Stewart Lee’s performance analysis
posted on June 2nd, 2011

After looking at such a tiny detail of the Ultrasound song in the last entry, I need to mention stand-up comedian Stewart Lee‘s ferociously brilliant new book How I Escaped My Certain Fate as a great resource if you’re into developing any kind of self-absorbed analysis of your own work-in-performance.

(I did have a powerful personal reaction to the book as well, but prefer to blog it here, not on Blognostic, to focus on its value as a resource. But I did LOVE it; it punched me in the face with recognition over and over again, on different levels.)

It is partly a memoir of Lee’s abandoning of live performance after near stardom in the 1990s, his confidence shattered, then his unexpected success with Jerry Springer: The Opera, leading to a tentative, more thoughtful return to stand-up in 2004. The book features three full transcriptions of key live shows since that return, which have been annotated in intricate, lengthy detail. The shows are transcribed from specific live performances (the sets used for DVDs I think, since they were taped) rather than using some kind of generic ‘perfect’/’idealised’ script.

Lee makes a jawdropping success of writing down his insightful analysis of his own creative performance process, of breaking down each stand-up show and relating clearly how the prepared material blends with the live unfolding moment, how the set might digress or not, what he says and what he’s trying to say. It’s not just fascinating but truly useful: obviously (the task of) stand-up is a magnified, concertina’d version of (the task of) music performance: the audience feedback that happens every 3-4 minutes for a songwriter, at tacitly agreed points (between each song) happens near constantly, second-by-second for a comedian. They need to be far greater masters of crowd control than we are, especially if they’re trying to do more than tell jokes, if they have an underlying point. Thus it would be less relevant if Lee were a populist gag man but his stuff is multi-layered, a complex, ambitious beast unfolding with plot and rhythm.

Beyond the analysis, I also found How I Escaped… brutally honest, yet oddly reassuring about the continuing potential for a career in minority interest, uncompromising performance arts today. Lee’s comedic rebirth and his refusal to bow to the shit he’d bended to in the past, exactly mirrors the ‘new DIY’ approach so many of us musicians are facing/embracing. He’s not trying for an over-arching message but I took from it a determined: ‘the quality will out’.

Read it if you can.

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