On Stewart Lee and how Twitter ate comedy

Apr 23, 2011
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Digitalization gets blamed for a lot, and today it's ruining comedy. Writing in the Financial Times this weekend (here if the FT's paywall eats it), British stand-up Stewart Lee took to task the savaging of content in the name of "cross-platforming" and how media like Twitter have shifted artists away from the wholesome, authentic "managing the meeting of form and content." Now, I like Stewart Lee. I like his comedy and how different his style is from many of the gross-out or rapid-fire comedians popular today. But I also like the digital world, and while Lee's piece is funny, I don't think it's fair.

As is so often the case, technology bears much of the brunt for the decline of pure comedy into commercialized content. Stewart Lee is probably not entirely a digital luddite, but he plays one well. "I don’t remember a point in my teenage years when, struck dumb by Shakespeare or stand-up or Sonic Youth, I thought, 'Yes, that’s what I want to do – develop visionable avatars'" Lee says, allowing the enduring, clichéd momentum buzzwords always possess to draw a clear line between the respectable Shakespeare and Sonic Youth, and the slapdash, gimmicky digital age. It's a lazy ploy, all things considered: does Shakespeare sound less legitimate if you brand it "folly-based fantasy role-play"?

Lee makes the common mistake of confusing format with vehicle with content, and mires it in just enough - perhaps feigned - ignorance to make his arguments stick. On ebooks, he points to the difficulties his publisher had converting his footnote-laden novel into something Kindle-friendly, segueing into a ham-fisted dismissal of all media electronic with a vague confusion of DRM, content ownership and format. "I read features in weekend supplements about how the young people of today don’t own anything. All the music and literature they need is crammed on to their hard drives in compressed form" Lee commiserates, having seemingly ignored the parts in those supplements which hopefully fleshed out the difference between a pure, unmolested digital audio file and a DRM-encrusted track you merely license to listen from iTunes. "This" he sneers, "is why the young people of today will never do anything worthwhile."

In Lee's argument, curation is akin to a halfbreed of taxidermy and necrophilia. "If something is being curated it already seems fixed and decayed" he suggests. At a London comedy and music festival next month - of which Lee himself is curator - he has arranged a line-up with a monomaniacal fear of repetition or reminiscence as its theme. Lee will participate in a performance of John Cage's Indeterminancy, a randomized melee of improvised music and story-telling. "Like it or not, Indeterminancy reminds those watching that time is passing, moment by moment, now, and once the piece is over it will never be recreated in the same form ever again" he says with relish.

Does transience make our experiences with comedy - indeed, with any art form - all the more poignant? Invariably yes: the ephemerality of a single, fleeting encounter, unrecorded by anything other than our memory and the subjective memories of those around us gilds it with a misted reminiscence that the crispness of digital often robs. Still, it's a poignancy that's limited to the few people present in that moment. Lee is, as I've said before, a gifted storyteller: his act is as different from the gatling gun style of many one-liner comics as you could imagine. He's lucky that he can recount, say, his Taos Pueblo visit in a way that engages an audience.

Not everyone has that skill, or a BBC platform to exercise it on. Lee bemoans the "chopped up, miniaturised, de-contextualised" world of Twitter comedy, where spiky barbs fit premise, punchline and entire purpose into a 140 character shot. He takes pride in the fact that his material is so complex, so lengthy and deeply interwoven, that it is entirely incompatible with even the 30 second trailers the BBC wanted to create to promote his series. Brilliant, but the assumption that digital means instant means throwaway means bad is a myopic route to follow. Good comedy - whether a titter-prompting tweet, a three minute YouTube clip or a 90 minute stage show ruminating on four or five themes - isn't the medium but the message.

Digital has brought democratization of the medium. That's not to say the message is any better - unfunny people are still unfunny, just like giving bigots a website only makes them louder bigots than when they had a photocopied newsletter - but the barriers to entry are far lower. With VHS and DVDs I could experience the classic British comedies that shaped my family's shared sense of humor, despite being born a decade or more too late to watch them at their first broadcast. With YouTube I can share those clips, and newer ones, and - perhaps the most important change of all - my own reactions to them, without needing the Life & Arts section of a newspaper to give me a platform. Twitter might not make me funny, or creative, but it gives funny, creative people a way of reaching an audience with an immediacy, a measure of shared-experience, unseen before.

There's a flush of self-contentment, nearing pride, when you know you've encountered something few others will ever get to experience. In many ways we guard our experiences jealously, build our stories and our anecdotes - the things that, in many cases, make us memorable - around them. Digital, Lee seems to feel, is a soulless duplicator: the lowest common denominator of packaging. Digital, to me, is a bigger audience, a lower cost of entry, a smaller hurdle to people taking a chance on your content and sharing it if they like it - or, indeed, slating it if they don't.

Blame digital for a lot of things. Blame it for not enough signal and too much noise. Blame it for SEO, and Rebecca Black, and less-than-zero attention span. Blame it for self-obsession and the ubiquity of self-promotion. Blame it for a sea of pink hyperlinks that let me tell you that this series and this book, separated by almost four centuries, shaped my love of language and comedy in a way years of English lessons couldn't manage.

Lee's suggestion that the halcyon days of the artist were "managing the meeting of form and content" misses that it still holds true today. What's changed is the array of forms on offer, and the number of people now liberated to voice their own content. Some of them are funny, some of them are not, and many of them you won't agree with, won't like or just won't even see. I'd like to think my life is richer for those I do.


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