The Future of Comedy?

Everyone loves Stewart Lee, right? Apart from Daily Mail writers, Joe Pasquale, and the kind of person who prefers their funnies to start ‘I’m not saying my mother-in-law is fat...’? And even some of those people probably like Lee, secretly.

I’m simplifying a little – but chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ll be a Lee fan. So it’s refreshing to see Joe Daniels tilting at this loftiest of comedy windmills. Refreshing, but I don’t think he’s got Lee right.

Self-referentiality is perhaps Lee’s main selling-point; both in that his set involves a running commentary on itself, and in the slightly broader sense that he spends a lot of time performing comedy about comedy. It’s fair enough to point out that a great deal of art about art, writing about writing, etc., is smarmy posturing. This is a danger inherent in it, the short step from ‘Let’s poke fun at these hackneyed conventions’ to ‘What kind of fools could take these conventions seriously?’ This might even be a fair criticism of some of Lee's act. But it’s possible to justify quite a bit of his snobbery: inane celebrity biographies and eager-to-please television hosts deserve to be mocked rather than taken seriously. And one of the delights of Lee’s performances is the self-awareness built into this mockery. The audience are both invited to share in the condescension, and at the same time nudged in the ribs at how ridiculous Lee’s irritation is.

Daniels suggests that his mockery leads Lee to set up false dichotomies, between the bits of culture he deems worthy of ridicule (pretty much all of it, apparently), and the elitist standard to which he aspires. While this is true to an extent, I’m inclined to say, ‘Yes, but it’s a comedy set’. Lee exaggerates the blandness of much contemporary culture for comic effect. Again, his audience will be perfectly aware of this; it’s an essential part of their enjoyment. (This might sound very much like I’m saying Lee is having his cake and eating it, inviting his audience to look down on the detritus of popular culture while also finding humour in Lee’s antipathy towards said detritus. Well, he is. Provided this is done skilfully enough, there’s no real contradiction here, just the comic tension that comes from justified irritation at something tugging gently at an obvious over-reaction to it.)

Third, Daniels is right to say that Lee’s act, to the extent that it involves criticising established comic conventions, depends on their continuing popularity: “His act only works when enough people out there like seeing Michael McIntyre bound about in enormo-dromes”. To this extent, Lee’s act is a reaction to the mainstream, and so is ‘reactionary’. But anything (artistic movement, revolutionary vanguard, “silly” “posturing” stand-up) which seeks to subvert something else is reactionary, in the sense that it is a reaction to the thing being subverted. If this is your definition of ‘reactionary’, there will be little that escapes it. One might take this as a clue to find a better definition of ‘reactionary’, or maybe just a better dictionary.

Daniels implicitly sets up his article as considering whether Lee represents a “deadpan dead end” or the future of comedy. I think we should assume he is aware this itself is something of a false dichotomy. A world in which comedians did nothing but endlessly deconstruct each other’s act would be a bit boring, but that’s not what people mean when they speak of Lee as comedy’s future. At least, I hope not. And I suspect Stewart Lee hopes so as well.

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