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How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Stephen Tomkins

The life and deaths of a stand-up comedian
Stewart Lee
Faber and Faber, 384pp, ISBN: 9780571254804

Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?:  Journeys of a stand-up
Milton Jones
JR Books, 245pp, ISBN: 9781906779573

I say, I say, why is making people laugh on a professional basis like death? I don't know, Steve, why is making people laugh on a professional basis like death? I don't know either, but the fact that both Milton Jones and Stewart Lee have opted for the same pun to sum up their chosen career surely tells us something, don't you think? Yes, Steve, I do.

RJones.jpg These two accounts of that way of life/death are about as different as you could imagine, I imagine. Where Do Comedians Go is marketed as a novel, about a stand-up comedian, going round being a comedian, and telling jokes, which sometimes go down well and sometimes don't. Which hardly suggests a work of extraordinary narrative imagination, and it isn't, though it is a great read. It works much better I think, reading it as he talks about it in the introduction, as fictionalised memoir, 'little more than a fake moustache and glasses to disguise its autobiographical nature'.

Jones gives you a sense of the thrill of making a room full of people laugh themselves hoarse - though the most thrilling example of all turns out to be a dream. But then in the other pan of the professional comedy scales is the misery of failing to do so - perhaps because of an off night, or because of any one of a hundred other problems outside your control: a corporate audience doesn't want to hear comedy, or can't hear it, or a hen party's being disruptive, or because a well-known TV comedian and plagiarist has stolen your material and now your audience think you've stolen it from him. There's the over-rapid career trajectory from gut-shredding terror to stultifying automatic pilot.

There's the loneliness of being on the road without a band, the lack of community between the attention-hungry individualists of the circuit, the toll the job takes on family life, and the toll it takes one's own life to be compelled to turn everything you see, hear or do upside-down to see if there's a joke in it.
Jones starts by saying that perhaps he should be more interested in the philosophy and psychology of how comedy works, but like his audience he isn't. It reads like an explanation as to why he didn't write Stewart Lee's book.

RLee.jpgHow I Escaped My Certain Fate is more literally a memoir, though it's at least as concerned with his evolving attitude to comedy as it is with the personal experience of performing, and more than half of the book is taken up by three full transcripts of recent shows, all exhaustively footnoted with explanations, cross-references and  self-criticism. It's an unusual book, but then Lee has become a quite extraordinary comedian.

He appeared as a double act with Richard Herring in some much-loved 1990s broadcast series including This Morning with Richard Not Judy, and faded from view before turning up as the librettist of Jerry Springer: The opera. In recent years he seems to have recreated himself as a comedian who is at least as interested in making his audiences think about why they laugh (or don't) as he is in making them do so. He delights in dispensing with what is surely the most fundamental element of humour, surprise, performing long and breathtakingly repetitive stories or arguments, with half the punchlines announced in advance, as if making audiences laugh at mere jokes would insult their intelligence. It is perhaps worth adding that he is extremely funny.

To say that Stewart Lee is worth hearing on religious issues is an understatement. As a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association who is married to a Catholic, he has an interesting perspective, made all the more interesting by the experience of 55,000 believers banding together in an attempt to ban his opera. For those who take part in such campaigns it would be well worth reading his account of what it was like being on the receiving end, an experience for which he was totally unprepared. Religion was not a central theme of the opera nor was it treated in a more provocative way than in other theatre and comedy. It was not intentionally offensive and it had been well reviewed by the Church Times. Christian protests wrecked it as a commercial venture, despite its artistic success.

The centrepiece of How I Escaped My Certain Fate is a stand up routine written partly in response to the protest which, unlike Jerry Springer: The opera describes just about the most extreme sacrilegious encounter with Jesus imaginable. In a sense, it's the most gratuitously offensive content possible for Christians. But along with the extensive notes, the routine explores his attempt to present that content with such an attitude and in such a storyline that audiences wouldn't take offence, 'the notion that the piling up of obscenity might reach a point where it became transcendental, or even beautiful, and reveal the objections to our opera for what they were - subjective opinions about material which was inevitably altered by context and intent'.

Both Where do Comedians Go and How I Escaped My Certain Fate are stories of redemption. Jones's is about his hero rescuing his private life from damage done to it by his comic career, while Lee's is about his hero rescuing his comic art from the damage done to it by his comic career.

Milton Jones is a Christian, one whose faith seems to inform his comedy, though more in what he doesn't say than in what he does. Which isn't a complaint particularly, as it isn't obligatory to use your line of work to promote your worldview. But if you want to do business with an artist who engages profoundly, incisively, humanely and irascibly with issues of faith and morality - and have a strong spiritual stomach - then surprising as it may be, the comedian and arch blasphemer Stewart Lee is one.

Stephen Tomkins