14/01/2011

"How I Escaped My Certain Fate"

The Life And Deaths Of A Stand-Up Comedian by Stuart Lee

It seems like all comedians produce books now - I guess it's just another aspect of the revenue stream for them. I haven't read any because I'm not that interested in them as people and I don't really find many of them truly funny - at least, not the famous ones.

Stuart Lee doesn't find many of them funny either, although he is happy to admit that he used to find them funny before they became famous. One of the threads running through the book is about the unrecognised trailblazers who have fearlessly broken comedic ground in dives around the country. He thinks Johnny Vegas is a genius, for example; not for his television appearances but his live performances.

Anyway, what we have here is not a life history of Stuart Lee, although it does cover some of his recent past. At its core it is three of his recent shows/routines, transcribed and heavily annotated, and interspersed with lengthy and entertaining essays about what he was trying to do, the points he was trying to make and what effect he was trying to achieve.

The book starts with him attempting to reinvent his stage persona after he realised that he had become predictable (and also after he discovered that Ricky Gervais had essentially appropriated it for his own stage persona). He discusses the way comedy works - or how his comedy works - and goes back to some of his inspirations and heroes. It then covers the next several years of routines, visits to the Edinburgh fringe and his attempts to get something on telly (not his favourite medium, clearly, but one that pays a lot more than touring).

I haven't seen Stuart Lee live but a quick search on YouTube gives us plenty to look at (e.g. excerpts from his show "41st Best Standup", one of the routines in the book), and it hardly needs mentioning that the routines are a lot funnier to watch than written down on paper, but they're still pretty good to read.

He also discusses in detailed footnotes why he does something. Here he does a bit about Richard Littlejohn chiseling words on a gravestone; he does the sound effect of the chiseling by knocking the microphone on the stand. In the book he mentions that he would entertain himself by seeing how long he could draw out the sound effect without losing the crowd.

The book is a very interesting read from the perspective of the craft of comedy, and not just a funny book - even if it is a way of making more money from existing material. Although there's so much more in this book than the routines, so that's probably a little unfair. Recommended, and I'll take the time to look for more of his stuff.

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