Arts Books You Are What You Read Muse

You Are What You Read: How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Alex Thompson looks back at the anarchic and subversive memoirs of Stewart Lee

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Image Credit: Faber & Faber, 2011

This article contains strong language.

I thought long and hard about what book to choose for this column. My first thought was to pick something highbrow and clever, possibly French. I then realised that a) that would make me sound like a twat and b) it was in no way a reflection of who I am as a person. Although yes, you can definitely argue that I am a twat.

While briefly dwelling in this self-loathing, I decided to pick a book that more accurately reflects me, something that has helped shape who I am today.

Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate isn’t the sort of book you’d usually expect to see in MUSE’s Arts section. It’s a humorous book about comedy, both the experience of performing and working as a comic as well as the mechanics behind the jokes themselves. And yes, I know it might not seem exactly befitting of an English Lit student but bear with me. How I Escaped My Certain Fate combines autobiographical elements with transcripts of stand up routines to create a memoir that manages to be both incredibly honest and insightful while also being one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

After a decade of touring shows in the wake of the alternative comedy scene, Stewart Lee is fed up. A brief tenure on the BBC had propelled him into the world of touring comedy where he quickly found that the scene was dying, travelling the country and performing to dwindling audiences at regional arts centres and working men’s clubs, working a circuit where he was neither happy nor welcome. After several health scares, unprofitable tour shows and directing a musical about Jerry Springer which put him in the crosshairs of 65,000 Christian fundamentalists, Lee had all but retired from stand up. How I Escaped My Certain Fate follows his comeback to becoming one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed comics of the 21st Century.

Lee begins by picking apart his influences, early career and touring exploits with forensic attention to detail, building up an image of both his work and his mental state during the 90s and early 2000s. It can be gritty and bleak at times, but always presented with humour and levity. Sentences ebb and flow with that characteristically Stewart Lee tone, perfectly capturing the essence of his on-stage persona with purposefully clunky sentences, ironic asides and a strong sense of voice. While it might not be for everyone, I love this style and find that Lee’s writing carries much the same rhythm and cadence as his performances. It’s undoubtedly had an impact on how I write.

This autobiography is interspersed with transcripts of Lee’s stand-up shows. These are accompanied by footnotes, which cascade under the text itself, sometimes going on for pages at a time. Whether it’s to provide valuable context to an anecdote, examine the mechanics of a joke or just to add a humorous aside, these are integral to the text itself and serve to reinforce its self-aware and meta-textual nature. For anyone interested in the craft of comedy, these footnotes are a goldmine. From explaining the genesis of a particular joke or the mechanics that make it funny to simply who he may have stolen it from, Lee’s use of footnotes allow the reader to see the workings of what’s making them laugh. It works really well. These notes also function as a disconnect between “the comedian Stewart Lee” and Stewart Lee himself, his on-stage persona clashing with his genuine voice, providing an interesting dynamic and adding a further level of comedy to an already very funny book.

There’s several layers to the humour of How I Escaped My Certain Fate. A joke is presented in a routine and is then painstakingly deconstructed with all the glee of a Year 9 dissecting a frog in a biology class, the second layer of the joke coming from the entirely unnecessary deconstruction of the first. It sounds pretentious and it probably is, but I don’t really care. I love it.

As for the shows themselves, they are brilliant. While some date better than others, the three transcripts Lee includes are some of my favourite stand up routines of all time and have some truly great moments. From his ramblings about his ‘Scotch’ heritage and the possible homosexuality of Braveheart in ‘Stand Up Comedian’, to devising a routine specifically created so that it cannot be stolen by Joe Pasquale in ‘90s Comedian’, Lee’s style is anarchic, acerbic and totally unique. Managing to be clever but never smug and confrontational but never aggressive, the routines simply revel in their own alienation, meta humour and levels upon levels of irony. This might sound pretentious and it can be, but unashamedly so.

For some, this is irritating and unfulfilling. For me, it was eye-opening.

Prior to discovering Stewart Lee, I thought all comedy was stale panel show one-liners or Michael McIntyre swanning about on stage, making observations about everyday life so generic and vague that they didn’t even deserve a punchline. Thankfully, this book proved that not only was that not true, but that there was a type of comedy that served to oppose these dry formulas, even going as far as to completely rip the piss out of them. I’m convinced a large part of why I love this book is the utter vitriol Lee utilises to great effect, whether he’s gunning for the likes of McIntyre and Co or tearing down the bow-tie sporting racists of the comedy old guard; cruel but never undeserving.

From the playful rhythms I’ve tried to imitate, to the mechanics of jokes that I’ve learned from, Lee’s sardonic brand of humour is something that I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to incorporate into my writing ever since reading this book. It’s not by any means perfect, but it’s a book that's helped shape me over the past decade and has had more of an influence than I would probably care to admit. (Definitely more than Camus.)

When I think back to almost choosing some pretentious (possibly French) book for this column I can’t help but think what sort of biting, self-lacerating aside Stewart Lee would make in his footnotes.*

Probably something better than I can.

*I suppose I was trying to be clever, but only ending up seeming like the sort of self-important tosser who sneers at you from behind his cappuccino and heavily annotated Kafka.

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