Comedy Snobbery

Blimy. It only seems like yesterday I was defending Stewart Lee against charges of being a posturing, indulgent dead end. Now comes some rather more loaded criticism from the Telegraph.

So what has Guy Stagg got against Stewart Lee? The rap sheet includes comedy snobbery, the “more poisonous” forms of snobbery which comedy snobbery is apparently a vehicle for, and the hypocrisy of Lee’s showing off his own prejudices while criticising others. ‘Vanity’, ‘cynicism’ and ‘hate’ also get thrown about, and there’s even a mention of the ‘Left-wing elite’. It’s like an Edinburgh Fringe of comedy evils.

Since ‘snobbery’ features twice in Stagg’s Seven Deadly Sins, we’d best be clear what it’s about. Snobs apparently hang around culture and “tell you what to like” and hate. The nerve of them, carrying on like their opinions might matter to anyone else. As Stagg initially presents them, snobs sound like critics, or anyone who leaves comments under an on-line review. I’m going to make a wild guess that someone who blogs on “the fringe arts scene” among other things isn’t suggesting that no-one should air their opinions on the merits or demerits of anything cultural.

So let’s try again. Snobbery, it seems to me, involves at least an element of prejudice, or refusing to engage with something (or someone) on its (or their) own terms, because the validity of those terms is denied. It’s not about telling anyone what to like; it’s about prescribing the criteria by which they ought to make evaluations. And (as Stagg correctly notes) it often involves judgements not just of cultural artefacts but of the people who dare to enjoy them.

Comedy snobbery, it seems, is particularly objectionable. Stagg dismisses it as “indulgent”, since comedians are the worst comedy snobs; but they are often the ones who know and care the most about comedy, and if anyone should be entitled to a little haughtiness towards underwhelming acts, it is they. Comedy snobbery is also “inappropriate”, since laughter is instinctive and inclusive; so too is sexual arousal, but that strikes me as a poor argument against those who would dismiss the artistic merits of pornography.

Stagg’s third point is more interesting: the comedy snob will ignore the laughter of the audience and continue to the judge the joke to be unfunny.  There’s no doubt that being told that something you enjoy ‘isn’t funny’ is aggravating, particularly if one considers comedy to be, fundamentally, a subjective matter. But equally, there are objective criteria by which any comedian can be assessed; they won’t ever capture everything about an act, but they are there just as surely as in composition or dance (if you think that no objective criteria can be applied to dance, you’ve obviously never seen me cutting the rug.)

Michael McIntyre is apparently targeted by snobs for telling simple, popular jokes, free of contempt or bile. For what it’s worth, I suspect that these are among the reasons why it is (or was, at any rate) fashionable to dislike McIntyre. I’m not sure Lee’s ‘My on-stage persona ate my homework’ explanation was entirely convincing; it’s a little too close to giving himself carte blanche to say whatever he, or ‘Stewart Lee’, feels like.

On the other hand, Lee clearly regards McIntyre as part of a burgeoning movement in comedy, one which it’s fair to say he regards with ambivalence rather than contempt. And the fact that it’s popular to criticise McIntyre doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to do so, or evidence of creeping snobbery. Stagg stacks the deck somewhat with his pocket description of McIntyre’s act. For ‘popular’, one could justifiably substitute ‘bland’; for ‘lack of contempt’, ‘lack of ambition’. One’s attitude towards McIntyre will ultimately come down to such value judgements. (Likewise, one’s attitude towards McIntyre’s critics will come down to whether one thinks of them as fashionable snobs or as connoisseurs.)

But the real issue here isn’t attitudes towards comedians, but towards comedy audiences. This is the heart of Stagg’s complaint: Lee’s sets

are a refined way of saying that anyone who reads Dan Brown is stupid and anyone who watches Top Gear is racist. In dissecting the prejudices of others, Stewart Lee is also showing off his own.

Once again, I think there’s a little bit of truth in this. I don’t think Lee is saying precisely what Stagg attributes to him, but it’s hard not to see traces of contempt in some of his stand-up. But Stagg ignores every other aspect of Lee’s criticisms and how he articulates them. It seems odd to note that Lee often ‘savages’ other comedians but to not inquire into why Lee might want to do so, or the significance of him doing so in the context of a stand-up routine, or – most importantly – the fact that he pretty clearly ramps up his dislike of Dan Brown readers and Top Gear audiences for comic effect. He might be indulging his prejudices, but he’s also presenting his own disdain and elitism as something to be sniggered at.

This isn’t to say Stagg himself is being snobbish in dismissing Lee, neat though that conclusion would be. But he does seem guilty of simplifying matters to make his criticisms more plausible, and in doing so arguably missing the point of Lee’s comedy. It’s not snobbery to ignore or misinterpret irony. But it is ironic to do so in the course of dismissing a comedian as prejudiced.

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