Content Provider: Selected Short Prose Pieces 2011-2016 by Stewart Lee
(Faber & Faber, paperback, 320 pages. Out now and available here in the Caught by the river shop for the special price of £12.00.)
Review by Ben Myers
Comedians don’t make it easy for us, the maggoty masses, to love them. Turn on the TV and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the British laughter racket is entirely ruled by bright eyed bouncy young pups eager to sell their souls to pithy panel shows and advertising campaigns for that fast-track route to the lucrative arena stages, chat show sofas and Christmas book tie-ins. Exhibit A: Rob Brydon, who was once a character actor of renown, capable of crafting a keenly observed and compassionate show such as Human Remains, now sells cereal flakes that come in a cardboard box, and holidays on oceanic cruise liners that resemble floating prisons for UKIP people.
We unavoidably find ourselves observing a world of entertainment that rewards Michael McIntyre and shuns Jerry Sadowitz; that martyrs Bill Hicks yet would never harbour an equivalent on primetime TV. Frankie Boyle manages to dash the streak of humanity that lurks within him with such flashes of withering cruelty that he can never truly be loved. Peter Kay remembers stuff while sweating in Blackpool. Jimmy Carr mocks the disabled then looks startled. Jack Whitehall honks in tight trousers. Many Russells say many things, each with one eyebrow archly raised. Some Northerners notice that London is different to Bolton. It’s just good enough really.
In this world of chaos, confusion, political failings and economic instability, humour is an increasingly valuable currency that’s key to stopping the majority of citizens grabbing an AK and spraying their local Arndale. Below-par comedians and political hypocrisy are two topics that Stewart Lee writes especially well about, not to mention all those little things in modern life that piece together to create a mental mosaic of a country of people that is, at least collectively, borderline insane.
A satirist in the vein of the other satirists who usually get mentioned when the word is lazily deployed to illustrate people who tell jokes without bouncing across the stage in bright blouses (Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, Vladimir Putin), Lee has long occupied a unique hard-won position, being simultaneously palatable, aesthetically-pleasing and BBC-friendly, yet subversive in his content and delivery. His niche has been carved by being droll, informed and Oxford-clever, but without ever using long words or a squeaky voice, or trashing Indian restaurants as an undergraduate.
Instead he is prone to repeating a single word, phrase or image to such an extent that it becomes, by turns, silly, then funny, then boring, then annoying, then anxiety-inducing, then funny, then awkward, then boring, then funny again. This only works in his stand-up routines though; in print it would just be a piss-take.
I wouldn’t be so pretentious and unoriginal as to note the jazz-styled construction of both Stewart Lee’s latter-day TV shows and the recent newspaper columns that are collated here: meandering but thematically cohesive, surprising but rarely improvised, repetitive to the point of hypnotic. Wild but controlled. Only a lazy hack on a diminishing word rate at Q magazine would do that. However, I will observe that unlike many of the jazz greats, he does all of this while not on heroin. Lee has, he says, survived in the jazz hands business by exploiting the goodwill of once-teenage fans who have grown up “and now work as journalists and regional cultural tsars.” He attributes Britpop’s Damon Albarn’s success to this too. And not doing heroin (Lee, not Albarn who, as the odds, one ex-girlfriend and a round of interviews in 2014 suggest, has – as with hats, musicals and cartoon monkeys – certainly dabbled).
Lee’s political observations are particularly prescient right now, as the rats jump their respective ships and a shower of excrement reigns down upon us all (this may be a mixed and lazily scatological metaphor, but I think it is self-sustaining). Sitting ducks like Margaret Thatcher (dead) and Grant Shapps (not dead) are given short shrift, as is David William Donald Cameron who “will leave no legacy, [while] Rebekah Brooks will be a stain upon the saddle of time’s swift stallion”. Lee is highly poetic in his put-downs: Michael Portillo is a “Cuprinol wood goblin”, Jimmy Savile “a secret glam rock Dracula”. Alex Salmond is the subject of an entire column based largely around his name being misheard as “I like salmon” at an imaginary buffet. And as someone rumoured to be distantly related to Her Royal Twiglet via the old pit villages of rural Durham myself, I was pleased to see Kate Middleton described as “a peasant-spawned serf-girl, sodden with the primordial mire of the Swindon–shadowed swamplands.”
Having worked with Michael Gove on a short-lived early 90s TV show called A Stab In The Dark (Google it and marvel at Gove the satirist, looking exactly as he does a quarter century later, only a little less like a red salamander and/or a burnt penis), Lee is particularly fascinated by the erstwhile, metaphorically stab-happy Tory contender. As far back as 2012 he observed: “I have seen Gove’s political career as, firstly, a bid to get accepted by those post sporty cunts – Cameron, Boris, George ‘Pencils’ Osborne etc – and then, secondly, as an attempt to get revenge on them somehow.” I read this piece on the very day that Gove did exactly that and, verily, I nearly declared Lee a post-punk prophet, a sage of the stage, but then remembered we all suspected this anyway. But still. It’s like he is a tiny man with a tiny laptop, writing live from inside the reader’s head.
With much journalism now finding a home online, the contemporary critic and commentator finds his or herself faced with a new era of kneejerk reaction and below the line comments, each designed to peck away at one’s soul like a trapped budgie at the final frayed splinter of cuttlefish. Refusing to become disheartened by the keyboard-rattling idiocy of human worms with all the intellectual flexibility of a Tunnock’s Teacake but with easy access to a fast broadband connection, this is something that Lee plays with, peppering his prose with deliberate errors (Dennis Roussos, Dizzy Rascal, ‘Witchfinder General Mary Hopkin’), then sitting back to watch the “Typical Grauniad” comments come in. He prints some of the best responses here without comment. Clearly there’s no need, as each offers some Whitehouse-esque righteous indignation. The woman, not the provocative proto-industrial band, obviously.
Beneath the slightly jaded tone of one who has watched his beloved Hackney become a Petri dish for twats who piss in his garden, and a Dan Ashcroft-esque suspicion that the idiots are indeed winning (and, broadly speaking, they are), Lee writes best about those things he is genuinely passionate about: music, literature, comedy, mythology, humanity and actual social mobility, rather than the phrase “social mobility”, which is just two words that sometimes fall out of politicians’ mouths like gold molars or errant cords of semi-digestible pulled pork. Recalling a childhood reading of The Owl Service by Alan Garner he describes being “sucked into a sphagnum bog of sexy druidical Celtoid mytho-poetics”. He confides in joining the National Trust “in the spirit of class hatred” and files his membership cards alongside the first four Crass albums. Haven’t we all?
I’m glad that Stewart Lee exists and is given televisual air-time and newspaper space in which to deftly weave webs of thought that bridge the gap between wonderment and weary cynicism. Content Provider is a fun read for disheartened liberals and an unfunny heap of words whose combination is punishable with death by either firing squad or Top Gear repeats for others. It is full of truths and lies and it made me laugh twenty times, after which point I stopped counting, and resumed digging my bunker at the bottom of the garden.
Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers has just been published by Moth/Mayfly.