Book Review

How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

Photo on 16-11-2015 at 11.58

During the Summer I crossed a line in the sand I scratched out a long time ago and, accepting mortality and all that comes with it, I signed up to Netflix. The driving factors behind this were Better Call Saul* and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, both of which were great. However, once I’d finished watching these shows and not feeling in the mood to start on any of the [allegedly] stellar dramas available on the service by the time Autumn arrived**, I dabbled with other comedy shows. They were all shit, except for the lone third series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, which I enjoyed watching as much as I did at the time. I remembered, whilst watching it, that Stewart Lee did a book once, and now that I’m reading easier and easier books as my physical and intellectual state deteriorates due to exhaustion***, I thought I’d give it a go. Why not?****

Stewart Lee’s book was published during my final free Summer, when hope was at its zenith and reality was still a long, long way away. I produced, co-wrote and acted a minor role in a comedy show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was very broad, deliberately so, in an attempt to (cynically) include every joke any member of the cast thought might be funny. The gag rate was very, very high, but the laughter rate didn’t match. The thinking was thus: if we make a lot of jokes, we will have a funny show. Unfortunately, as I have latterly become far more aware (DUE TO LEE’S BOOK), writing comedy is a lot more nuanced than raising the count of sentences one person somewhere might class as a joke. Below is the only recording that survived of any part of the show (a scene which was cut by the end of the Fringe run, but was definitely of no lower quality than the parts that made it in) accompanied by some terrible quality pictures of the event:

My major contribution to the writing of this scene was the repeated use of the word “pop”, which peaks with the opening line, “It’s not just my kids who call me ‘Pop'”. In fact, the repeated use of an innocuous phrase is an oddly Leeian device, though I didn’t know that at the time. Whilst two of the people in our little show were very aware of the work of Stewart Lee and ran off to buy their copies of How I Escaped My Certain Fate from a bookshop where he was signing copies, I didn’t know very much about him other than that he was the comedian who did that bit about Joe Pasquale in a garden that my student housemate regularly made me watch whenever he was (or possibly wasn’t – it was difficult, by the end of our three years together, to tell) stoned, and while they went off to the Blackwells on North Bridge, I went and walked around a park somewhere listening to Suede on headphones and not worrying about things.***** Ah, to be young again.

More than five years on******, I have discovered the error of my ways. Stewart Lee is an incredibly able comedian and his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, is a fascinating insight into his own comedic methods and into the comedy industry in general.

The book takes the form of transcripts of three of Lee’s live shows, each one heavily annotated (i.e. more than the same word count again) in order to describe his intentions and sources, and to expand on the motivations and ideas of what he is expressing. In between these transcripts are chapters of more standard memoir, contextualising the writing process, and then at the end there are a number of appendices, some of which are excerpts from interviews, newspaper/web articles by Lee, and one of which is a witty but unpoetic poem Lee had published “resubmitted as prose” (without commas) in an anthology of fiction by comedians. Lee is surely culturally astute enough to know that a poem that is prose with extra line breaks and punctuation is not a poem, and I felt this piece was included right at the end of the book to deliberately show his limitations, which is the kind of thing he likes to do.

Lee’s material here is quite autobiographical, one show largely about the religious right attacking him for his work on Jerry Springer: The Opera and one about a promised BBC show that was decommissioned without warning. The latter, being annotated from a position where Lee has had multiple critically-acclaimed, BAFTA-winning series of the same TV show, reads a little oddly, but he acknowledges that in his notes and, to be honest, the thrust of his argument is still witty and engaging. Lee was kinda dicked around a bit and some amusing things happened as a result, and he had some amusing thoughts. The annotations reveal/explore his methods of construction and play with the levels of sincerity and honesty that he is affecting. He also discusses how different audiences/circumstances influenced the development of his performance and how situations out of his control are able to lose him a room. He also makes very clear his Daniel Kitson-inspired attempts to get the exact audience he wants, though obviously (television) he cares far less (television) about this (television) than he pretends to (television) and Kitson (no television) actually does.

Lee comes across as far warmer than one would expect from his stand-up persona, his “clown”, and much less arrogant. He writes with (obvious) insight about the differences between him and his clown, and in an extended section about Johnny Vegas (not the performer’s real name) discusses the resultant problems of being too much the persona one uses to get laughs.

As a book about the comedy industry it is informative, and as a book about comedy it is very funny. As Lee himself points out, a lot of stand up comedy is about the performance, and the funniest bits in here are not the transcripts of the live material, but his notes about them, his descriptions of people, places and experiences. He is self-aware and entertaining, and I’d recommend How I Escaped My Certain Fate to anyone with an interest in capital C comedy and, particularly, to any fans of Lee’s work.

A great read. Next, something more serious.

And re: the footnotes – doesn’t sadness always follow laughter???


* Which I write about in this blog post.

** I have neither the time nor the emotional energy to get as involved with anything like I did with Breaking Bad from June through August.

*** I slept less than five hours again last night, cutting the amount of time I could’ve done to the minimum in order to facilitate the time to write this blog, in a futile attempt to scrape some minimal sense of purpose into my day. This is the level I’ve been reduced to. Three/four years ago I used to wake up at 7am every day, write before the office job i had, write in the lunch hour that I had in the Pret around the corner from the office and write in the evenings when I got home from work. At the time I got nothing to show for it, but justified the time as it got me onto my creative writing MA, which I thought would help me get into the kind of life and lifestyle that I wanted. Now, well over a year since that ended, I’m working 20 hours more a week in a far more demanding job than I had when younger, I haven’t had anything published anywhere but here in years and I’ve replaced any kind of meaningful social life with wearing a dress and make up every six weeks or so. I’m now blearly, bloodshot-eyed, half awake, slow to react 80% of the time and the prose I’m coming out with is ludicrously trite and over adjectivised, lacking clarity. 400 words in and I’ve written nothing about the book, just broken reflections on fucking Netflix and comments about my physical collapse. I know that I need to create in order to feel I have value, but I don’t have the time and I fear that if I abandoned the disciple of completing this blog every time I read a book, intending to spend the hour or so I waste on each post here writing something of depth, that resolution would end up getting swept aside by the need to sleep and by the fact that, right now, I don’t have the wit to write any more. It’d just be some stream of consciousness crap about the American television I’ve watched in a sleep-deprived daze and about my wish to write more. It’s self-fulfilling, but at least here I’m not claiming it’s worthy of publication, I’m just posting it here because I have nobody left to talk to. I also don’t have time for my Spanish classes any more, which is the real thing that makes me angry. España, dije a mi nova recientamente, era la lengua de mi futura en mi pasado. That’s probably riddled with errors.

**** Insert list of all the renowned works of prose, poetry and drama I am yet to sit down and read.

***** Within a year of that day the first serious burst of depression had very heavily set in and would take a long time to shift even a little, let alone enough to allow me to leave the office jobs I hated and begin my botched pursuit of literature. However, after the brief foray into self-fulfilment that was my MA I’m now comfortably on the other side of Hope, the other side of Life and have given up on all my dreams, aware now that they’re never going to be fulfilled. I’m not depressed any more, but I’m not content, and no longer anticipating a time where I will be. The best possible future I fantasise of is a version of the unsatisfying present where I also have a dog and drink considerably less. That’s the new best. But, knowing that and holding it close to my heart means that the regular and swift disappointments I feel whenever I question myself are closed off immediately: No, Scott. You are done.

****** All, bar one 15 month stretch in the middle, pointless.

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