“How I Escaped My Certain Fate, The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian” is Stewart Lee’s brilliant account of his return to stand-up comedy after a four-year break.
Very funny, often rude and occasionally disgusting, ‘Stew’ uses transcripts of three shows along with extensive explanatory footnotes to create a fascinating insight into the peculiar world of stand-up comedy and in particular the thought, care and detail that goes into the development of his act.
More broadly, the book also offers a really intriguing perspective on the art of communications – from someone who depends every day on his ability to reach and connect with people, often whilst talking about difficult and challenging subjects and in a style designed to be as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
From the start of his comeback ‘Stew’ recognises the importance of understanding your audience, seeking them out rather than hoping they’ll come to you. He eschews the regular circuit of comedy venues and instead books himself into a series of smaller, ‘alternative’ rooms, frequented by the sort of committed comedy fans who would be most likely to ‘get’ what he was trying to do and ‘come back next time with a friend’.
Knowing who was coming to his shows Stew could then develop content with the audience in mind, introducing new concepts gradually and providing context along the way, as it builds toward the main point. There’s a brilliant example of this in the piece he does on Top Gear; Stew’s incredibly scathing about the three presenters and has some terrible ideas about the fate that should befall them. But, because he knows who his audience are and has taken the time to set the context, he can get away with murder. And, in case someone missed it, he even manages to score more points and laughs by emphasising at the end exactly what he’s just been doing.
There are great examples too of the art of taking the audience with you. By acknowledging their reaction to various lines, Stew makes a real show of bringing his audience together, ensuring they’re on his wavelength. He praises those who laugh early, reassuring others that they’ll soon feel able to join in too. He uses silences and in-takes of breath to acknowledge difficult and challenging sections. Like all the best campaigns, ‘no-one gets left behind’. When the key moments come, everyone is prepared, when the big ideas are presented, the audience understand the motivation as well as the message and as a result the whole thing is so much more effective.
There’s a real art to communicating, and as a communicator Stewart Lee is a real artist. Damn funny too. (Here’s the Top Gear bit so you can see for yourselves.)