In a collection of critical essays published in 1929 as a prolegomena to the appearance of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Our Exagmination round his Factification of Incamination of Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett begins his contribution with the words "With Joyce, form is content." With Stewart Lee, comedy is content: Joyce's novel is a novel about a novel, Lee's comedy comedy about comedy.
Some artistic revolutions are only recognised in hindsight, some spotted when they're actually happening. Vasari knew he was living through a Renaissance, so did Brian Epstein. As Stewart Lee's 3rd television series comes to an end it's clear to me that nothing less than a one-man revolution in stand-up comedy has occurred. Episode six went out last Saturday (5 April), and the whole series seems to have flashed past like a newly-invented car, leaving behind an astonished silence, slowly settling dust, and a creeping awareness that something remarkable has just gone by. This is 1979 all over again, and it's a privilege to have lived through it.
Lee's astonishing achievement is probably best defined in relation to prior seismic shifts in comedy: Max Miller engaging an audience in conversation rather than performing at them; Tommy Cooper subverting the variety act by doing everything wrong; Lenny Bruce addressing social mores rather than simply quipping - all were revolutions in performing history, and Lee's achievement ranks with them. This flowering of his art in the years 2011-2015/16 (a 4th series has been commissioned) surely deserves the pronouncement 'there was stand-up comedy before Stewart Lee, and stand-up comedy after Stewart Lee.'
The comparison with Tommy Cooper is not wilful: when Cooper first burst upon a post-war England on the BBC's New to You in 1948 his failed magician routine was every bit as subversive as Lee. Cooper was blasting salvoes at forty years of variety, his shtick a mockery of artifice in exactly the same way as Lee openly critiques mainstream stadium comics: both cock snooks at performers trying to be funny, at performance itself. Indeed, just as punters still get up and walk out of Lee's gigs (not as many as in yesteryear) some of Cooper's early audiences left theatres feeling disappointed that he "wasn't getting the tricks right."
Like Joyce too Lee's work is viewed by many with suspicion and discomfort: Joyce's fate as an iconoclast was that he virtually self-published his works in 1920's Paris with the help of a few patrons and was not published in Britain until after his death. Lee is subjected to excoriating insults daily, ranging from the way-off-target Toby Young (wasn't the New Review meant to champion la difference?) - "I've always thought of Stewart Lee's comedy as doing the opposite of what really good comedy should do," to banal rants like "It's a disgrace that someone like this no talent comedian can say something like this and not be arrested. Surely there should be a ban on the arts to some degree?" - from someone called Danny in London.
These insults are of course the predictable punishment of the innovator, a digital equivalent to the demonstrations at the Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910 when Matisse and Picasso were accused of being savages, their non-figurative works comments on the act of vision in the same way that Lee's act is a comment on comedy. The harsh divisions that Lee creates are evidence that the public still has a persistent fear of the New and have still not reached the level of understanding that accepts both Poussin and Tracey Emin.
I too have fallen prey to criticising Lee, mistakenly extrapolating a section of his routine about Del Boy's fall through the bar into a view that he was criticising slapstick. Lee has written about clowning in his novel Perfect Fool, presented documentaries on the Pueblo Clowns of Mexico, is an admirer of some of the great slapstick comedians of our time such as The Boy with Tape on his Face, Gamrjobat, Derevo, Doctor Brown, and has expressed belief in the comic philosophy of Jos Houben that "man's basic struggle to stay upright underlines all comedy." In short, my extrapolation was wilful and way off the mark.
So off the mark that the whole of ep. six of Lee's TV show can be said to be an entire half hour of modern slapstick: taking on the 'married comedian with kids' routine Lee fulfils Larry David's dictum that "when a comedian starts telling the truth, he becomes funny," discussing vasectomy, impotence, alcoholism, scorn from ones children - a twilit, excoriating routine that weaves studied through-lines into a skilful tapestry of dark attack on the palatable froth of lighter comics: culminating in a literal fall in his kitchen, brilliantly dramatised at the end of the episode - a fall every bit as powerful as Del Boy's.
Revolutions in art are sometimes spotted only in hindsight, sometimes when they happen. Some will look back on Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and see it for what it is - the Milligan's Q, the Gaudier-Brzeska, the Whoroscope, the My Bed, the Lyrical Ballads, and the Rediffusion's Life with Cooper of our day. Others can see it now. In the last episode of his series Lee pours scorn on being asked to host the Culture Show. He cries out in reply, 'Host the Culture Show?! I AM culture!'
Julian Dutton is the co-creator and co-writer of the forthcoming BBC TV series Pompidou, starring Matt Lucas & produced by Charlie Hanson.
His book, Keeping Quiet: the Story of Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound, will be published later this year.
He is the author of 'Shakespeare's Journey Home: a Traveller's Guide through Elizabethan England.'
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