Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dissecting Frogs With Stewart Lee

I had a lovely bank holiday, thank you for asking. I went to see dodos and dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum with my one-year-old niece Dorothy, and I read Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate from cover to cover. The latter I should have done much earlier; the former was reasonably timed.

The book is partly a look back on Lee's return to stand up - having quit in 2001 - and partly an in-depth analysis of three fully-transcribed shows. I should say that when I've seen Stewart Lee live, I've often found myself buying into the cool, superior character he portrays on stage far too much, taking it to heart, and, ultimately, pushing back against it. But among several things his book has prompted me to do - look up the acts he mentions that I don't know about, for example, and generally Be Better Read - I'll certainly be heading to Go Faster Stripe to buy a few of his shows. As he says, so much is in the performance that it feels like that's the proper way to round off the book.

I am the last to say this of course, but How I Escaped My Certain Fate genuinely is, as the quotes suggest, a book that all comedy fans would do well to read. The passages about his career are honest and entertaining, he's really generous in his praise of peers from Michael McIntyre to Simon Munnery, and, in the annotated transcriptions, the book takes my previously-discussed love of dissecting comedy frogs to the nth degree. It's completely fascinating.

Sam Simmons says that people often describe his work as "random" but that it's quite the opposite - everything's there for a reason. I'd love to read his annotations on one of his own shows. Tony Law actually does it to some extent as he goes along of course, though he certainly doesn't give everything away on stage, and there's loads of swan's feet stuff going on beneath the surface too. Claudia O'Doherty's thesis on The Telescope would be a hoot, and it'd be wonderful if John Luke Roberts were to explain in devastating detail exactly why every single one of his mild insults is funny.

I've only really given any thought to the mechanics of comedy over the last few years, but it occurred to me recently that there were little seeds planted much earlier than that. When I was doing A-level English Language, we were asked to analyse a tv or radio interview from a linguistic point of view, and I chose two comics: Jim Carey, who spoke to Richard and Judy, and Johnny Vegas, who was on The Jonathan Ross Show.

For my essay, I essentially tried to explain how they were using language to subvert the conventions of the chat show and derail the interview, by asking questions themselves, for example, or referring to things happening off camera. I was trying, in a rather simple way, to explain why and how they were funny, and I loved doing it, spending much more time on the assignment than was necessary. I enjoy doing it now too with live comedy - in fact, I find that when I'm writing about an act I really love I do the analysis bit first because I've so enjoyed how they shaped and elicited the laughs, and then I have to go back and add in the glowing value judgements later.

There's a great passage, late on in the book, where Lee stresses the importance of "rhythm, pitch, tone and pace" in stand-up, and while I have, genuinely, attempted to include these when writing about comedy, I'll certainly be making even more of a concerted effort to do so in the future. So: seek out influential acts, read more, spend money with laudable boutique online establishments and try to give a more rounded report of the shows I see. That's my personal response to How I Escaped My Certain Fate.


Mildly Bitter said...

I just read How I Escaped My Certain Fate this weekend too! After seeing a lot of comedy in Edinburgh a few weeks ago (including Stewart Lee) I really wanted to understand the structure and strategy behind stand-up. I review mostly theater, but I feel like this gives me a lot more insight into how comedians think about their work and made me really appreciate his new show ever more.

Abbi said...

Thoughtful and interesting review. I was undecided about whether to get this book, but no longer! I'm geeky enough to enjoy dissecting things to a minute level as well - nice to know I'm not alone!

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