Stewart Lee: I am finding it very, very hard to be funny...

Aug 5, 2014
Stewart Lee

"Don’t those responsible for atrocities understand I have deadlines to meet?" Stewart Lee on why stand-up is the world's hardest job

 
As a stand-up comedian I am often told that stand-up is the hardest job in the world.

I am told this by firemen, soldiers, nurses, surgeons, pit ponies, chimney sweeps, bees and Colombian drug mules – all of whose jobs are demonstrably harder than mine.

The worst thing that will happen to me at work is that someone will tell me to go away, throw their drink in my face and say that I am “not funny, never have been and never will be”. Many people’s marriages are like this every day, mine included ironically.

But recently I have started to find stand-up hard, though not in the way people would expect. As an old-school 1980s alternative comedian from the pencil and notebook era, I still write all my own material despite the fact that using conspicuously uncredited and poorly paid writers to generate profitable stadium-filling laugh content for the TV viewer market is now standard industry practice.

I’ve no problem with comics using writers, as long as the anonymous writer is given food and fresh water in a clean cell by the comedian’s management, to whom he probably owes money dating back to losses incurred when they promoted him as a stand-up 10 years ago.

And so the magical circle of life continues as ever. I couldn’t really use a writer myself. I self-consciously divide my brain into two personalities in order to write stand-up, each trying to irritate and outwit the other.

If we were to introduce a third person into our relationship it would become very complicated. What if we had a big row and one of me went off with the writer, leaving the other of me all alone? I’d be all feedlines and no punchlines, a Little without a Large, an Ernie without an Eric, an Ian without a Wee Jimmy, a Punt without a Dennis or a Dennis without a Punt.

I’m currently beginning the process of writing six half hours of self-contained routines to be recorded for a fourth BBC Two series at the end of next year. It has never been harder. The world is in such a state of flux right now I feel I can’t get ahead.

For example, in May 2013, with the early 2014 broadcast of my third BBC Two series in mind, I wrote a 25-minute bit on a then little-known and apparently ridiculous party called Ukip. By the time the bit was broadcast this makeshift alliance of nostalgic Spitfire enthusiasts was a serious political party, despite having no manifesto or fully coherent spokesperson. I had not seen this coming.

Since I began working on the new series two months ago, an attempt at doing half an hour on Islam in the UK has had to be recalibrated in the light of a new splurge from Cameron on ‘British values’ in education, while any attempt to write anything about the bigger global picture is doomed.

Former Axis of Evil enemies suddenly become useful allies against Iraqi insurgents; Gaza unravels faster than ever; Scotland may become independent, and Ukrainian separatists appear to have accidentally and incompetently declared war on the Dutch.

Even a mild joke about public perceptions of Jimmy Savile suddenly bit the dust after even worse revelations came out last month and rendered it far more offensive than it was ever intended to be.

I appreciate I sound like a terrible and selfish person. How dare the horrors of the world refuse to restrict their rapid escalation in line with my pitiful writerly workrate? Don’t those responsible for these atrocities understand that I have deadlines to meet?

It seems events are conspiring against me. If I wrote a routine about curtain hooks I am sure they would suddenly be used as a murder weapon in some terrible homicide. If I did a joke about someone as innocuous as Cliff Richard he would suddenly be seen putting a cat into a bin.

If I did a joke about three buses all coming at once, something would happen involving a trio of continually ejaculating buses that would make me look like I was deliberately courting controversy.

You know what? Stand-up is the hardest job in the world. I am going to become a bee.

Stewart Lee’s The Alternative Comedy Experience is on Tuesdays at 11pm on Comedy Central. To find out about upcoming live shows visit stewartlee.co.uk

The Big Issue no 1133
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