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How I Escaped My Certain Fate

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  3,688 ratings  ·  200 reviews
In 2001, after over a decade in the business, Stewart Lee quit stand-up, disillusioned and drained, and went off to direct a loss-making opera about Jerry Springer. This book details his return to live performance, and the journey that took him from an early retirement to his position as the most critically acclaimed stand-up in Britain.
Paperback, 378 pages
Published August 5th 2010 (first published January 1st 2010)
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Dec 20, 2012 rated it really liked it

The Goodreads Censorship Fiasco of 2013 has got a lot of people considering works by Adolph Hitler, convicted sex offenders, and flagrant P2P artists. I have found myself repeatedly thinking of a particular routine from 90s stand-up comedian Stewart Lee.

If you don't know Lee, his style is not easy to demonstrate through quotation. His material relies on carefully-layered silences and repetitions, tiny nuances of expression, and sequences that derive their humour from the cumulative probing of au
Simon Lipson
Aug 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
I did a few gigs with Stewart Lee in my early stand-up days and, although I was only on nodding terms with him, I was repelled slightly by what I perceived as a haughty, intellectual superiority complex which manifested itself in dense, sluggish and deeply unfunny routines. I was not alone in finding him impenetrable.

That was then. Watching him now, I see a comedian at the height of his powers, a man who has stuck to his guns whilst improving out of sight as a purveyor of comedy gold. He uses re
Oct 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
In a previous life, I was a comedian. I told jokes to crowds of people for (occasionally) money and (more often) beer. During my brief career I read many comedy how-tos, and numerous biographies of performers like Richard Pryor (Pryor Convictions) and Steve Martin (Born Standing up).

How I escaped My Certain Fate is the best book on comedy, or the life of a comedian, that I have read, written by a man who is in my opinion one of the best and most interesting voices in contemporary stand-up.

Jul 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
A truly great insight into the life of a stand up, told by alternative national treasure Stewart Lee. The lengthy transcripts of stand up routines (complete with extensive footnotes) might not be everybody's cup of, particularly if you haven't heard or seen the routines performed, but the level of analysis of the comedian's craft, replete with Lee's trademark idealism masquerading as cynicism, makes for a challenging and original read. Best accompanied by Youtube footage of his annihilation of t ...more
MJ Nicholls
Sep 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Comedians’ memoirs are usually lamentable tales of mein-kampf riddled with humour that clunks on the page, excepting this metafictional gag artist who is one of the rare stage performers to take the postmodern self-reference common in sitcoms and other TV comedies (and literature) and indulge in playful audience-baiting antics. This is part-memoir, part-annotated transcript of his stand-up routines, with more appeal to his cult fans due to the career-long detail (will Americans find the constant ...more
Marc Nash
Jun 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Stewart Lee's 2008 stand up comedy routine (one of three of his own shows he dissects and provides transcripts of in the book), is called "41st Best Stand Up Ever", prompted by Lee's bemusement at being placed so high in a TV all-time comedian chart. As Lee himself points out, such shows are just cheap screen time-eaters constructed of archive clips and talking heads prostituting themselves out of anything but a sacred feel for what they're intoning about. He also points out that the order of th ...more
Jun 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Much as I like to approach a book with an open mind, it was impossible in this case. I would class Stewart Lee as something approaching a genius – certainly the closest to it in my experience of stand-up comedy – so high expectations were somewhat inevitable.

Lee’s intention is to explain the workings of his comedy as much as possible, an endeavour that ends up being rather meta considering the fact that he sees his stand-up in itself as an extended attempt to ‘pull back the curtain’ on the natur
Aug 23, 2011 rated it liked it
I liked a lot about this book, but I think its failure as a funny book is testament to Lee's success as a comic. I've seen him live twice - both times I laughed the whole way through, and both of the transcripts appear in this book. I also love his television program.

In the book, Lee says that the fact that he is capable of writing this book means that in some ways be must be a failure as a comic. For him, comedy is about performance - it's not just about words and shouldn't translate easily ont
Mark Love
Nov 26, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Stewart Lee is the 41st best comedian in Britain. Fact. Provided you believe those awful Channel 4 list programmes that helpfully gave Stew the title for one of his 'comeback' shows. After a period of mild TV fame in the 90s, then mild infamy arising from his involvement with "Jerry Springer: The Opera" around 2002, this is a story of his struggle to re-engage with stand-up comedy and redevelop his performance from the ground up, leading to the dizzy heights he now occupies, as most London-livin ...more
Steve Gillway
Jan 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a way of getting inside the head of a comedian. On DVDs now you can have a commentary , usually by the director, which gives an extra dimension to the film. This is a kind of written equivalent. Around some biographical information Stewart Lee has some transcripts of recent shows he has toured with. (I think you can buy them on DVD, but I haven't seen them) What he does is use footnotes extensively to explain, show where the idea came from, complain about something, or make some related ...more
Not sure how to review this: I'm not a fanboy of Stewart Lee, but was intrigued to know more about his comedy and his approach to life. I've seen him be quite abrasive in the past, and was hoping the book would delve beneath that veneer.

It certainly does, as he dissects some of his recent stand up routines, and reveals how he agonises over the choice of words, and the way he is viewed, often regretting a particular phrase or depiction of someone.

Someone else has called it a DVD extras type of co
Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: james
A comedian and an artist - with some of the bloat and near-repulsive belligerence that entails
If you've not seen me before, right, a lot of what I do, er, it's not jokes as such, it can just be funny kind of ideas or little, er, weird turns of phrase like that, yeah? So, 'owner-operator of an enchanted beanstalk', yeah? And that's a giant, isn't it, a giant... So all I’m saying, if you’ve not seen me before, yeah, is the jokes are there, they're there, but some of you, you might have to rais
Leo Robertson
Aug 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting story!

Showbusiness is weeeeeird. Interesting to consider that if once you drew 2 million viewers then fell into anonymity, catchphrases shouted at you from a former era would simply hurt! There's no such thing as "in."

Essential reading for today's aspiring "alternative comedians", since Lee provides transcripts of his shows with notes indicating his intentions with meaning, rhythm, and the shows' overall arc. But his comedy isn't meant to be delivered in the same way as it's read, an
Harry Rutherford
Aug 31, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For those of you who don't know, Stewart Lee is a stand-up comedian. This book is built around the transcripts of three of his shows, each heavily footnoted with his own technical comments: why he thinks things are funny, notes on delivery, where jokes came from, his comedic influences and so on. Preceding each transcript is a chapter explaining that show's genesis which inevitably involves a lot of stuff about his personal life and the state of his career. The result is a book which combines au ...more
Sep 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010
Clowns are scary.

From the Pueblo clowns of New Mexico to the Bouffons of medieval France, clowns stand outside the social order, marking out their own sacred space from which they can parody and decry the pretensions of the high and mighty with impunity. These are not the jolly, red nosed men with the custard pies and big shoes, but the mad men, smeared with excrement who caper and point and mock. As I said, scary, but also necessary.

In this book, Lee analyzes three of his recent stand up routin
Jan 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stewart Lee can remember a time (in the 1980s, fact fans) when comedy was genuinely "alternative", subversive and had a radical agenda. It's true I tell you. Small comedy clubs in the back rooms of pubs where the likes of Harry Hill, Simon Munnery, Jo Brand, Ian Cognito, Mark Steele and many, many more would challenge their audiences. Amazing. I often wonder how we got to the situation where comedy has become more about filling enormo-domes, and populating formulaic panel shows, than about chall ...more
Dec 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
Stewart Lee seems to be one of the best, and certainly one of the smartest, stand-up comics still working the UK circuit today. I hope long after the Frankie Boyles and Andy Parsons' have disappeared, Lee is working his niche steadily.

"How I Escaped My Certain Fate" is his autobiography/career overview/warts-and-all view of the 'business' of comedy (in the UK). He discusses the 'aternative comedy' boom in the UK in the early 80s and his place in it, starting in the mid-to-late 80s. I kinda wish
Darran Mclaughlin
Absolutely brilliant. This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. It had me bursting out laughing in public time and time again. It is part memoir, part history of alternative comedy from the 80's to today, part transcript of three of Lee's stand up routines from the last few years and part meta-commentary on his routines. I didn't know how well a stand up comedy transcript would work on the page, and an in depth analysis carried out through extensive footnotes sounds potentially disastr ...more
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
How I Escaped My Certain Fate is a strange book. At its core are the transcripts of three of Stewart Lee's stand up shows. I had the pleasure of seeing all three live at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the transcripts brought back many happy memories of funny, confronting shows. But the real joy is seeing Stewart Lee's annotations - in many instances far longer than the text being annotated - setting out his rationale, his thoughts or how it went down with different audiences. He includes thou ...more
Jan 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, humour
This book is part autobiography, part insider memoir, but primarily a meticulous deconstruction of comedy. Stewart Lee could be accused of analysing humour until all the spontaneity has been removed, but this is fitting for a comedian whose routines increasingly centre around discussion of comedy itself. Three of Lee's stand up routines are transcribed in full, with lengthy footnotes noting the effect on the audience that Lee is aiming to achieve. At times, this can feel like an acquittal - Lee ...more
Dave Powell
great read especially if you are already a big fan of Stewart Lee's stand up. I posted a clip of Stewart Lee talking about Political Correctness on you tube a few years back which has had over 50000 hits and he corrects some of the stuff that people had posted in the comments in that clip which was good.

Stewart Lee will never probably appeal to the mainstream and represents what seems to have been lost by the "alternative" comedians i.e the willingness to present challenging and controversial id
Aug 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Not so much an autobiography, as an exploration of how Lee crafts his shows, what inspires him, and what he endeavours to achieve with his stand up. Consisting of heavily annotated transcripts of his three stand up shows available on dvd, interspersed with chapters detail his professional life and career (Lee avoids detailing his personal life as much as possible, unless relevant to his comedy). This is not a book for those seeking a laugh a minute humour riot, as much of Lee's comedy does not t ...more
Mar 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
really good insight into just how much thought goes into a stewart lee gig, and how the constant repetition and going off on tangents usually is a process given a lot of thought for specific reasons. makes the gigs seem a whole lot funnier, and has definitely made me think of lee as a greater comedian than i originally thought. truly one of the best standup comedians out there - way better than 41st greatest ever!
Aug 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I bought this for my husband essentially because I wanted to read it, and spent the entire read elbowing him going YOU'VE GOT TO READ THIS IT'S BRILLIANT! He's still not read it for some baffling reason but this is his loss and my gain.
Tom Mooney
May 14, 2019 rated it liked it
I love Stewart Lee and this book provides an interesting insight into what goes into producing stand-up comedy. You see a guy performing comedy - especially someone like Lee who uses so much apparent improvisation - and think, 'he's a naturally funny person'.

But this book shows just how much painstaking work goes into every joke, every pretend improvisation, every aspect of the show. Told in the form of transcripts of Lee's comeback shows in the early 2000s, it includes annotations about the so
Kris McCracken
Jan 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stewart Lee is an odd kind of comedian, one who eschews limp routines that trade on collective nostalgia in favour of somewhat tortuous narratives that seem intent on alienating the audience and then, through effort and force of will, win it back again. I happen to like his work, so looked forward to reading this book, which is structured in such a way to explore the creative process behind his “comeback” to stand-up comedy in the mid-2000s.

Thankfully, it works! The book is a master class in how
Ben Chandler
Oct 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
"I don't think stand-up should really work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian."

Stewart Lee, in this single sentence towards the end of his book, explains concisely the dilemma of presenting the works of a stand-up comedian in text form.

Objectively, the book is a history of his career, interspersed with the scripts of 3 of his comedy shows - all of which I had seen recordings of multiple times. It's interesting to read the extensi
Oct 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I read this after reading "Content Provider" - the more recent book, which left me wanting more. I found this fascinating. Transcripts of the shows he performed after "Jerry Springer - The Opera" are set against the backdrop of what was happening in Stew's life at the time. Very interesting to hear about the rise of alternative comedy from Stew's perspective. Reading this on kindle format made referencing the many many footnotes in the transcripts an easy job. The footnotes were particularly enj ...more
David Crow
Oct 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Compelling, witty, classy deconstruction of the art of stand-up comedy.
Billy Abbott
Dec 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Finest book on comedy ever. I have set an alarm to read it next year lest I forget. That is all.
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From Wikipedia (accessed Oct 2010):

Stewart Lee (born 5 April 1968, Wellington, Shropshire) is an English stand-up comedian, writer and director known for being one half of the 1990s comedy duo Lee and Herring, and for co-writing and directing the critically-acclaimed and controversial stage show Jerry Springer - The Opera. In a review of the comedy of the previous decade, a 2009 article in The Ti

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