been the last to go.

'If I was a teenager wanting to write today, I don't think I'd necessarily look at stand-up comedy and think it was a place where a writer's instincts were going to be needed or required. There's probably some other form that hasn't yet been energised by writers and might benefit from writers' input ...'

Later in the 50 minute talk, Lee dismisses his novel The Perfect Fool as 'not very good' and says that his stand-up 'character', with its contempt for the public, means he can't 'do the lucrative corporate gigs that [earn] £2million a year … You have to be the sort of person who appears to please people and wants to be in a capacity of serving them'.

He casts doubt upon the effectiveness of Edinburgh Fringe publicists and the advantages of YouTube for furthering a comedian's career. And in a further sign of the times, he recalls his bewilderment at being asked to develop an app for his publishers Faber and remembers presenting a script to unnamed producers and being told 'go away and develop these characters as avatars for the internet'.

Taking a question from the floor, he admits to hesitation about collaborating on a project again because he's 'reluctant to split the money', but suggests that young writers now have greater opportunities to channel their ideas into different formats.

Here is his speech:

- by Jay Richardson

Published: 17 Jul 2013

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