... but I stopped. Now I'm a dad, and may blog again...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

576: One for Ned (The One in which I take the Bait)

My own personal opinion is that comedy, like music, or cinema, or wrestling, can be an intellectually and emotionally stimulating art form, or it can be simplistic and dumb entertainment, good for a momentary chuckle but contributing nothing to 'the soul'. Stewart Lee's stylistic choices filter out those only interested in the quick shallow hit of Peter Kay or Michael McIntyre, but beneath the distraction of repetition and manufactured tedium are vast veins of metaphor, pathos, narrative, and indeed bathos. Stewart Lee's comedy doesn't just make me laugh -but it does make me laugh- it also reminds me what I love about the power of writing and of performance, and the power of good proper art to transcend genre boundaries and bare up well to repeated readings.

My words about Peter Kay earlier, rather than encouraging a defence of Peter Kay prompted a short and entirely misinformed tirade against Stewart Lee:
Yeah Peter Kay is shit same old formula, observations northern accents. Unlike Stewart Lee who has the 'popular = shit' and that other thing he does.........oh yeah that's it. Unless you count purposefully dragging 1topic to the point where its so not funny its funny. Well funny to those who follow the ' popular = shit'.
I know this is coming from someone who has probably only watched twenty minutes of a Stewart Lee routine out of the many hours that are available (four live DVDs, two series of Comedy Vehicle, three books, plus all the stuff he did with Richard Herring in the 90s), so it's not the most well informed of opinions. But it's the opinion of a good friend so I'm sure he won't mind me calling it out as total bullshit :P

Well, for a start Stewart Lee is a massive comic book and super hero fan, and has been for many years. This in itself is not particularly interesting, nor is it a devastating argument, but comics and the movies they spawn are certainly popular. For example, in the show Stand-Up Comedian, Lee does a long routine about the time he interviewed Ang Lee when he was directing Hulk. The butt of the joke is not some bullshit about how he doesn't like The Incredible Hulk now it is popular; it is about the embarrassment of making a poorly timed joke, and how that embarrassment can be piled on tenfold if the joke is misconstrued as being racially insensitive.

Throughout other pieces Lee has mocked religion, Mel Gibson, Joe Pasquale, Top Gear, pirates, Russell Brand, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. But his work is not one dimensional so if all you see is him saying 'I'm jealous of Russell Brand because he's more famous' you are profoundly missing the point. Art, and it is art, uses metaphor –one topic used to discuss another [...patronising...]- and this is a tool frequently used by Stewart Lee.

Since modern art came about all artists have needed to consider their medium. Why have I chosen clay, wood, canvas, paint, steel, balloons, spoken word, comedy, as my medium? What does the medium itself say about the art contained within? Stewart Lee discusses, at great length, the role of the comedian and comedy, and from that comes his parodies of Joe Pasquale, Michael McIntyre and Frankie Boyle. Joe Pasquale was an old-school comedian famed for having writers who would steal jokes from no-name comedians working the clubs. Pasquale would then shamelessly tell other people's jokes on TV. Plagiarism. Stewart Lee did a routine criticising this practise which ended in him attempting to write a joke that Pasquale couldn't steal. It is a routine about originality.

If You'd Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One is essentially one long routine about originality. In it Lee tries to work out his place in comedy. At the time of writing/recording the show the two biggest mainstream comedians were Michael McIntyre, an inoffensive foppish observational comedian, and Frankie Boyle, a deliberately disgusting comedian pushing at the limits of decency. Lee plays the role of lost wannabe attempting, and failing, to emulate the two popular, highly contrasting styles. As well as being a role it also has an element of truth, in exactly the same way that the very best wrestlers base their characters on their own failings and foibles.

So yes, some of the things that are the butt of his jokes are popular things, but they are not the butt because they are popular. They are the butt because they are shit; lacking in any cultural value; or they are not the butt at all, and are merely a narrative tool. The assumption that Stewart Lee mocks some popular things because he hates all popular things is clearly false. As false as the patently stupid idea that because something is popular it must be good. Plenty of good things are popular, plenty are unpopular. Plenty of popular things are shit; plenty of shit things are unpopular. For example this blog is deeply unpopular; however the analogy falls down there because I haven't yet decided if it's shit or not.

Part of the reason that comedians like Peter Kay are highly successful, whereas Stewart Lee is niche, is that Peter Kay's material works as individual jokes. Soundbites. There are lots of little stories, with punchlines and characters you recognise. Stewart Lee's material is a different kind of comedy entirely. It simply doesn't work in soundbites. The stories are long. This is not due to some massive failing on his part, but it is a choice (or perhaps a small failing that he has exploited well).

That said, it seems to me self evident that there will by necessity be loads of amazing things that are unpopular, and loads of shit things that are popular. This happens because marketing departments -you know, all the money people who rape art for its money making potential with no consideration for its real value- take the safest option, back things similar to previously successful ventures. The same shit gets bought and sold over and over. The exciting, difficult, adventurous stuff gets overlooked. This is why Hollywood movies based on books always stick in a romantic sub-plot, a happy ending, and a white lead actor. This is why Hollywood currently only makes sequels, revamps, or adaptions from comic books.

Tellingly, the comedian that is the butt of one of Lee's most sarcastic routines, is someone who is all but unknown. Tom O'Connor was apparently popular in the 1970s, but I've never heard of him. The joke is basically that Stewart Lee's mum saw Tom O'Connor performing on a cruise ship, where he did a great joke about a sardine, and until Stewart Lee is performing on cruise ships he will never be a success in the eyes of his mother. The jokes works because of, or in spite of, the fact that nobody knows who Tom O'Connor is.

It really doesn't matter for Stewart Lee's comedy whether the butt of the joke is popular or not; it matters whether they are sincere and original or not. It's not a case of "Popular = Shit"; rather a case of 'Shit = Shit, regardless of whether it's popular or not, but popular shit is usually easier to discuss'. That is all.


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