Writing On Not Writing
July 20, 2013 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Comedian Stewart Lee gave an hour long talk earlier this year on the place of writing, or not writing, in standup comedy. Last week, the UK comedy website Chortle took some of his comments mentioning comedians who use writers, and stirred up a minor controversy. Lee has since released a statement to clarify the context.
posted by rollick (19 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for posting this. I saw Lee's response yesterday, but I haven't had a chance to watch the video yet and he didn't link to the Chortle article. I made the mistake of reading the comments.

Stuart Lee is like "The King With No Clothes" and will consequently be found out. I have laughed at him on occasions, of course, but he is largely a pretentious prig . I was a stand-up comedian for many years and I wrote about 20% of my act - a huge amount for a "mainstream" comic. Nevertheless that obviously means the other 80% was "nicked" (I didn't have a writer) so what ? Timing,delivery,confidence,stage presence,counts as well Stuart and you are lacking in all four - but you write all your own material so well done. Of course you wont care what I think - you'll just give a shrug and carry on with your witty put-downs of successful people. Incidentally Andi Oshi's biggest crime is that she's not funny like so many of her contempories.

A success based on completely uncredited and mostly stolen work of other people.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:12 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Comedy is really not that different from academia then, is it?
posted by Renoroc at 11:37 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The ability to express oneself verbally and to express oneself in writing are not the same thing. There is a level of self-consciousness in public speaking, which is classically said to be a fate worse than death. Delivery really matters - I can write a great script for myself but unless I am in an extremely confident mood, it will not go over as well if I deliver it verbally.

The entire profession of acting is based on this principle. Politicians almost universally use scriptwriters. We have the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac. The profession of ghost-writer. And so on.

For the stand-up comedy community, or its fans, to insist that the only people allowed to be stand-up comedians are those possessed of both writing *and* verbal delivery skills, strikes me as unreasonable.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:05 PM on July 20, 2013

Morrisey's looking rough
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:15 PM on July 20, 2013 [13 favorites]

I committed minor acts of comedy writing WAY back during the 'golden age of stand-up' in the '80s. Sold as many individual jokes as I could count on both hands (with fingers missing), but my one attempt to 'collaborate' with a rising stand-up (whose rise peaked when he became a 'VJ') just proved to the both of us the value of having Your Own Voice. And 'my voice' sounds ridiculous coming out of somebody else's mouth.

Note: these are not 'scare quotes' or 'sarcasm quotes', just using commonly-accepted terminology that I don't necessarily like, but you'd be much less likely to understand my 'better terminology'. Still, I'm overusing them, aren't I?
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:20 PM on July 20, 2013

I think Stewart Lee is spot on here. I don't know the British scene and its standards, but in the US you write your own material as a standup and are judged VERY harshly if you "nick" it, as the one hack admits doing. Buying material just doesn't make any sense financially for anyone unless you are TV -- most full time comedians are driving around and sleeping in the back of their station wagons on nights they don't have rooms provided. There's no money to buy with.

The financial reality is that only people who are TV-famous or movie-famous can sell enough tickets to even consider buying material.

Comedy's not that different from songwriting, except that there remains a small niche for interpreters of other songs (especially in the pop/dance and country genres, or if you're Linda Rondstadt or Emmy Lou Harris). There's a much tinier niche in comedy for people who do tribute acts in Vegas portraying famous comedians, and corporate/cruise ship/Vegas comedians are allowed to buy material because everyone thinks they're hacks anyway. Otherwise, we're all singer-songwriters.

TV shows like the Daily Show are different. They need many minutes of original material daily. Those people who can write but don't perform for whatever reason work for shows like that, or for sitcoms and movies, or for corporate hacks.
posted by msalt at 12:53 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

aeschenkarnos, I take your point but I think standup comedy just isn't like that. The days of Shecky Lafsalot telliing street jokes and buying one-liners are long gone, because the persona of the comedian is so tightly connected to the material presented. It's really an intricate dance between the two poles of meaning there.

There is, as Lee describes in his updated statement, a constant influx of ideas into your act from friends, lovers, and especially other comics. I'm proud of successfully having offered tags and even whole bit ideas to fellow comics, some fairly big, who have used them in their acts -- but I freely offer these and have never asked for money. Over the years, I have even had audience members yell out a couple of perfect "tags" for bits that fit my voice, and far from attacking them as hecklers, I point them out and ritually hand them a dollar and tell everyone that I'm "stealing" the line.

But that's the rub -- many comics try getting together to write and help each other develop bits, and it rarely works because they don't write in the other comic's voice, so it sounds as if the comic is possessed by a demon suddenly or heckling themselves when they blurt out something out of character. it's as much about building and developing your onstage character, and every line needs to fit that. As Jay Sankey wrote, comedy is really just an extremely stilted or narrow form of generative theater where the single performer is allowed only three props (the stool, mic stand and microphone) and no set.
posted by msalt at 1:03 PM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's certainly a range of how using other people's material is perceived. For bands, it's called a cover and nobody has a problem with it. For journalists and scholars it's called plagiarism and you get the sack. With comedy, opinions differ about where on this scale using another person's words should fall. But even with music, songwriters are credited in liner notes and royalty arrangements.
No one expects actors to come up with their own lines, but the playwright's name is somewhere on the program. Why is it so difficult for these "mainstream acts" to credit whoever did the writing. That shouldn't take anything away from the person performing the material. Unless they want to be perceived as both the performer and writer and if they aren't, that doesn't seem entirely fair.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:14 PM on July 20, 2013

Similar headlines Jay Richardson -- the man who apparently doesn't understand what a joke is -- could write about Stewart Lee:

Stewart Lee Wishes Blindness on the Daughters of Jeremy Clarkson, Death on Richard Hammond

Stewart Lee Criticizes Bill Hicks For Being Dead

Stewart Lee Confuses Rappers with Young People He's Seen at a Shopping Center

Actually, Stewart Lee might be funnier if you don't realize he's joking, and think he's just "someone who's cornered you in a bar or a train carriage, continues drinking steadily and determinately over a two hour period, grows increasingly agitated and unhappy, whilst holding forth on a series of subjects he really knows little about, and in so doing, inadvertently reveals some great truth and/or the real things that are driving him to despair."
posted by Hume at 1:19 PM on July 20, 2013 [15 favorites]

I must add Stewart Lee's bit on Joe Pasquale and joke theft.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:26 PM on July 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

My dad was a successful comedy writer for UK TV in the 70s. I remember him being annoyed by how British comics of the time would claim they wrote their own material, even if they wrote none of it, whereas top US comics would be more likely to boast about how many writers they had on staff.
posted by w0mbat at 1:35 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of this criticism of Stewart Lee's comments sounds like political correctness gone mad!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:02 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

For the stand-up comedy community, or its fans, to insist that the only people allowed to be stand-up comedians are those possessed of both writing *and* verbal delivery skills, strikes me as unreasonable.

But who is insisting on that? Lee's complaint is an entirely reasonable one about people with writing skills not getting the credit or pay that they deserve. The fact that being possessed of delivery skills gives you the right to pass off other writers' material as your own, and earn royalties on it too, strikes me as the really unreasonable aspect of the culture of comedy.
posted by howfar at 2:46 PM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Timing,delivery,confidence,stage presence,counts as well Stuart and you are lacking in all four - but you write all your own material so well done.

Are we watching the same comedian?
posted by jaduncan at 3:19 PM on July 20, 2013

That comment on Chortle is likely Lee writing anonymously so he can pretend to be self-deprecatingly including criticism in a future act.

He really is doing straight up comedy jazz these days. Possibly even comedy jazz fusion, where he metronomically plays a hi-hat line for 30 minutes with a noodling theme, occasionally cohering into 3 seconds of perfect pop, then back into another hour of avant noise where he grows increasingly technically incompetent. He has pretty incredible control at this point - the only person who comes close for me is Reggie Watts. I would LOVE to see him revive Fist of Fun with Watts as Herring. It wouldn't work, but would likely be an amazing failure.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:58 PM on July 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Stewart Lee has no skill in delivery whatsoever, and the hysterical fits I experience on watching him are merely the result of my nostalgic recall of superior comedic sets, such as the work of Carlos Mencia
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:16 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Renoroc: "Comedy is really not that different from academia then, is it?"

Of course it is. Academia is rarely, if ever intentionally funny.
posted by Splunge at 9:46 PM on July 20, 2013

I watched the talk last night, and really enjoyed it, particularly the idea of alternative stand-up emerging from the subsidised arts centres of the 70s, and how it's probably the only original material now being performed at Britain's provincial theatres. I also liked how he invoked the facsimile MS of The Waste Land, complete with Ezra Pound's forthright annotations, as the model for How I Escaped My Certain Fate -- and that he approached Faber to publish it for that connection, because any EngLit student knows that Faber is the serious place that publishes the serious stuff.

What readers of the response might not appreciate is the reference to Baconface, the little-known cult Canadian standup finally revealed as the key influence for Lee's earliest work. And as Baconface says of Lee, it "would be worrying... if he were to pretend to be someone else entirely and to insist that no-one refer to that when it was patently obvious it was him."

Lee's complaint is an entirely reasonable one about people with writing skills not getting the credit or pay that they deserve.

I think it's a more subtle point, which is that as the era of the stand-up set gives way to the panel-show format of Mock the Week, there's a tension between the desire to preserve the alternative comedy notion of stand-up as auteur even as the format demands something more akin to the collaborative model visible in the credits of, say, Morecambe & Wise or The Two Ronnies or any mainstream comedy co-existing alongside alternative stand-up. Hence the crediting of writers as "programme associates". (It's those programmes, with long writing credits but iconic leads, that are perhaps a better fit than the working men's club circuit that Lee invokes at the start of the talk.)

Lee and Herring got their first paid writing gigs on Week Ending, the inconsistent but not unfunny Radio 4 show that operated an open-door policy on submissions and in turn opened the door for many comedians and comedy writers. The pay was famously awful, but the credit was there. I'm also reminded of the late, very missed Debbie Barham, who wrote for Week Ending, The News Huddlines, and whose jokes found their way into many mainstream comics' acts. Meagre pay, but with credit at the end.

So I suppose it's a question of honesty -- whether Frankie Boyle or Michael McIntyre or anyone else sitting behind a panel-show desk on the telly is willing to credit writers even if doing so symbolically makes them mainstream.

(I always think that Lee overstates his tech Ludditism, but I was left wondering what internet-centric forms represent a continuation of the writerly mode he identifies in alternative stand-up. Web comics, perhaps?)
posted by holgate at 9:47 PM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

My attention span is so short these days, that I can barely sit through the full length of a Frankie Boyle one-line gag, but that Stuart Lee talk at Oxford was utterly compelling, from start to finish.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:46 AM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

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