When in London awhile ago I picked up the book, “How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian,” by Stewart Lee. I’d never heard of the guy but the book was sitting there, it had good blurbs, and from a quick flip-through it looked interesting. Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I can confirm that it really is interesting. I recommend it. Along with transcripts of some of his comedy routines—which aren’t particularly funny most of the time, at least not on the page—he has lots of discussion of what works and what doesn’t work on stage and how he wants to communicate with his audience. It all reminds me a lot of the things I think about when giving statistics talks. I mean, sure, Lee is much much more of a pro than I’ll ever be, but a lot of his issues resonate with me too. In particular there’s the idea of wanting a laugh but not a cheap laugh (which in a technical talk corresponds to the goal of transmitting the excitement and importance of one’s work without lapsing into Ted-talk hype) and various tactics of engaging the audience.
Also the idea that there is no single optimal style, that your approach to presentation, like a diaper, needs to be regularly changed to stay fresh.
Lee’s book was also interesting because he gives off a regular-guy vibe, sort of like the essayist David Owen, who gives the impression of being an earnest person, not a deep or particularly quick thinker, more like a gentle guide who can plod along with the reader at his or her own pace. He’s not a true original like George Carlin or brilliant like Chris Rock, more of a guy who’s doing his best every day, and with a pleasant self-awareness that elevates his work.
So that was that. But then one day I read this offhand remark from Alan Bennett:=
Peter [Cook] . . . was already in 1960 established as a successful sketch writer for revues in the West End. This meant that at that time he had no wish to offend an audience and shied away from sketches that did. It was only later in his career that, as his humour became more anarchic and audiences in their turn more fawning and in on the joke, he ceased to care. Showbiz dies hard and in these toothless stand-up days I think Peter might just have liked Jeremy Hardy but would have drawn the line at Stewart Lee.
I can’t be sure, but it sounds like Bennett considers Lee to be a bit tacky. Just as Greg Mankiw used his late grandmother as a mouthpiece for his distaste for Sonia Sotomayor, Bennett seems to be using his late colleague Cook to diss Lee.
I honestly have no idea what’s going on here. To my American eyes, Lee and Bennett seem very similar: two cozy left-wing English comedy writer/performers, successful but self-deprecating . . . really it’s hard for me to see much difference. OK, Bennett is gay while Lee is a sensitive heterosexual, but that can’t be the whole story. There must be something else going on: maybe Lee is too “middlebrow” for Bennett? Or maybe it’s the opposite, that Bennett sees Lee as one of those kids who doesn’t know how it’s really done?
Could any of our English readers inform me on this one? It’s no big deal but I hate being baffled like this.