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Battle of the cozy comedians: What’s Alan Bennett’s problem with Stewart Lee?

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.

19 Comments

  1. Neil Brown says:

    I’m not quite sure what Bennett is getting at in that quote. Is he accusing Lee of not being funny, or being toothless?

    Lee is an acquired taste; a liberal deconstructionist who often breaks the 4th wall and interrupts his own act to analyse how it is going. Other standup comedians tell massaged anecdotes of meetings with taxi drivers that turn awkward; Lee does the same but admits partway through that it is made-up and veers off into a routine centred around the fact that the taxi driver is imaginary, because it saves time to make up these anecdotes rather than ride taxis all day in the hope that he can get some material. It’s a sort of ironic comedy, for those who are tired of normal standup tropes. As he says: “I can write jokes — I just choose not to.”

    Bennett’s comedy and drama is hugely character driven, so is quite different to Lee’s meandering, almost topic-less routines, or irreverent earlier work. I suspect Bennett views Lee as lacking substance and a point, but it’s not always the aim of his comedy. Although Lee is not without bite; Jerry Springer The Opera (which he co-wrote) was hardly mild. Maybe its shock value also offended Bennett?

  2. Paul Matthews says:

    Are you deliberately playing up to the caricature we Brits have of the comedy-clueless American?!

    The two are completely different. Alan Bennett is much older, from a different era, and writes about things like vicarage tea parties. He is a serious and highly regarded playwright and TV drama writer.

    Stewart Lee is a stand-up who has a reputation for being quite offensive (which was what Bennett meant). See his wikipedia page for several examples.

  3. thom says:

    I’m not exactly sure what he meant – but I don’t think it was being tacky. Jeremy Hardy is a left-wing, middle class intellectual comedian who appears on radio 4 comedy shows and the like, but is political and used to be a bit edgy. Stewart Lee is perhaps like this but more so – trying to push the boundaries of what makes people laugh. So my take is maybe that he is saying Lee would be a bit too political and/or edgy (art for art’s sake etc.) for Cook (though I find that a bit baffling).

    I imagine Lee routines won’t be funny on the page – given the reliance on uncomfortable pauses, repetition etc., but they are very different on stage – and one of the most original comedians around.

  4. Paul C says:

    It links to the words “… offend an audience and shied away from sketches that did” – he means that Stewart Lee *does* like offending his audience in a way Jeremy Hardy wouldn’t (though, as thom says, he was edgy for a while). Two examples of Lee doing this: 1) he describes his routine as ‘attritional’ and 2) he does a bit about how some sections of the audience won’t enjoy his act but have become because ‘they saw him on the telly. He preferred it when he played smaller gigs to clever people.’ Bennett is ‘a national treasure’ whereas Lee is playing with what is expected of an act. His “comedy vehicle” program is well worth viewing.

    If you wish to see Lee talking as himself (which he certainly doesn’t do in the book) see his talk on youtube about (not) writing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrXVaytvJtQ

  5. Guy Abel says:

    The quote is getting at the fact that Lee likes to make some tongue-in-cheek comments to his audience. For example, whenever I have seen him live he will often take the piss out of the audience (or part of the audience) that were a little slow on the uptake of an early joke and play with the quick witted/slow witted generalisation throughout the rest of the performance (and during his self appraisals)…. Or making the argument to a Glasgow audience that William Wallace was a gay paedophile,…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHA1ufmLZQY

    My guess is (Jeremy?) Hardy does the same, but to less of an extent. Not sure, can only remember seeing him a couple of times in some old QI episodes.

  6. Adam says:

    I think you might have been misled by Lee having quite a down-to-earth offstage persona, and how seriously he takes comedy. His work can be pretty experimental; he veered into too experimental for a few years, in my opinion, but he hits a nice balance now between funny and provocative.

    He will often take a shocking statement and go over and over it, deconstruct it, take it to its logical conclusion so you can see how ridiculous it is. So he’s done all sorts of routines that a fogey like Bennett might find offensive. Lee is almost half Bennett’s age! Here’s a Reddit thread with a few links to videos and mentions: http://www.reddit.com/r/videos/comments/14q12e/english_comedian_stewart_lee_performs_a/

  7. S.T. says:

    As far as I understand, the remark by Bennett aims to contrast Cook, having “no wish to offend an audience”, and Stewart Lee, having no such reservations.

    The video linked above by Guy Abel is a good example of Stewart Lee’s comedic delivery and style. Another interesting clip, which I suggest to watch it once with annotations turned off and then again reading the annotations, is the following:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wywywv4WAjk

    • Andrew says:

      ST:

      Maybe you’re right, but Bennett also seems to be writing about the present time as “these toothless stand-up days,” which is why I was interpreting him as saying that Lee is toothless.

      • Zach says:

        I thought he was saying that in Cook’s toothless standup days Lee had just barely too *much* tooth for Cook to like his style. If I were to infer from that blurb where Lee falls on the toothiness spectrum as perceived by Bennett I would say ‘moderately biting’.

  8. Adam says:

    As to that, the best that I can come up with is that he’s saying Peter would have liked the almost-but-not-entirely ‘toothless comedy’ of Jeremy Hardy, but would find Stewart Lee a bit much.

    Jeremy Hardy is a fairly tame comedian who does a lot of quiz shows on Radio 4. He’s politically left wing, but his idea of shocking is to say we don’t need the Royal Family, which ironically would have been pretty shocking in the 60s. You can’t imagine him doing a routine which culminates in him vomiting into Christ’s anus. For example.

    I think his attempted diss on Stewart Lee, then, runs thusly: Comedy is seen as being toothless these days, but even in my day the ‘shocking’ Peter Cook wasn’t as anarchic as people think. In fact, he’d probably have preferred Jeremy Hardy to Stewart Lee, who admires Peter Cook for being shocking I bet. Take that Stew!

    I don’t know how he reconciles accusing modern comedy of being both too shocking and toothless at the same time. I suspect he rather dashes those diary things off and didn’t think it through.

  9. Leighton Pritchard says:

    For what it’s worth, which isn’t a lot, I think Bennett’s quote isn’t the clearest, and probably has to be read in context with the rest of that day’s entry. I think I’m in agreement with most of the commentators above, though – and the tl;dr is I think Bennett’s just saying Stewart Lee isn’t funny.

    I think in the diary entry as a whole Bennett is relating that Peter Cook only took to more offensive (e.g. Derek and Clive) material later in his career as a result of “fawning” audience feedback and that, especially early on, he was very much a ‘showbiz comedian’ in search of the laugh, rather than the pointed satirical barb (“John Bird’s show confirmed Peter’s reluctance to have anything to do with any subject, be it satire or not, which was not funny”). This is exemplified by Bennett in Cook’s contribution to the nuclear bomb sketch being to get into a paper bag (silly but still, to me, satirical), rather than the more acidic and witty allusion to running away from the bomb.

    The point of Bennett’s comment seems to me that he’s saying that Cook chased the laugh not the message, and only ceased to care about genuinely being *funny* once people began to laugh at the general offensiveness of it all and how clever they were in realising it was all a joke (“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”). I think he’s intimating that Cook’s real preference was for “funny” comedy, and not specifically offensiveness, alienation of the audience, or deconstruction of the comedian’s art and siding with the “clever” part of the audience – none of which would have been worthwhile if it wasn’t *funny*.

    Jeremy Hardy, though in some ways cosy – especially now he’s getting on a bit – is hardly unfamiliar with causing offence to a Radio 4 audience, but he does tend to aim for the joke; Stewart Lee is much more determinedly about the “art of comedy”, and the message of the act, rather than the joke. In particular Lee often draws a distinction between the part of the audience that “gets it”, and the part that doesn’t – this puts him in the same kind of area as Peter Cook chasing laughs from a knowing audience in-group in the later part of his career. I think Bennett is saying that Peter Cook’s natural instincts would have made him prefer more the comedian who aims to entertain by being funny, rather than the stylised comedian for whom offence may be part of the act, but the structure of the act, and collusion with the audience, is arguably the key to the act, while being funny is secondary.

    Maybe Bennett’s right, and maybe not – Peter Cook can’t exactly speak up, now – and Cook’s last collaborators before he died included Chris Morris, who’s also been involved with Stewart Lee in comedy for decades, and also script edited Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.

  10. Naadir Jeewa says:

    Hasn’t Lee been through the same trajectory as Cook? His early work with Richard Herring was not nearly as biting (unless you were a practising Christian and witnessed satirical versions of bible stories put out on BBC2 on a Sunday afternoon before Songs of Praise).

    In fact, it was Jane Root’s (who took over BBC comedy commissioning in the mid-nineties) firing of Lee, Herring, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci (of Veep fame) for having too much bite* that was one of the big transformative experiences for Lee.

    * the last straw for Root was Morris playing a hiilariously edited version of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at Princess Diana’s funeral set to trip-hop on BBC Radio 1.

    • Anonymous says:

      Root may have cancelled Fist of Fun and This Morning With…, but that Blue Jam episode with the ABofC’s cut-up speech was in 1997 during the first series on Radio 1, and there were two more series after that. Not to say that this didn’t influence Root to decide not to commission any more from him for BBC2 while she was controller (I don’t know one way or the other), but Morris had already taken Brass Eye to Channel 4, by the time Blue Jam went out.

  11. Drew Yallop says:

    This is not about the Bennett quote.

    Stewart Lee has to be seen in performance. You may not like what you hear or you may laugh, sometimes uncontrollably. There are several DVD’s available. Start with “Carpet Remnant World”, his latest.

  12. Tim Ruffles says:

    I think with a bit of research you’d probably have understood :) Stewart Lee isn’t “cozy”, and his Daily Mail-baiting offensiveness is likely explains Bennett’s take.

    Here’s a quote from a skit about Richard Hammond of Top Gear (a often sexist/racist etc program that defends itself by it all being ‘a joke’) who’d recently been brain damaged in a car crash:

    ‘I wish he had died in that crash and that he had been decapitated and that his head had rolled off in front of his wife and that a jagged piece of metal debris from the car had got stuck in his eye and blinded him.

    ‘And then his head had rolled on a few more yards into a pool of boiling oil and that his head had retained just enough neural capacity for him to be able to think “ooh, this is bit hot” before the whole thing exploded into tiny pieces.’

  13. Minute says:

    Bennett does admire Stewart Lee according to this interview.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/alan-bennett-attacks-repellent-reality-tv-shows-from-big-brother-to-the-big-allotment-challenge-9749216.html

    I think that all he meant in the comment quoted above was that he would have been a bit strong for Peter Cook in the early years of his career. The explanation for the apparent contradiction between his admiration for Lee and his description of modern stand-up as “toothless” is because he thinks Lee is relatively exceptional in that respect.

  14. James says:

    I think this is more about the audience being in on the joke, which Lee’s have to be, of course, and the repetitions, digressions, etc, he thinks would have been too much for Cook. This may of course be inaccurate, both as Cook was or may have become, and really he’s talking about his own favourite comedians, and Hardy is indeed clever and witty, and Lee surreal but Chris Morris is closer in spirit, I think.

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