COMMENT: Stewart Lee Is Wrong
First published March 2000
Stewart Lee Is Wrong
'Comic and rising TV star Stewart Lee thinks that money might kill American stand-up. But its sitcoms are still the best in the world. And it's about time that complacent Britain learned how to do it..'

So ran an introduction to Stewart Lee's article in The Guardian in August 1998 ('And here's another funny thing'). The article was culled from a lecture entitled 'Why American Stand Up Sucks', which was bandied about at both the Montreal 'Just For Laughs' comedy festival (in front of American TV executives) and in a pub in North London (in front of his friends). Stewart Lee is renowned in media circles as having interesting opinions. Sadly this doesn't necessarily mean they're correct. As an affectionate tribute to Stewart Lee we will dissect his arguments in a way that he would respect - by using logic...

Stewart Lee's basic stance is that Britain needs a 'properly-run comedy industry', similar to that of America. He believes that the resources available to wannabe comedy writers in America breeds talent which guarantees a steady flow of excellent sitcoms, and we would do well to learn from their example. He points to Friends as an good example of longevity and quality working in tandem, and compares it with our six-week sit-com stints which often result in feebleness and failure. He appears to be campaigning for 'teams of comedy writers' to work on comedy shows over here in order to increase the number of episodes and enable us to compete on equal terms with the USA.

Stewart Lee is wrong. For the following reasons.

Firstly, whatever Stewart Lee may think, the situation he advocates does actually already exist over here, and has done for years. It's called Smith & Jones. Scores of comedy writers have contributed to this and other such shows, viewing it as just another stepping stone in a desperate quest for Radio Times-friendly status. Generally, for wannabe comedy writers, the Smith & Jones period comes between Week Ending (as was) and their Radio 4 series but before their first TV pilot. The ultimate goal with these writers is to present their own TV series, but - until that day - they'll be quite content to pen 30-second quickies about people who clean windscreens at traffic lights. And, along the way, none of these people give a flying fuck about the shows they contribute to in the meantime.

These 'teams of writers' are simply used (by producers, who sadly don't seem to care either way) to prop up, rather than breathe new life into, sagging mainstays of the BBC Light Entertainment Department on which no one else can be bothered to work. The shows then suffer from a severe case of diminishing humour, as the increasingly derivative nature of the material becomes more and more obvious: the writers essentially work to rule, re-hashing old routines into new situations, ensuring that an 'adequate' standard is maintained (no better, no worse than the previous series) without actually presenting anything original, surprising or indeed very funny. Why risk alienating half your audience with provocative and interesting material (something the BBC's always banging on about despite seldom showing evidence of it), when you can get a polite group of backroom boys to emulate the styles of the past so it fits the brief nicely?

The upshot of all this? Writing teams keep a mainstream programme popular while simultaneously building up a CV which fools producers into thinking that, because someone has spent the last four years putting words into the mouth of Mel Smith (not to mention Angus Deayton, Clive Anderson, Jack Docherty...), they must automatically be worthy of their own series. It's only when that series is transmitted and displays the same abject lack of originality as the tired old routines they sold to producers in the past that the full horror of the situation is revealed. ITV's Stuff The Week is a recent example of this.

This is a nightmare scenario for comedy. There's nothing worse than a comedy show where you can smell the writers meetings, shows where writers have clearly thought 'hmmm - yes, that'll work' rather than chewing the carpet in hysterics. Far removed from the grass-roots level of comedy, 'teams of writers' do little more than create and endorse political and social clichés, creating material that is as worthless as it is unfunny. The only benefit is to future producers who, knowing full well that an audience will accept such shallow imitations as the norm, will do the same thing over again.

Writing comedy for other performers is often seen as a way of 'developing your craft'. In this country it just teaches you to be lazy. If the attitude is 'I'm not being paid properly so why should I do this properly' (which appears to be the subtext to Stewart Lee's argument) then not only should you be ousted from the comedy world unless you can prove your worth, you should also be shot.

Stewart Lee's other argument is that American sitcoms are the best in the world. This is a cliché which the likes of Garry Bushell seem to regard as a radical view and akin to holding up a beautiful new-born baby without noticing all the shit, piss and puke all over your trousers. Unfortunately, comedy agencies have latched on to this media non-opinion and appear to be cynically cashing in on the lies. A recent PR handout from Avalon claimed that David Baddiel was writing 'An American-style sitcom' for Sky TV. Get the hidden agenda there - not a boring dour old British sitcom with vicars and pants but a nice successful money-spinning 'American-style' sitcom.

The plain truth is that our sitcom business is about as healthy as theirs. No better, no worse. The fact that Friends and Frasier appear to exhibit a degree of quality control in their scripts is testament more to the Channel 4 executives who discovered them than to the American companies that make them. After all, for every Seinfeld broadcast on BBC2, there's at least a dozen unholy Yank dirges like Fat Sam's Topical Diner or My Neighbor Has Two Robots, sitcoms which no British commissioning editor would touch with a barge-pole. We essentially get the best of a mixed lot.

Similarly, Americans think that Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter shine out of our limey arses, but that's because they're blissfully unaware of the camp bloke from Is It Legal?. To claim that the British sitcom climate is in dire straits is equally ignorant. We have one or two superb shows and a lot of rubbish ones, but the Brit-to-Yank ratio is pretty much identical. Pouring more money into our industry, to compete with that of America's, would simply result in a few more good sitcoms, and twice as many bad ones. The ratio would remain the same.

It's also worth pointing out that a lot of the American gold often amounts to a hill of beans. Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld are written by teams of writers, all living in fear of their jobs. This isn't healthy for them or for comedy, and it inevitably means that the personalised vision behind certain British sitcoms (The Likely Lads, Till Death Us Do Part, Porridge) would be impossible under such a regime. British sitcoms concern the activities of wretched, pathetic, repulsive, depressed, filthy nobodies who battle with a half-hour existential crisis in every episode. A good, heartstring-tugging edition of Steptoe & Son pisses all over Pinter. American sitcoms, meanwhile, excel in manicured one-liners: all quite witty but ultimately ephemeral. Most of us enjoyed Roseanne in its heyday, for example...but can we quote any of it now?

If American sitcoms hit the ground running and keep to a standard, it's generally because the inoffensive, non-claustrophobic setting doesn't ask for much more than a steady stream of wry wisecracks or doe-eyed semantic misunderstandings to suit each character. The plots are kept simple and likeable, and as long as nobody throws in a complicated premise (e.g., Friends - 'The One Where Ross Sprouts Wings And Flies Out Of The Window'), everyone's happy. It's bland but cheerful.

Stewart Lee's most curious argument concerns the number of episodes allocated to each series. He believes that, if we have 24 episodes in each series, this will bring us in line with international standards and will be really great.

Stewart Lee criticises Geoffrey Perkins (Head Of Comedy at the BBC) for denying his and Richard Herring's request for their series Fist Of Fun to run for eight episodes rather than six (so that they could, after a few series, string them together to reach the minimum episode total for American networking). This seems, well, arrogant to say the least. He points out that the 'six episodes' rule is non-negotiable and disabling, despite the fact that, historically, it's been quite flexible - French & Saunders had seven shows from its third series onwards, Have I Got News For You generally runs at eight, in common with the last series of The Fast Show, and favourites like Shooting Stars have very irregular lengths, designed to fit in with seasonal scheduling. On reflection, six shows seems quite generous for a double act new to TV.

In any case, the 'six episodes' rule is easily explained. In the 1950s, there were two rigid broadcasting seasons of 13 weeks which were reserved for established series, and these generally started in January and October. This left the summer free to be filled with less 'important' (and perhaps more experimental) output. In order to develop as many programmes as possible while not wasting money, these were commissioned for six-week runs. This practice has continued, and '6' and '13' continue to be the numbers around which experimental and established programmes are respectively commissioned. (Dull, but true. Do your research, Stewart Lee.)

The point is, the argument Stewart Lee puts forward seems worryingly self-serving. He offers no proof that the viewer will be better off with more shows per series, but plenty of proof that he will be able to break into a career in America if his evil plan comes into fruition. After all, that's where the money is. That's why the Monty Python business these days seems to be geared towards the American audience, leaving us Brits with a feeling of getting it second hand.

And, on the subject of past comedy shows, why on earth should we be trying to compete with American styles of working anyway? It's a general rule of thumb over here that four series is usually one too many. Name one TV comedy show whose fourth series didn't show signs of barrel-scraping and repetition, and we'll show you The All New Alexei Sayle Show.

Monty Python's Flying Circus peaked at Series 2, started to merrily repeat itself by Series 3, and then tailed off unhappily by Series 4. Absolutely followed a remarkably similar path. The first series of The Fast Show scrabbled in the dark looking for a formula, found it by Series 2, but turned smugly flippant and useless by Series 3.

Stewart Lee cites Fawlty Towers as an example of British ineptness, pointing out that it only lasted for twelve shows because everyone involved 'got too tired'. Even allowing for Stewart Lee's ignorance of the fact that there was a gap of four years between the two six-show series, it's incredible that he believes this. Fawlty Towers ceased at twelve shows because of an artistic decision by John Cleese not to allow the show to repeat itself. Cleese also felt that the level of expectation would be unfair on everyone involved, and would merely result in a series which was audience-pleasing and dull. In Stewart Lee's brave new world, the show would presumably have continued until the present day, changing writers along the way (Marks and Gran would have had a go, then Marshall and Renwick, Clement and La Frenais, Linehan and Mathews), each using the original twelve episodes as a template for their efforts.

Worse still, imagine that Monty Python's Flying Circus had continued, past 1974, and had simply changed cast members along the way like its oft-cited American equivalent, Saturday Night Live. By 1979, the show would have segued into the Not The Nine O'Clock News team, a few years later it would have embraced the New Wave, by the nineties it would have involved some of Vic Reeves' drinking friends...and now? Big Train, obviously. The only link to its legacy being occasional guest appearances by classic Python members like Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Jimmy Mulville, and some Gilliam-esque animations put together by a Soho-based computer graphics studio. Flying Circus would have long ago ceased being a 'revolutionary show, pushing back the boundaries of TV comedy' and morphed into just another training ground for writer/performers. Comedy Nation with A-levels.

So, in conclusion, our argument is that 'more will equal less'. There's already too much comedy, not enough of it funny enough to push the writer/performer above the level of 'someone who really wants a career in comedy'. There are also, it seems, not enough producers who care enough about the creative process to realise just how many humour-deaf chancers there are trying to carve their way into the spotlight. Increasing the amount of money won't create a better comedy industry. It will simply produce more of the above, all promoted too quickly above their level of competence.

Good comedy comes from mavericks, people who work against their audiences. Good comedy should be constantly surprising. A career developed while writing dreary routines about why Mel Smith never pays for a drink isn't going to teach you anything.

We don't need 'teams of writers' roaming the land, writing scripts to a fixed humour level. How about we start with 'better writers' and 'better producers who recognise the talents of those better writers'. Set the humour-level at 100% and deter anybody who's less than half-good from putting that 'really funny Tellytubbies joke' on paper. Attract writers who care about the comedy business and the audience in equal measures. If we can do that and there's still enough scribblers left in the backroom to make a team then tally-ho. Go for it.

Yes, there's room for improvement in the comedy business - that's one thing we agree with Stewart Lee about. But we come to this (non-existent) debate from a fans' point of view whereas Stewart Lee comes from the perspective of an insider trying to make his job easier. Lazy fuckers, comedians...