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19 October 2015

Most performers want their audiences to like them. I just want to be Stewart Lee

Lee is perhaps the most intelligent comedian ever to tread British boards.

By Will Self

I’ve done a fair amount of solo performing throughout my career – in fact, I started out as a stand-up comedian, and from time to time I revisit that sort of shtick, doing little gigs in the upstairs rooms of pubs. But mostly I do “shows” of one sort or another to support the publication of my books. Time was when these public readings were convened in the big chain bookstores: Waterstones, Blackwell’s and – before its demise – Borders. Audiences might be relatively small, but they had usually chipped up because they were interested in the writing; the live act was just an add-on.

But nowadays all bookshops are in free fall and the business of literary promotion has shifted to literary festivals and gigs in small theatres (if, that is, you can put bums on seats). In line with the decline of serious solitary reading, punters demand to be entertained collectively.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have stared out into dusty velveteen darkness at the rows of upturned faces looming up at me, pale as the caps of poisonous mushroom. At these moments, just before I zing the first one-liner out into the stalls, I try to assay the mood and tenor of the crowd: are they febrile or enervated, in the mood for laughter or tears? And, more to the point, am I febrile or enervated, in the mood for tears or laughter?

Now, I hope you noticed the subtle but important reversal in the chiasmus above: for an audience, laughter is a balm and a restorative, lifting it collectively out of the rut its massed feet have worn throughout the daily go-round: for the performer, however, laughter is always an easy way of gaining acceptance. “Laugh,” as the hoary old adage has it, “and the world laughs with you.” But really this formula should also be subject to reversal; from the isolated performer’s point of view, the important thing is that if the world is laughing, and you’re laughing as well, the world will assume you’re part of it, rather than some weirdo scam-merchant trying to pull one over.

In my experience, an audience will have both a lowest and a highest common denominator of taste and discrimination. Tell a crass joke and you may undershoot an audience’s low point; but craft too artful a witticism and it may zing over their heads rather than hitting them in the eye. In either case, there will be muttering and disaffection, and they won’t even laugh at you, let alone with. Audiences naturally long to become a single psyche surging with the same emotion; and producing this state-of-minds is the desideratum for all performers – yet woe betide he who misjudges it, because then, instead of being enfolded by the group mind, he will be abandoned to die alone in the full glare of the limelight.

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Even more serious an error is misplaced seriousness. Adjudge your crowd to be too high-minded and you’ll come off looking like a pretentious prat; assay viewers too basely, and they’ll think, “You patronising dipstick.” And of course, all these judgements have to be made lightning-quick, lest the mood curdle and then go emphatically off. So, the temptation – if you’re a performer – is  always to pitch low rather than high, and always to aim for the funny-bone rather than the sensitive one. Nevertheless, the allure of this tactic needs to be resisted: for, though audiences may roar with delight, with each mass contraction of their diaphragms, you’re being repelled – because, in your sad eagerness to be liked, you’ve transformed yourself into just another puppet-cum-clown, jerking about on strings of low self-esteem.

I thought about all this the other evening when I went to see Stewart Lee’s new stand-up show at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. Lee is perhaps the most intelligent comedian ever to tread British boards, and the genius of his shtick consists in large part in his willingness to flout all the rules of mass psychology outlined above. Rather than trade on audiences’ basest inclinations, Lee seeks constantly to raise their game. He does this by denigrating them – and himself. On the evening I saw him, he continually told us we were too slow and stupid to get his jokes, and that we needn’t bother laughing, as he considered us of no account. At the same time, he presented a portrait of himself as a deeply insecure man, fed up with the thankless cycle of touring mid-sized venues, who feels an affinity with prostitutes because, like them: “I do something for people they desperately want, but they’ve nothing but contempt for me.”

This seemed like reverse psychology: what we were meant to feel as Lee berated us was that we were perspicacious enough to see through his act and appreciate his real message: namely, that we were sufficiently wise and witty to appreciate how wise and witty he is. But actually, Lee is a good enough actor to keep the other possibility open. In line with Papa Sigmund’s dictum, he isn’t joking at all, but hoodwinking us with his own ironic sensibility as he kvetches and badmouths in plain sight, cackling internally all the while. Now, the Venn intersection between these two, quite high audience denominators markedly reduces Lee’s likelihood of laughs. Not that this seems to bother him . . . Or then again, maybe it does . . .

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy