Really enjoyed this little snippet – actually a trailer shown before the start of the second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, but I’ve just seen it. (It’s time-shifted media consumption, you understand, not my being a bit all over the shop). Stewart Lee’s Social Network Marketing. The topical element to this is that the series ended last night. A beautiful piece of tv comedy in its own right, but as it touches on marketing and social media, worth a quick line here.
As someone who follows a number of comedians on twitter, I have to agree with the point Stewart Lee made in the FT a couple of weeks ago about the over-hyping of 140 character comedy. Perhaps it is an art form in its own right, but a lot of following comedians on twitter reveals what we knew anyway – that the best comedy is crafted and honed over time. Some comedy of course can be about quick spontaneous wit – the election debates last year were much enhanced by the running commentaries of Quantick, Addison and others. But guess what, comedians aren’t funny all the time. And when they perform, they do the same stuff over and over (as regular comedy goers will know), honing and changing slightly as they go. Often the funniest version is the 10th or 11th iteration of a line. And many of them have settled into a fairly pedestrian stream of “here’s what I’m doing now”. That’s fine, it’s sort of what twitter’s about: but in awe of the comedy greatness I ain’t.
This series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, for example, was basically the material of the Vegetable Stew tour, which Lee had taken around the country over several months. The “IRA – Gentleman Bombers” routine – the best observed put down of those fools I’ve ever heard – was first performed years ago. As a graduate of Marc Blake’s comedy writing nightclass (in the heady autumn of 1998 when the world was young and anything seemed possible) and writer of unpublished comic masterpiece Hit The North, slaving for days to make a single line funny – often without success – I feel I have earned the right to pontificate on this topic. Though not the right to be given adulation and riches by the UK’s leading publishing houses.
The kind of wit you get on twitter is not what Lee does – the build up of a mood and a narrative, the repetition, the awkward silences. Lee, as a comedy devotee, is at his most passionate and funny when he’s sounding off about other comedians – which he does disconcertingly frankly and unkindly. And he is funny with it. I loved his parody of US stand-ups (You Tube: Stewart Lee on American stand-ups) or British observational humour (his interminable rambling about receipts; or the bit from last night’s show about the way there used to be stuff and now there isn’t stuff). And he’s noticed something true about stand-up comedy in Britain in 2011. It has become an efficient industry; the quality is actually OK, most of the stuff on tv is fine, it’s not awful. But there is something depressingly samey about the endless merry-go-round of these guys with their trainers and their loose shirts. I don’t hate Michael McIntyre as much as Lee does though. He made it big for good reason, because his own live act really shone a couple of years ago when he made the breakthrough (much to my surprise – I’d hated him on Mock The Week). But when you see a few in a row on his roadshow, it does have you longing for something I used to hate in comedy shows – a musical interlude. An anything interlude.
Lee trashes the marketing of comedy of course. But he realises any performer is part of this marketing. Actually you can’t not market yourself if you’re going around the country performing to the public; even doing nothing is making a statement about who you are. And Lee is a classic case of seeing a crowded marketplace with little differentiation and finding a niche by doing something different. He defines himself as much by what he is not, in comedy terms, as by what he is – and so is a (probably unwilling but almost certainly knowing) purveyor of a “post Naomi Klein” kind of non-marketing marketing.
What I like about Stewart Lee’s approach to all this is the relish with which he welcomes the most vitriolic criticism of his act (see for example Stewart Lee’s prized collection of bad reviews). Lee feeds off the scorn and bafflement of those that don’t get him. He can do this because he knows he is a special comedian and he knows the alternative comedy establishment, the Armando Iannuccis, Arthur Mathewses and Chris Morrises, revere him. This gives him great power. His reputation is so grand now that he can bring critics down just by naming them. When he revealed in How I Escaped My Certain Fate that Robbie Williams hated his show and thought it was boring, it’s Robbie Williams who went down in the estimation (though, with his sub-Elton John fake Texan vocal delivery, he was never very high in mine anyway).