Stewart Lee is currently one of the most critically acclaimed stand-up comedians working in the UK and this book provides a fascinating insight into both his creative processes and the evolution of so-called alternative comedy from the 1980s to the present day. Lee’s act is most assuredly not for everybody: he has a detached, measured and analytical style that could easily be interpreted as smug intellectualism and he enjoys undermining audience’s expectations and occasionally testing the limits of their patience with routines that can take half an hour or more to reach a pay-off. He’s always worth staying with though, for his unusually subtle and non-ingratiating takes on modern culture and for his disarming absurdist humour.
A short description of How I Escaped My Certain Fate makes it sound like a deeply self-indulgent and narcissistic project: the bulk of the book is made of word-for-word transcripts of three of Lee’s shows, complete with running footnotes that probably take up more space in the book that the transcripts themselves. Every “err”, every “um”, every half-finished sentence is painstakingly reproduced. There’s also an introductory essay explaining how Lee got into comedy in the first place and how he gradually worked his way back into stand-up after a period of disillusionment, a couple of sections setting the scene for each individual show, and a few appendices that elaborate on some of the individuals and routines he mentions here. What redeems the book is Lee’s rigorous objectivity and deadpan writing style – he doesn’t do self-deprecation in an aw-shucks manner, but he is brutal in identifying parts of his act that don’t work and his accounts of how routines are honed into shape, with enough details left variable to retain his interest, are fascinating.
The other reason this book is so readable, despite the odd footnote structure which requires a lot of going back and forth, is that these routines are consistently brilliant and frequently hilarious. I think I saw him do two of these shows in Cambridge and it’s a delight to be able to revisit them (his account of his meeting with Christ at the end of “90s comedian” is one of the funniest and most risky bits of comedy I’ve ever seen). It’s also very interesting to read about Lee’s influences and the comedians he admires the most, who tend to be figures on the fringe who never had any particular inclination to make it big: Ted Chippington, Simon Munnery, Michael Redmond.
Stewart Lee is now probably a bigger name than he ever expected or wanted to be, with a second series of his typically uncompromising and intelligent Comedy Vehicle about to be aired by the BBC. Anyone interested in truly challenging (as opposed to just “controversial”) stand-up comedy should make an effort to watch it, to go and see Lee live, and to read this book too.