A book in which a well-known English stand-up dissects his shows together with transcripts of said shows? No, I didn’t think it could work either. But that is to underestimate Stewart Lee. How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian is a hugely entertaining insight into the creative process, as Lee outlines what he thinks went wrong with his career and how he rejuvenated it. He traces his career from its start in the early 1990s and his partnership with Richard Herring until, burnt out, he quit stand-up in 2001 and went off to co-write Jerry Springer: The Opera. Lee outlines how, through his experiences outside the world of stand-up, he came to the conclusion that, in fact, stand-up has “infinite” possibilities and that he could get back on stage again. The book includes transcripts from three of Lee’s shows, starting with Stand-Up Comedian in 2005 and continuing through ’90s Comedian in 2006 and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever in 2008.
Lee is an intelligent and analytical man and that comes across in his routines, but his comedy also possesses a vicious bite in the form of his scepticism, with issues ranging from organized religion to celebrity culture. And of course, he is very, very funny. At one point in the book, Lee implies that if readers were to laugh out loud at the routines as they appear printed on the page, he would consider it a failure, as stand-up is not meant to work on the page, but I will readily admit to doubling up in laugher more than once while reading the book.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate also offers an insight into many of Lee’s fellow comedians. There is Richard Herring, of course, but Lee also gives liberal mention to Simon Munnery, who seems to be hero of his. On one level, a reader unfamiliar with the inner-workings of stand-up might be forgiven for wondering why Harry Hill would be given any prominence by Lee, given Hill’s mainstream profile via his TV Burp programme, but Hill is a wonderfully eccentric and inventive stand-up and Lee credits him with evolving the callback, when an idea from earlier in a set is reincorporated at another point where it can be funny ‘in and of itself,’ as Lee says. Lee has worked with Hill in the past. Johnny Vegas and Daniel Kitson also feature prominently in the book.
Stand-up has become so integrated into mainstream television schedules that it is easy to forget how intelligent and inventive it can be as an art form. With this book, Lee has done much to address that. Oh, and to emphasize, he’s a funny, funny man.