Stewart Lee: ‘I decided to write like I was trying to get myself sacked’

In an extract from his new book, a collection of pieces written largely for this newspaper, the standup recalls how he learned column-writing on the job

My new book, Content Provider, annotates and explains a selection of short and supposedly comic prose pieces, all written over the past five years, principally for this newspaper. I was a standup comedian trying to learn, in public, how to be a columnist, a harder task than I had arrogantly imagined.

During the period covered, various characters came and went from political life. Who can even remember Tory party chairman Grant Shapps now? Others gradually became ever more significant and by February this year, when the book ends, were positioned to be major players in the decisive swing of the fatal one-way cat-flap of Brexit.

In March 2014 I imagined Sarah Vine proudly raising a status-confirming toilet brush, flecked with excrement. Who could have known that one day her husband, Michael Gove, would almost have been that triumphant bathroom accessory, and she the plastic holder cradling it?

The landscape Content Provider described is suddenly gone, its key players either discarded in post-Brexits Brabantia bin, or grown unimaginably powerful in its wake, and the values the book holds self-evident are threatened as never before. This extract from the introduction describes the circumstances that led to my unlikely late-life newspaper columnist side-career. Ive no idea, at this point in time, how anything I learned will be useful in this strange new world

I started doing standup in the late 80s and got my first paid gig in September 1989, at the Bedford Pub in Balham, south London. Do look for it. It is still there. But everyone that drank in Balham back then Goblin Dave, Welsh Pete, the woman they called Maestro, and the piano-playing man with the plastic head has been priced out. Only Arthur Smith, the Redondan king of SW12, remains, hiding out across the road in an art deco block of flats the local legends say Hitler personally spared from blitzkrieg.

I was 21 and a half years old when I became a semiprofessional standup. The first time I got asked to write funny columns was, undeservedly, for a short-lived comedy magazine, Deadpan, in 1994, off the back of being a radio comedian.

Watch Stewart Lee perform his standup show in 2005.

I dug out my juvenile efforts recently. They were adequate. Gratifyingly, the me in the stories wasnt really me. He was a character, a kind of would-be bohemian columnist version of me, eager to impress, pleased with his own cleverness, fabricating meetings with Kurt Cobain and imagining shared-stage-fright ferry flights across the English Channel with Stephen Fry.

At least, I assume it was a character of sorts, one that I consciously created to provoke myself into the generation of copy, but I cant be sure. Who was I then? What was I thinking? I may be reverse-engineering a truth I wish existed. Sadly, looking at the magazine pages, I appear to have allowed myself to be photographed for my byline picture in a south London greasy spoon, young and gaunt and smoking a cigarette, which suggests a blurring of the boundaries. Maybe I was in deep cover. Maybe I still am. I dont know. Whatever, I wish I was still 12 stone and sickly and could smoke a pack of cigarettes before breakfast without throwing up.

Deadpan folded after a year and I dont remember any of the funny columns I got asked to write by any other outlet being much good at all for the next decade or so. That doesnt necessarily mean they werent. I cant remember much about the decade of the 90s. I was drunk for a lot of it, and then depressed towards the end, I think, in retrospect. Its all a haze of London comedy-club cellars viewed from the stage through a jazz photograph pre-smoking-ban fug; motorway service stations in Doppler effect from the transit van windows on loss-making tours with the Lee & Herring double act, where big theatre gigs with our big promoter made me less than my usual solo slots on pub-cellar mixed bills paid me alone; people arguing in hotel bars and Little Chefs; intrigue in the toilets at the Comedy Cafe in pre-hipster Old Street, its upstairs room the London circuits unofficial social club in those fondly remembered long, late Saturday nights of the early 90s, Roger Mann on his hands and knees, pulling faces from behind a sofa; all of us getting drunk in Indian restaurants in tiny towns recently fucked by Thatcher; me going deaf at rocknroll gigs in Camden and Harlesden and Islington and Manette Street and Charing Cross Road. Polvo! Yo La Tengo!! The Fall!!!

What a decade it was. I went to Canada and Australia. There was unconsummated American network interest in my standup act and sitcom and movie scripts. My weight went up and down, and so did my bloodstained pants, from toilet seat to toilet seat, all across the world. I made money on TV and doing my standup on the club circuit, and lost it all on Edinburgh fringe solo shows and our double-act tour debts. I grew up into grunge, and for a brief time my natural dress sense overlapped with fashion, and popular music sounded like what I had once imagined it might do, if all the things I already knew about and loved cross-fertilised and bred.

I was engaged, and then disengaged. I ruined a few lives, I expect. I wasted other peoples time, and my own. I performed much of the work I was offered with a sense of dazed detachment, as if I was better than it, yet I seemed unable to commit to any coherent alternative. I ate curries and toasted cheese and tuna sandwiches and little else, and it is no surprise I was unwell. I owned, and wore, leather trousers, with a sense of entitlement. I failed to grasp a succession of nettles, and nailed nothing to any sticking places worth speaking of.

I was busy all the time, night after night, yet I emerged blinking into the new century with little to show for all those hours on stage, except a small flat over a shop in a then liminal north-east London borough that was subsequently deemed upmarket, the sale of which made me more money than any job I have ever done, buying me, and others of my generation in similar situations, an unearned second chance, even as the door of opportunity slammed permanently shut in the face of those of similar social backgrounds unfortunate enough to have been born a decade later.

I cant find any of the occasional filler columns I wrote for the Guardian Guide in those years. I am glad. I was a prick for most of the 90s, and I think my supposedly funny writings of the period probably went the same wandering way as my standup. I had lost track of whatever was essentially me, caught up in zeitgeisty 90s cynicism: enacting misguided projectile vomiting at soon to be discarded, and now nostalgically remembered, liberal orthodoxies; trying to write and perform what I imagined was expected of the young, educated men of the period.

Keeping
Keeping the wolf-man from the door: Stewart Lee survived lean times in the late 90s by writing music criticism. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

Sometime around the end of the decade I lost the ability, financially and creatively, to perform live (as detailed in my first book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate), and anything I wrote for newspapers over the next few years was either serious music criticism, which kept the wolf-man from the door and got me free CDs during an extremely lean half-decade, or whiny thinkpieces about the injustices of showbiz failure justified, as the comedian Simon Munnery witheringly dismisses all autobiographical writing.

When I returned to standup in the mid-00s, it was as someone with nothing to lose, broke, disillusioned and defeated by legal wrangles around a supposed theatrical smash hit I had worked on. I might as well do what I wanted as a standup comedian, as nothing else had worked out anyway, and I had no dependants and no real needs. But, like Morgan Freemans jaded jailbird in The Shawshank Redemption, the capricious parole board of Fate decided to free me at exactly the point where I had no options left, and my 2004 live standup comeback show was a critical hit.

When newspapers, excited by the possibility of the passing web traffic my new-found acclaim might generate, started asking me for funny columns again, I found myself writing in the same devil-may-care spirit. This new approach began when the Guardian requested a piece on the 2011 royal wedding.

The clown theorist Gaulier had once told my friend, the theatre-maker Rob Thirtle, that one should perform comedy as if the next action would result in your death. I decided to write like I was trying to get myself sacked. (I have tried to perform my TV standup shows in this vein too, and reaction to the recently broadcast fourth series suggests I may at last have succeeded.) I gave the Guardian a stream-of-consciousness screed, scrawled out as if by a man trying to score points, name-dropping obscure occult practitioners and half-remembered historical facts, grasping towards some unified theory of meaning known only to the addled and insecure author.

I wasnt trying to write only as someone trying to be funny, but also as if I were someone desperate to impress. Clearly it worked. Ive got an English degree and Im gonna use it reminds me of a passage in Frank Skinners book, when, after he graduated, he became impossibly pretentious pseud, until someone knocked the shit out of him in a pub (sadly this has never happened to Lee), wrote a reader called Whiteyed, of my royal wedding column.

I found it helpful to write partly as the sort of person the hate-filled teenage me imagined would be asked to write for a stuck-up broadsheet newspaper. A pompous twat, no less. And then the Observer asked me to do it again, every time that David Mitchell was away, which, luckily for me, was often, as he now had new and time-consuming husbandly duties to tear him away from the gadfly whirlwind of London high society he had previously been enslaved by. Victoria Corens gain was my gain also.

I knew my way around standup. I knew that if I chose to reject certain supposed genre rules, I was doing so from a position of knowledge. But I didnt know about being a columnist. I loved Mark Steels columns in the now tragically defunct Independent newspaper, where the burning passion and cold logic of his beliefs dovetail beautifully into perfectly constructed jokes; I loved Suzanne Moore, who wears her heart on her sleeve and makes little personal stories have massive political resonance; and Richard Herring, with whom I had written and performed a double act, mainly in the mid-90s, had done daily blogs for the best part of a decade that laid his life embarrassingly and amusingly bare.

But none of these were how I wanted to write, and I find the modern mania for total, moment-by-moment honesty in a columnists work personally problematic. My mere presence at a social or cultural event does not mean I have consented to become a character in the ongoing online or print media partwork of someone elses autobiography. Something I said to you in a queue for a show in Edinburgh was conversation, Andrew, and not a press statement for internet publication.

We now live in an age of full disclosure, via blogs and memoirs and chat-show appearances. I realised I wanted to walk away from the expectation that the columnist should write a kind of continuing soap opera of their own life. Though rooted in fact, I changed most of the personal details in the supposedly true stories, fabricated others entirely and randomly altered, for example, the location of my home and the age, number and gender of my children from week to week. I was not interested in being a personality, and yet had accepted a writing job that normally requires the author to be one. And I attempted to defeat this expectation with lies.

Stewart
Stewart Lee with former comedy partner Richard Herring in the 1990s. Photograph: BBC Photo Library

One thing that has changed since I first wrote supposedly funny columns for newspapers is the proliferation of internet access, meaning one can now look online and see what the public think of your work. Reading comments below YouTube clips of my standup in the late 00s encouraged me to make the act even more like the sort of act the people who hated it would hate; and likewise, reading the Guardians Comment is Free contributors opinions and verdicts helped create my columnist character in opposition, like a slow-motion, week-by-week interaction with a real audience, similar to a standups live experience, but at four frames per minute.

It requires a strong will for writers to process all the online hatred directed at them, especially when the worst of it is systematically generated by people you know, operating under a multitude of translucent pseudonyms. But I started to feel, as the months passed, that I was engaged in a weirdly symbiotic relationship with readers who despised me, trying to confirm their prejudices and inspire in them ever more creative splurges of contempt.

One might argue then, to be generous, that the columns are the work of many hands, that the voice they came to be written in was itself shaped by the hostility directed towards it, becoming more obtuse, self-satisfied and pretentious as a direct response to the extent to which those very qualities annoyed its detractors. One might argue that. But if my book covers its cost, I will nevertheless be keeping all the money.

This is an edited extract from Content Provider, Selected Short Prose Pieces, 2011-2016 by Stewart Lee, which is published by Faber (14.99) on Thursday. Click here to buy it for 12.29

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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