I’m an unadulterated fanboy of Stewart Lee. The ‘alternative’ stand-up comic is a cultural worker who might be classed in the high-art of stand-up comedy if the concept didn’t somehow seem a little absurd (Though it is true that at least one of his shows has been published in book format by Faber, with full post-modern annotation explaining the context or chronology of the given paragraph, and I mean almost every paragraph. It reads like watching the DVD with Lee’s voice over commentary… well perhaps he is an intellectual comic.) In a recent article in the New Statesman Lee asks where all the right-wing stand-ups are, noting that while right wing writers can be funny, stand-up is different.
The African-American stand-up Chris Rock maintained that stand-up comedy should always be punching upwards. It’s a heroic little struggle. You can’t be a right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down… Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.
I agree with Lee, if the definition of right-wing is, as he defines it:
Ultimately, the left will lose. Big business will pollute the planet, capitalist culture will kill off the arts and humanities, schools will all be privatised, libraries will all close, social mobility will cease, the gulf between rich and poor will grow and everything beautiful will die. The left may note little human rights victories – gay marriage and the odd bit of better pay – but the machine is rolling inexorably forwards to crush it.
Yes, these are categories often associated with some forms of right-wing politics (most of the time caricatured out of proportion), but they can just as easily be associated with Labour politics in the post-Thatcher years. As for human rights, well those were pioneered by capitalist Americans (in the form of the Universal Deceleration of human rights) against the stonewalling perpetrated by communist Russia.
Here is where I think the categories of left and right stop being meaningful. I mean, since when did right-wing politics want everything beautiful to die? As for social mobility, that is the stated aim of every middle Englander supporting the Tory party. Ok its hyperbole but I think the power dynamics that underpins what Chris Rock is talking about isn’t about left and right, as much as Lee would like to see himself as a neo-revolutionary (aren’t we all now when confronted by the faceless screen of ‘the computer says No’?).
Assuming that the right-wing has won, might Stewart Lee be buying too much into the myth perpetrated by Francis Fukujama’s End of History and the Last Man, in which that neo-conservative lays out his thesis that after the fall of communism humanity has reached its zenith in the liberal democratic settlement? The great enemy communism has died, capitalism has prevailed and liberal freedom is our final lot. Even if this thesis was true, and its quite questionable since emerging economies and global politics and religion seem to contradict Fukujama’s conclusions, I can still think of a ‘sometimes’ stand-up comic who contradicts Lee’s rather colourful concluding line ending in the provocative c word.
Ronald Reagan is this example. It is clear that Reagan could be as self deprecating as his jokes could be sharp about others, and telling jokes from the position of power as President is not an easy feat to pull off, nevertheless his target–as Chris Rock would have it was to punch upwards. His enemy and the nub of his joke was oppression and deception in the form of the effects of totalitarian left-wing communism.
A great 12 minutes can be found here: http://youtu.be/wrRTau5jusU
So I think the categories don’t quite fit the bill. Right and left don’t mean what they used to. If capitalism will steam role over the arts, then so will left wing ideology in form of socialist realism (even if now quite iconic, but that’s because its context is now free from oppression). No I think the categories that Lee should pay more attention to are appropriate form and freedom. Stand for the little man who is being steamrolled over by the state or big business. Stand against banking systems which don’t allow a manager to make a decision based on human interaction. Stand up and protest the defacement of human relationships through systems put in place which take away relationships and replace them with company policies. This is a type of humanism I think Stewart Lee represents, be he as he may be, a left wing stand up comedian.
I’ll leave you with this one:
“The party apparatchik comes to visit a farmer who, it is rumoured, went to church every day. He asks the farmer whether this is true and the farmer responds affirmatively, saying he goes every day and bows before the crucifix to pray. ‘Would you worship the great Party leader in the same way, comrade?’ asks the apparatchik. To which the farmer responds: ‘If he was up on that cross I might.’