‘Buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book…’ – How I Escaped My Certain Fate (The Life & Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian) by Stewart Lee

I love Stewart Lee. There. I’ve said it. And I’ve said it for two reasons. One: It’s true. I think he’s hilarious. I think he’s hilarious when he’s trying to be hilarious and I think he’s hilarious when he’s trying not to be hilarious, when he’s taking the room on a long digression that tests the patience of even the most committed fan. And two: I love Stewart Lee and I love saying I love Stewart Lee because it’s exactly the kind of thing that will cause in Stewart Lee the kind of discomfort he enjoys inducing in others. Hah! Take that!

How I Escaped My Certain Fates (The Life & Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian) is a curious beast that you can’t really do justice to within the confines of a review. On the one hand, it’s a collection of shows – ‘Stand-Up Comedian’, ’90s Comedian’ and ’41st Best Stand-Up Ever’ – filletted with dozens and dozens of footnotes that either flesh out what it is he’s talking about or explain what inspired a particular bit or riff on the intricate loop he’s in the process of working up or sort of posthumously browbeat himself about how crap and clumsy a particular segue is. At the same time (and on the other hand) it is also a kind of memoir. I say ‘kind of’ because ‘Stewart Lee’, curmudgeonly old ‘Stewart Lee’ with his face like a crumpled Morrissey (or should that be Albert Finney these days?) is as much a construct as Charlie Chuck or Max Wall. He frequently takes pains (in the footnotes) to point out how ‘Stewart Lee’ takes a lot of the more irritating and twattish aspects of his own character and greatly emphasises them for comic effect, which makes sense, him being a comedian and all. The memoir aspect of the book is best revealed in the shortish chapters that lead you by the hand through 2004-5 and 2005-7, where we learn about how Stew took a misguided honeymoon in the Orkneys with his comedian wife (who later went on to perform a routine about the debacle), the fall-out from his blasphemy trial as a result of his involvement with Jerry Springer: The Opera and the trials and travails of his diverticulitis and up and down weight problems. There is a third (and possibly even a fourth) element to the book too (which would result in us having four hands for our ‘on the one hand / on the other hand’ metaphor but never mind): like Mark E Smith in Renegade (or any of Peter Kay’s memoirs), How I Escaped My Certain Fates allows Lee to settle a few personal scores (you get the impression he isn’t fond of Mitchell & Webb, for instance – you can, if you so choose, check out a fairly recent Lee & Herring parody of Mitchell & Webb on YouTube – and he definitely and quite rightly despises Ben Elton), but unlike MES and Peter Kay, Lee takes his venom to ridiculous lengths (such as his attack on the Mighty Boosh) thereby undercutting it (unlike MES, you can sort of glimpse underneath it all that Lee is quite a good guy, all things considered, not that that really matters a pinch). I said there was a fourth thing too: Lee is obviously interested in the history of comedy and has travelled to strange comedic performances all over the world – the glimpse we are afforded into these things is truly illuminating.

The book is, of course, a must for any Lee fan. I’ve seen each of these shows performed live in various locations across the country and – even though Lee comments on the inherent ridiculousness of transcribing them when they are only meant to work in a live context – it is great to see them broken down (imagine, if you will, the way in which Lee routinely deconstructs a joke taken to the nth limit) with footnotes. It’s also great to read the contextualising memoir-y bits. My hope is that this is the first of what turns out to be a regular series of books – if Charlie Brooker, for example, can continue to repackage his Guardian columns in bookform every two or three years, I see no reason why we can’t be treated to a similar book of Stewart Lee every two or three years (and reading these routines made me hunger to see or read his last show, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian all over again). And, while we’re at it, Faber should definitely commission Lee to write a more level-headed examination of what comedy is. I’d read that too. I also think KLee’s short story ‘The Aphid’ which appeared in the Fall-inspired short story collection Perverted by Language should have been included here too. One for the paperback maybe…

Any Cop?: In the repetitive spirit of Lee’s live shows: buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book buy this book…


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