when i was 8 or 9 years old, i asked my parents if it would be possible for them to send some of the money they normally spent on my christmas presents to a charity, of the starving african variety. i don’t know where i came up with the idea, but the odds are an even split between sunday school or an infomercial. my parents had a christmas fund budgeted, and told me that i could volunteer to sacrifice any percentage of that amount. i deeply regretted asking, and after a long time determined to give exactly 0%, because i wanted every toy that i could get. fortunately, not a speck of that residual guilt has lasted longer than the rest of my life.
in this unethically uploaded vimeo clip, british comedian stewart lee uses the familiar vernacular of stand-up to craft a really intricate commentary on charity (starts around 11:45 in episode 3 of the 2nd season of stewart lee’s comedy vehicle, from the bbc two). i love this sort of comedy, because i recognize so many of the elements that make good poetry. he obfuscates what could be presented as a very straightforward, moderately liberal, authentic outlook. i probably would have agreed with his perspective if he performed in a direct observational style, and depending on the quality of those jokes i may or may not have laughed. but i prefer poetry that works like a riddle, or a magic trick, where a certain amount of time (or cleverness, or effort) are required to let the words sink in enough to get a clear view of the objective. the payoff element is a similar experience to finishing the final episode of a crime show, or simultaneously paying attention to both the story and the clues in a detective novel to try to guess the ending. or like getting a joke.
he does this whole bit about russell howard. lee compares how much money the comedian made in a year to how much he was able to make for charity by riding in a four day bike ride. the joke is textbook verbal irony, with 3 principle layers. 1a. he honestly is talking shit about russell howard and mixes in plenty of real insults and digs at his reputation. so stewart doesn’t like russell howard, though 1b. he recognizes that he is being resentful and pompous. 2. he makes his point with ludicrous logic; russell howard couldn’t in reality be expected to bike every day of the year, even if that were somehow financed without decreasing returns to scale. no one can hold to that standard (with some exceptions, such as monks who imitate christ, who is famous for preaching exactly that unattainable ideal. lee actually does bring up christ, but only to imply that russell howard’s attitude toward jokes about handicapped people puts him on the level of a mocking onlooker at the crucifixion). correlating the suffering of poor people in foreign nations to howard’s failure to completely sacrifice himself for a calendar year is unreasonable. so lee’s point is wrong, emphasizing 3. that people who actually act that pompously are dishonest. or, they honestly believe that slandering someone with passive aggression is less violent than direct confrontation. this type of person is the implicit butt of this routine. they don’t hold to their own standards, and use doublespeak in a manipulative sort of politically correct irony.
“i don’t hate him, i mean, i can’t say anything against him, i just don’t get why some people don’t care about saving the planet.” that sort of thing.
at the risk of overextending, 4. lee is arguably suggesting that russell howard, while not in truth morally culpable for world hunger, is guilty of actually presenting himself in the light that lee reflects in layer 3. nothing that lee said convinced me if he really wanted to denounce howard, or just to use his celebrity identity as a prop. it is possible that howard is the character singing lee’s refrain throughout this whole clip; the endlessly escalating boasts about his own charity work.
the way lee presents himself to the audience is dynamic. at the climax of the russell howard bit he turns his back on the crowd and acts out a scene while looking down at the stage. a moment later he transitions to mocking us, not the crowd audience but the viewer audience, in the british version of a rich-new-york-elitist-stereotype mocking a rural-southern-redneck-stereotype. he continues with the theme of charities, telling an anecdote about the cost of baby sitting while he performed at a fundraiser. but he deviates, turns away from the crowd, and looks directly in the camera. he is like a malevolent craig ferguson, who isn’t breaking the fourth wall to reassure us we are in on the joke. jekyll to hyde. it is visually retributive that lee’s widow’s peak mohawk and sweaty face, distorted by proximity to the lens, make him look like a claymation weather-demon.
the effect of manipulating camera shots mid joke is cinematic. if this isn’t poetry, it might be a painting. impressionism was conceived as a revolt against only depicting one point perspective, a sort of visual equivalent of black and white morality or objective truth. cubism abstracted a still life into a barely recognizable heap, like the combined subjective perspectives of an audience crowding around the object at varying degrees and distance. this is what lee is doing with concepts.
stripped of his irony, stewart lee might say something along the lines of, “i think that charity is important. but sometimes it is hard to give, and i feel guilty when i don’t give enough. i try to rationalize it by thinking that celebrities who are richer than i am are more morally culpable. speaking of celebrities that are richer than i am, did i mention that they are all shit people?” but, instead of listing those thoughts out in a logical progression he jumbles them together for the type of rhetorical engagement that heightens the effect of tragedy or comedy. it mirrors how conflicting it is to wonder whether you are living a worthwhile life, and to doubt, and to argue back again against your own doubts. that sort of introspection, mixed with a healthy dose of rationalization, inflamed by the inferiority complex of the non-psychopath, resembles a stewart lee routine more than a reasonable conversation that moves from point to point with transparent intention. subjectively speaking, it is more organized than order, and more honest than sincerity.