Stewart Lee & the Short Story

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Thanks muchly to the latest pledgers. Here's a post on one of my favourite comedians and why he's analogous to my favourite literary form.

Last March I navigated Devon’s gloaming, bucolic lanes to watch comedy’s version of the short story: Stewart Lee. Why the facetious analogy? Perhaps because both enjoy a cult, minority status, one where irony, intellect and a playful contempt predominate. In short: they are both a bit difficult. Not for everyone. Too clever for their own good. They are slippery, alienating creatures, but ones with which you have a heightened, almost religious relationship. Certainly in both cases the audience/reader must do a fair share of the work themselves: there is no free ride, no light entertainment here. Lee, as the short story is to badly-written genre fiction, is the antidote to the legions of vapid, mainstream onanists, who spoon-feed you their inane one-liners, a boys’ (for it almost always is) club of panel-show self-congratulists.

As if to further align himself with literature’s most demanding form, Lee played that night in a village hall to around 150 people (presumably he owed a favour to a friend on the parish council, having already toured all the iconic gig venues in the UK). The intimacy might have overwhelmed a more egoistic sleb; for Lee it was the chance to amplify his faux-mocking style: ‘Come on, Lustleigh – raise your game,’ he scorned, as we responded with nervous laughter to subjects no doubt chosen to elicit our discomfort.  As with the short story, much of Lee’s act is found in its silences and spaces, in the repeating motifs and subtexts, which embed themselves subliminally, stirring you a few nights or weeks later.

Perhaps Lee’s politics – or at least those adorning his ‘act’ (think Jez not Dave) – seduce me, muddying my judgement of his comedic aesthetic. Certainly the two are inextricably bound, though never in a crass (and as it turned out, specious) Ben Elton-esque way. Lee’s skill, as with the short story, is in turning the mirror on his audience, luring them into a sense of comfort, only to gloriously betray this trust, playing mischievously with the line between character and self, between author and reader. A truly unreliable narrator.  

There’s a routine (easily found via all good search engines) in which Lee is flippant (and worse) about Top Gear’s Richard Hammond and his near-fatal car crash. It is both brutal and shocking, until you realise Lee is pastiching the programme’s own cynical insensitivity and bigotry to parody it, at which point it becomes hilarious. His routine on political correctness is also gloriously original.

Lee is often touted the comedians’ comedian, as it is often said only writers of short stories read them. A well-kept secret. But with both, it’s becoming a secret harder to keep. Lee would be high on my list of best-dinner-party-guests-if-you-could-have-anyone, right up to the point he turned the mirror on me.

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Published
Publication date: January 2018
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