“True, broadcasters patronise (in every sense of the word) Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, who are genuine far-left comedians, even if they are a little too keen on becoming national treasures for my taste. But they ration the appearances of Stewart Lee, the best left-wing comedian. To their evident disapproval, Lee can be genuinely unsettling, and has never shown a desire to be any kind of treasure” - Nick Cohen, in Standpoint magazine.
Above: Stewart Lee at the Oxford Writing Festival
I’m not sure I agree with the following article by The Independent’s Nalalie Haynes, but as it’s in support of the admirable (and often very, very funny) Stewart Lee, I reproduce it below.
My doubts about Lee’s case (as reflected by Ms Haynes) is precisely the ‘Morcambe and Wise argument’ which (imho) Hayes fails to refute simply by contrasting ‘sketch’ comedians with ‘stand-ups.’ Is there really such a fundamental difference? ‘Sketch’ comedy can be just as personality-based as stand-up: what about Galton and Simpson’s scripts for Hancock and (then) for Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Bramble in Steptoe & Son? Or Bob Hope, who (regardless of his reactionary politics) was a master of timing, pace and delivery, but never originated a gag in his life – apart, perhaps, for “I like to keep my wits about me.”
Anyway, here’s Natalie Haynes’ article:
Comedy is about sincerity as well as laughter
Stewart Lee has spent much of his career as the canary in comedy’s coalmine. He cares so much about his art – and comedy is an art, at least when it’s done properly – that he is super-sensitive to its ethical shifts.
A speech he delivered at an Oxford Writing Festival finally appeared on YouTube this week. In it, Lee compares comedians using writers to sports stars taking performance-enhancing drugs.
For decades, if not centuries, comic performance was everything. Comedy writers churned out endless notebooks filled with jokes, and sold them to performers who could make the lines zing in front of an audience. Then alternative comedy came along, and creative originality was prized above all else.
Comedians were proud of writing their own material, especially on subjects which didn’t seem to be obvious fuel. They wanted the right kind of laugh: one which rewarded audacity and originality as well as delivery.
Like so much of the alternative comedy legacy (political correctness being the most obvious other example) this passion for originality has gradually been lost. As the same few stand-ups dominate the TV schedules, their need for new material outweighs the rate at which anyone could write it. Add in a new tour show each year (which gobbles material and can generate millions of pounds), and it’s easy to see why comedians might hire writers.
Lee told his Oxford audience: “I like to think stand-up comedians who rely heavily on writers will one day be stripped of whatever artistic awards or financial rewards they received in their careers, like disgraced, drug-taking Tour De France cyclists”. But plenty of comics have pointed out that many of the greatest comedians –Morecambe and Wise, for a start – had writers working for them.
But the point Lee makes isn’t refuted by this argument. Morecambe and Wise were sketch comedians. No-one watched their show and thought they really shared a chaste bed, made breakfast each morning, then waited for Glenda Jackson to come round dressed as Cleopatra.
Stand-up is an altogether trickier proposition. Sure, some comics deliver jokes which reveal almost nothing about themselves. But plenty more are selling a personality. The acts which Lee singled out (among them Jack Whitehall, Michael McIntyre) are offering up a version of themselves.
Perhaps it is only a naive punter who believes a stage persona is more than it appears, when the reality is that a comedian no more reveals their real character on stage than an actor playing Hamlet. But like Lee, I miss those comics who offer sincerity as well as laughter. Perhaps the answer is to turn off the TV and go to a comedy club instead.