June 17, 2011 10:05 pm

A comedy of comparison

Stewart Lee finds it hilarious that a newspaper would imagine that American comedy rapper Bo Burnham wanted to be like him

Last Saturday’s Guardian had an interview with the young American comedy rapper Bo Burnham, who has accrued 650m hits for his homemade raps on YouTube and is making a funny rapping film with the director Judd Apatow. Last year the Fosters Comedy Awards praised the rapper for coming to the lowly Edinburgh Festival, rather than “staying at home to monetise his vast YouTube audience”. It appears we have reached a point in our collapsing virtual culture where new verbs are invented to make cash transactions sound uglier than they already are, and where a performer who actually performs is praised for actually performing, instead of just broadcasting himself freestyling over a Casio in his bedroom, like some sort of rapping bin Laden.

Oddly, Burnham’s Guardian piece had the headline “The 20-year-old could be his generation’s Stewart Lee”. I am a comedian but the comparison struck me as unfair to the boy, especially as it didn’t relate to any desire he appeared to have expressed on record anywhere. Besides which, in an interview last summer, the young rapper had cast doubt on the originality of my work.


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Today’s article is, in many ways, the equivalent of me putting a horse’s head in Burnham’s bed. Here I am, just letting Bo know that I be watching him and showing him that I am ready for his crew, should they try wilding me in the hood. I am calling the rappers out, here, in the Financial Times, which I understand is a journal of record. But, seriously, I doubt the talented young rapper would set his sights so low as aspiring to be me, anyway.

Indeed, the gangs of local rappers that mock my old-skool plimsolls here in north London would make a sucking noise through their teeth and slap their palms against the glass of a bus shelter in hysterics were they to find that the Guardian imagined an American rapper wanted to be like me. To say the world appears to be Burnham’s oyster would be an understatement. The world is Burnham’s enormous clam and he should lap at it like a thirsty seal, before the incoming tide snatches it away once more.

The second series of my TV show, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, has just finished transmitting very late at night on BBC2 to less than a million viewers after a budget cut of 54 per cent. But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that, in terms of positive critical reactions, things seem to have reached something of a tipping point. I’m not sure if I am entirely happy with this as my self image is that of someone who is not invited to the mainstream comedy party and prefers instead to throw handfuls of soil over the perimeter fence, careless as to whom they will dirty, and I am finding approval very difficult to deal with. Groucho Marx said he did not want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. I go one further. I don’t even want to belong to a club that wouldn’t have me as a member. Deal with it, squares!

Being a point of comparison in someone else’s headline, rather than finding yourself compared to other people, is especially odd. The first time I was ever written about in a magazine, in 1991, I was called “The Mint 400 of comedy”. Mint 400 were a post-My Bloody Valentine grunge-shoegazing band that never quite made it and I was delighted. Today, if I look at the many postings to internet message boards by people that dislike me, their points of comparison are less charming; “I hate Stewart Lee. He’s like Ian Huntley to me.”, writes Wharto15 on Twitter. They do say one should never Google oneself.

I wondered if Burnham had Googled himself and found, to his despair, that he had been told he might one day be his generation’s Stewart Lee? I felt bad for him. As I sit here writing, in just my pants, my glasses, and a cardigan covered in a child’s vomit, I wouldn’t wish being myself on anyone.

I looked at the Guardian piece on the internet, to see if any of Burnham’s posse had been irked by the comparison. Imagine my surprise. The headline on the online edition was different. It had been upgraded to read, “The 20-year-old could be his generation’s Steve Martin.” My fame had reached its apogee and I was already on the way down. My usefulness as a point of cultural comparison to broadsheet newspaper readers had lasted all of a few hours. And like Burnham’s enormous clam, the tide of time was once more sweeping me away.

‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ Series 2 is available on DVD on Monday. Tickets for his new full-length show at Leicester Square Theatre, London (Nov 15 2011 – Jan 28 2012) are now available. See www.stewartlee.co.uk for details.

Susie Boyt is away

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