April 22, 2011 6:30 pm

Joking apart

 
Stewart Lee performing ‘Vegetable Stew’ at Leicester Square theatre last year

Stewart Lee performing ‘Vegetable Stew’ at Leicester Square theatre last year

I am a stand-up comedian. Or at least I thought I was. A few years ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail asking me if I was interested in “submitting content”. I was confused. The sender explained that I was a “content provider”. Did I want to provide content? Eventually it transpired that the content-seeker wanted to know if I had any jokes that could be sold to be viewed on mobile phones ... I think. At the risk of sounding arrogant, my material is written to be performed as part of a whole in particular sorts of places, and I have given a great deal of thought to how the acceptability and impact of ideas is affected by pacing, context and their position as part of a whole 70- to 90-minute set. I didn’t want it being chopped up, miniaturised, de-contextualised and inflicted passively on old ladies on the top decks of buses by shouting teenagers, and so my content went un-provided.

When the BBC came to pull out clips from my 2009 TV series, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, for trails, they found it impossible to snag anything compact enough to use. All the trails for the show, and for the forthcoming second series next month, feature one of the only three lines in the series I didn’t write, namely a joke by the comedian Simon Munnery, whom I had turned to for a top-of-the-show gag, in search of an economy and directness of which I am incapable.

Never has it been more true that brevity is the soul of wit. Today, the assumption is that a comedian’s or a writer’s highest ideal would be to reduce a funny idea to 140 characters, so it could be twittered out to their content-gobbling followers, and instantly digested in whatever circumstances the consumer finds themselves. It appears I was a content provider all along, and, if you can’t fragment your content into cross-platformed multi-media mini-particles, then what kind of content provider are you exactly?

Once, being an artist was, without coming over all arts and crafts, about managing the meeting of form and content, arranging the forced marriage of vision and design. At the Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney, an archaeologist lets you hold Stone Age tools in the palm of your hand and the frisson of vision and design as inseparable is palpable. But today content is king and form is mutable. Can the comic become a film? Can the film become a game? Can the book become an e-book? Can the song become a ringtone? Imagine if the Japanese super-robots the Transformers were suddenly put in charge of all human culture. Here’s a Jacobean tragedy you can also use to mix trifle! Content is being dictated by its possible application to a variety of forms. We’ll come back to the cross-platforming of liquefiable content, and its influence on my comedy, but first, here are some not unrelated anecdotes.

In the early part of the last decade I was asked by someone at BBC Online if I would contribute ideas to a virtual world where characters from the pulp and more serious literature of the Victorian period interacted in ongoing stories. Characters, he explained, must be “avatars” that could be “visioned” so that they could be scripted by writers, or have their fates left to the whims of public votes. They told me that the comics guru Alan Moore had also been approached, which showed a degree of commitment as he lives in Northampton. Moore advised caution where this new idea of “visioning” was concerned. “Never trust a proposal where they have to invent a new verb to get you to do what they want,” he said. “Dickens would never have killed Little Nell if it had gone to a public vote. The only good thing about being a writer is you get to decide what happens to the people you have invented.” Not any more, it seemed. Your work was now a fluid commodity. I don’t remember a point in my teenage years when, struck dumb by Shakespeare or stand-up or Sonic Youth, I thought, “Yes, that’s what I want to do – develop visionable avatars.”

 

Last year I finished writing a book for Faber & Faber about stand-up, How I Escaped My Certain Fate. I made use of copious footnotes, firstly to exaggerate the presumed absurdity of treating the subject of stand-up with the literary seriousness that publication by Faber implied, and secondly to emphasise the idea that the book was a book. Such lengthy and unwieldy footnotes involved the reader in a physical relationship with the book as object, hopefully forcing them to turn it backwards and forwards, break the spine and bend the pages. Faber was pleased with How I Escaped My Certain Fate but transferring its content to the e-book format proved problematic. That is because I wrote a book, not an app. I aim to make the next book I write impossible to read as an e-book. Some new laptops now arrive with a deluge of literary content already installed into their hard-drives. But the special books of the future will be books that are resistant to digital recalibration. I read features in weekend supplements about how the young people of today don’t own anything. All the music and literature they need is crammed on to their hard drives in compressed form. This is why the young people of today will never do anything worthwhile.

The guitarist Derek Bailey was playfully and perhaps satirically opposed to recorded music in all its forms. Despite having more than 150 commercially available albums to his name at the time of his death in 2005, Bailey maintained that he could not see the point of recorded music, and contrived to find it amusing to imagine people sitting in their homes listening to it. “What do you do while the record is playing?” he asked me. “Look around? Drink a cup of tea? Are you allowed to read? It seems mad.” Bailey’s commitment to total improvisation, to never repeating himself, and to trying to work outside all recognisable musical idioms means that in a world where music is piped in at every possible point, and often created for no apparent artistic purpose, his music still has the power to stop time. It cannot really be used to soundtrack anything, or sell anything. These spidery solo guitar lines cannot be filleted or fragmented or remixed. The music was what it was at the moment it was made and that is all, and listening to a recording of it you hear only an echo of the moment, like the brightness that reaches your eye from an already exploded star, untold billions of light years away.

In 2006, as I explain in my book, which is available as a download on Amazon, I was lucky enough to visit Taos Pueblo in New Mexico on the feast day of San Geronimo, where ancient clowning rituals so vibrant and virile they were outlawed by early white settlers have been co-opted into Catholic festivities. A dozen or so mainly naked men, painted in striped black and white body paint, interact with thousands of people in the village square in a mass spontaneous improvisation. Content, the explosion of pueblo social tensions, meets form, the natural gladiatorial circus space of the village square and the terraced homes around it. Documenting the spiritual clown events is expressly forbidden. At the gates of the pueblo we handed in cameras, mobile phones, anything vaguely electronic, and headed into an unforgettable spectacle which not a single person present was viewing through a lens. I remember it still moment by moment by moment – the figures appearing shrieking and fearsome on the rooftops against the blue sky, the theft of our drinks, the overturning of tables, the humiliation of the cowboy, the forced baptism of the stolen babies, the casting down of the palm crosses, the scaling of the 300ft pole, the carcass of the slaughtered sheep, swinging in the sun – perhaps because I had no means of recording any of it. The Tewa clowns would not be cross-platformed. Their content was developed for the pueblo square format and it would stay that way.

Next month I am curating a weekend of comedy and music at the Southbank Centre, London. I am a curator. What a dead word. It sounds like someone stirring turds in a toilet bowl with a stick. If something is being curated it already seems fixed and decayed – bands recreating their classic albums in their entirety, seasons of film screenings working towards a pre-ordained conclusion. To that end, I’ve tried to schedule events that are unrepeatable. At Last! The ‘1981’ Show brings together a dozen stars of the early alternative comedy scene in an unprecedented bill; in another show the contemporary folk rock band Trembling Bells meets the 1960s legend Mike Heron; elsewhere, pianists Steve Beresford and Tania Chen are presenting John Cage’s Indeterminacy, with me on the spoken word section. We had three goes at Indeterminacy last year. Beresford and Chen improvise on piano and whatever else is to hand, while I read a random selection from 90 one-minute stories, penned by Cage. Like it or not, Indeterminacy reminds those watching that time is passing, moment by moment, now, and once the piece is over it will never be recreated in the same form ever again. Needless to say, form and content go hand in hand. There is no red button content. And in life, there are no DVD extras.

There’s a quote in one of Cage’s Indeterminacy stories: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” After the first series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle I found myself, against my better judgment, looking online, not at the many favourable reviews, but at the fury of members of the public who hated me for my slow delivery, lengthy routines, and dull voice. “A boring, droning-on ‘comedian’ who’s (sic) set’s (sic) just happen to be the most unlively (sic) sets in the comedy world”, says Spursfan, on YouTube, whilst P Mishkin on Amazon offers: “He takes about five or so good concepts and plays them all out over far too long a time so by the end of each segment you don’t really care whether there is a point to the piece. The delivery is too deadpan to make it interesting. Avoid at all costs, please don’t encourage the man.” Sadpunk, at Drownedinsound.com, shares his frustrations thus: “So I tried to watch this last night. After about five minutes I couldn’t bear any more. Tell a joke, you twat.” Tim J, at Liberalconspiracy.org is similarly bored: “Stewart Lee’s jokes consist of taking a moderately funny idea and then spending 25 minutes slowly and repetitively beating it to death with a shovel.”

Bearing in mind the public’s reactions, the second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle will be slower, more dense, quieter and even more thorough in its treatment of an even more limited range of ideas than the first series. I feel perhaps the problem is that I didn’t go far enough. It is what it is. It isn’t anything else and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s me doing my stand-up on television my way. You can’t tweet it, or trail it, or chop it up into content. There’s three hours of it in total and if, at the end of three hours, it still seems boring, then it probably is.

The second series of ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ starts on Wednesday May 4 at 11.20pm on BBC2

‘Stewart Lee’s Austerity Binge’ is at the Southbank Centre, London, May 27-30, www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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Tim Vine on the art of the oneliner

“I don’t really know what the secret formula is or else every time I wrote a joke, I would make sure it was perfect. If I write 10 jokes, maybe three are worth keeping and the other seven are rubbish, but I think that is the key to most writing – to let yourself write rubbish. Occasionally I’ll book a room and I’ll just sit there for the whole day and write. In the past I’ve taken an enormous dictionary and my guitar with me. And I think to myself: I’ve got all the notes that I need there and I’ve got all the words. Surely something’s got to happen.

I tried all sorts of styles, but I found that when I was writing stuff that was slightly longer and chattier, I gravitated towards making it shorter again.

I can’t help myself. I think: ‘I don’t need that word or that word’, and it ends up as a one-liner again. I think I get nervous waiting for the laughs. I don’t like it when the gaps are too long.

I have jokes such as: ‘One-armed butlers, they can take it but they can’t dish it out’. I quite like that because it’s short but it gives you an image of something, or: ‘I went to Sooty’s barbecue. I had a Sweep steak’, or: ‘I met the man who invented windowsills, what a ledge’.

I’ve got one joke – I don’t know why I keep ploughing on with it, really – but I say: ‘I think you’ll agree that the banks are doing a sterling job’. Now it’s kind of all right, but it doesn’t really take you anywhere. But if I’m doing loads and loads of jokes, I don’t mind chucking in a few like that. That can go in the slipstream of a few stronger ones, if I pull a face at the end of it, or do a little skip on the spot.

You have to vary things slightly, though. If I just stood there and did one-liners for an hour-and-a-quarter and didn’t break it up at all, I think everyone’s heads would explode. I like to sing – who doesn’t like sing? I dress like an idiot on stage. I’m happiest when I can get something from a fancy-dress shop and go on dressed as a fool.

For example, I’ve got a giant piece of broccoli that I put on my head. It’s the size of a space hopper. I come on for the encore wearing it and I say: ‘This may come as a surprise to you but I never used to like broccoli. But I’ve found that over time it’s grown on me’. And I stand there for ages and say, ‘I’ve paid someone £150 to make me this, so I’m not taking it off yet’.

There is a one-liner that I’ve known for ages which is an old joke, so I don’t know who wrote it. I think it was in one of those 1970s joke books. It is an announcement at a train station: ‘The train arriving at platforms 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 is coming in sideways’. I’ve always liked that one.”

As told to Victoria Maw

Tim Vine is on his UK ‘Joke-amotive’ tour until May 17; www.boundandgaggedcomedy.com

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