How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, By Stewart Lee
A verbose, sprawling, self-referential memoir by the David Foster Wallace of alternative stand-up
Sunday 15 August 2010
The benchmark to which all books of comedians' reminiscences now aspire was set in 2007 by Steve Martin's improbably polished and acute Born Standing Up. And Stewart Lee's abundantly barbed account of his return to live performance can hold its own with Martin's superb memoir on even the most high-falutin' plane of literary comparison. Where Martin's slim but riveting volume exudes the waspish poise of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lee's bumper DVD extras-style assemblage echoes the revelatory sprawl of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.
The organisational framework of Lee's book gives little clue to the amount of pleasure it will offer any reader who has ever so much as muddied their boots in the well-ploughed field of contemporary British comedy. Following full transcripts of three stand-up shows, with extensive introductory and footnoted commentary, there is a series of appendices whose self-referential tendencies reach their apogee in an "improvised discussion" between Lee and Johnny Vegas about the former's deliberate misquotation of Russell Brand.
Rather than lapsing into the onanistic free-for-all such unfettered completism might portend, How I Escaped My Certain Fate somehow manages to harness its endlessly digressive internal logic to the service of a single, entirely satisfying narrative arc. As co- librettist of the Olivier Award-winning Jerry Springer: The Opera, Lee had discovered an escape route from his disillusionment with stand-up comedy which suddenly – with a little help from well-orchestrated protests by a right-wing evangelical pressure-group – turned into a terrifying cul-de-sac.
A lion thrown to the Christians, left with no option but to gird his tattered loins for a return to the stand-up fray, Lee not only rediscovers the idealism which had first drawn him to alternative comedy as a mid-1980s teenager, but also uses his many misfortunes as the building blocks for a career-redefining sequence of live shows. If this storyline were any more Hollywood, Russell Crowe would have to star in it (though connoisseurs of Lee's bespoke brand of sardonic insouciance might be more inclined to cast Bill Murray).
Not only does How I Escaped My Certain Fate have a classic three-act structure, it also contains three classic acts. The middle panel of this heretical triptych, 2006's "90s Comedian", in which Lee sets out to confound his fundamentalist persecutors by "making meaningful religious art out of toilet filth", was the most conceptually audacious and fully realised one-man show I have ever seen on a British stage. It looks good on the page, too – like the sort of prose that Gertrude Stein might have written if she'd grown up reading Marvel comics. And Lee's upward creative trajectory gives even his most painful memories an unexpected feel-good undertow: "I could use the invasive probing of my anus in the colonoscopy," he exults in the face of persistent rectal bleeding, "as a way into the second half of the show."
As Lee's routines feel their way towards a perfect fusion of form and content, his acidic commentary cuts through the fatty build-up of showbiz convention with a stringency that the makers of Cillit Bang would be proud of. "Once we stood shoulder to shoulder with society's outsiders," he observes of the allegation that his fellow post-alternative stalwart Alan Davies had bitten a homeless man's ear in an altercation outside the Groucho Club. "Now we view them as a late-night snack." And by subjecting his own endeavours to the same brutally honest critical assessment as the rest of his generational cohort, Stewart Lee has created a book which is at once a notable repository of technical insight, an invaluable insider's guide to three decades of British comedy, and as revealing a portrait of its author's life and opinions as even the most self-consciously confessional of conventional celebrity memoirs.
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