How I came to buy the DVD of series 2 of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

A true story:

  • My favourite author in the world is C. S. Lewis. I’ve read everything of his that I’ve been able to find, most of it four or five times. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve read the Narnia books.
  • Long ago (in Internet years) I searched for a C. S. Lewis FAQ, and found one that was written by someone called Andrew Rilstone.
  • I started reading the rest of Rilstone’s web-site (as it then was), then his blog once he started writing in that format. Highly recommended, by the way: full of insight, wit, and a gloriously eclectic mix of high literature and pop-culture.
  • One of the more frequent commenters on Rilstone’s blog was Andrew Hickey, whose blog Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! I also started to read.
  • In one of Hickey’s link round-ups, he linked to an article about James Ward’s fruitless efforts to change his name to James Ward.
  • I immediately liked Ward’s blog, I Like Boring Things, and started to keep an eye on it. (Also highly recommended, by the way. He repeatedly demonstrates that, really, nothing is boring.)
  • A post on Ward’s blog included a video of his talk at The Lost Lectures. At about 4:55 on the video he very briefly mentions Stewart Lee’s book How I Escaped My Certain Fate [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. It was the first time I’d heard of Lee.
  • On a whim, I bought the book — something I can hardly explain, as Ward in his video says nothing at all about it except that it quotes someone else he wants to discuss. It turned out to be very funny and insightful. Among other things, it mentioned Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, a TV series (consisting so far of two seasons of six episodes each.)
  • Having read quite a bit of Lee’s stand-up (the book contains exhaustively annotated transcripts of three of his full-length shows), I was interested to see how it worked in performance, so I torrented the first series [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk].
  • And then I liked that so much that I bought the second series on DVD [amazon.co.uk; doesn't exist on amazon.com except as an expensive region-2 import].

Now.

There are a few things we can learn from this.

  • You can’t predict how a sale will be made. There’s nothing Stewart Lee could possibly have done to make this sale happen. It happened because of chance, and also because he is good at what he does. My conclusion? You can’t control the chance, but you can control whether your’re good at what you do. Be good.
  • Over a period of a decade, the Internet can take you somewhere very different from where you started. Part of why I love C. S. Lewis’s writing is because it shines such a clear light on, and through, Christianity. Stewart Lee is absolutely not any kind of Christian. But I love his work because there is a common thread of insight and wit that leads through Lewis, Rilstone, Hickey and Ward to Lee.
  • Piracy is good. It leads to sales. If I had not been able to pirate Comedy Vehicle series 1, many publishers like to think the alternative would be that I’d have bought it instead. But I wouldn’t; the only difference would have been that I’d never have seen series 1 so I’d never have bought series 2 either.
  • Finally, unavailability leads to piracy. Since series 2 of Comedy Vehicle is not available as a region-1 DVD at any price, Americans who want to watch it have a choice: buy an overpriced import and watch it on an illegally region-unlocked player, or torrent it. Which do they imagine will happen?

The publishers of Comedy Vehicle can only hope that Americans will torrent series 2 and like it enough to buy series 1 — the opposite of what I did.

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14 responses to “How I came to buy the DVD of series 2 of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

  1. Well, thanks for putting me in such rarefied company. If you like Lee’s work, by the way, a coupele of recommendations — firstly, that you check out the work of his former double-act partner Richard Herring (whose work is slightly funnier but slightly less clever — I’d recommend you get his Someone Likes Yoghurt, which is *very* like some of James Ward’s stuff and available as a DRM-free download from gofasterstripe.com , who have tons of good comedy stuff and are worth supporting in all sorts of ways).

    The second is that you get hold of Lee’s novel, The Perfect Fool, which is roughly speaking a tale of the search for the Holy Grail, involving Chick tracts, obsessive record collectors, freemasons and a Dire Straits tribute band.

    I agree with pretty much every word here, incidentally.

  2. I have a region 0 (unlocked) DVD player for just this reason. I get a lot of stuff for other regions than 1 (the US where I live), and other than watching them on my computer (not bad since I have dual 24″ 1920×1200 displays), I prefer to watch them on my bigger TV, especially if it is something my wife would like to watch as well. At least my Linux system DVD player(s) don’t care about the region either… :-)

  3. And to bring it full circle, Lee (in his guise as a music reviewer for The Sunday Times) gave an enthusiastic review to an album by Belbury Poly, and other works by the Ghost Box label.

    (Belbury plays a big part in their fictional world)

    As for Lee, he may not be a Christian but there is a strong underlying morality.

  4. But, Rubberman, aren’t region-unlocked DVD players just as illegal as piracy?

    Andrew, you’re welcome :-) Thinking it through a bit more, one thing that Andrew, you, James and Stewart Lee all have in common is that you give the impression of writing first of all for yourselves and only secondarily for an audience. That gives each of you a delightfully individual style, which — paradoxically — attracts an audience.

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  6. I don’t believe unlocked DVD players are illegal — but chances are very high that watching DVDs on a GNU/Linux system is, unless rubberman is only watching unencrypted DVDs (a basically nonexistent subset). libdvdcss is illegal in almost every country, because it breaks DRM.

  7. I listened to the first hour of Richard Herring’s Someone Likes Yoghurt. I think I laughed once; most of the rest of it was painful to listen to. What a disappointment. (Meanwhile, over in Steward Lee Land, Carpet Remnant World is brilliant.)

  8. Andrew Hickey

    How odd… I can’t get my head round someone liking Lee that much and not liking Herring at all (that said, the second half of Someone Likes Yoghurt is by far the more Lee-ish, and it pulls together a lot of the stuff from the first half).

    I enjoyed Carpet Remnant World when I saw Lee do it live last April, but haven’t yet seen the DVD, so haven’t got a strong opinion of it yet.

  9. After the magpie-counting material, the rest of the first hour of SLY consists of a stream of ignorant hate-filled ranting about Christianity (and I do mean ignorant), plus extended sexual harrassment of a sixteen-year-old girl. It made me squirm. It made me feel ill, in fact. I was going to stick it out, but it was a huge relief to me when I thought, “No, forget it, I don’t have to do this.” (I felt similar when I stopped reading The Wasp Factory half way through.)

  10. Hmm… we possibly saw the material about the Pope differently because I saw the show after seeing his earlier show Christ On A Bike, which is an examination of his views on Christianity. *Given that context* I find it hard to see that material as either ignorant or hate-filled, but I quite accept that without that context it can come off that way, and I should have thought of that.
    I’m surprised that you found it more upsetting than the material in Lee’s 1990s Comedian though.

  11. First of all (and this is reiterating what I said to you on Twitter): please don’t let it worry you that you recommended something I didn’t like. I am not scarred for life. I just turned it off and forgot about it. And after all, you did (indirectly) introduce me to Stewart Lee!

    Regarding Lee’s deliberately offensive Christ material in 1990s Comedian. I did find it hard to take; but it was clear that he was trying to actually achieve something there, even if it didn’t really come off. With Herring’s material I don’t have that sense at all — it just sounded like some prat in the lower sixth mouthing off. (As a long-time reader of, if not sympathiser with, Andrew Rilstone’s blog — this for example — I’d have thought you’d have seen this.)

    As for Herring being ignorant: it’s possible that he has some vague understanding of what Christianity is, but is deliberately projecting the persona of someone who has no idea at all. I find that interpretation less parsimonious than the obvious one. And as for the idea that not liking that material is some kind of “special pleading” for religion: I reject that, too. I would have found that material just as unpleasant, and unfunny, if it had been about (say) socialism, or evolutionism. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

  12. Andrew Hickey

    Oh, I’m *definitely* not seeing it as special pleading — I know you well enough for that.

    And Herring definitely *is* projecting that persona — the character he played on stage at that time is very different from the real him. But I know that from 16 years of reading his blog and his books, and seeing all his other shows — it certainly makes perfect sense that someone coming to the material without that knowledge would see it differently. Part of what I find funny about that material is precisely that he *does* sound like a prat in the lower sixth — the character he’s playing is much stupider, and much more ignorant, than the man himself.

    If I believed Herring really held the views he espouses in that show, I would not recommend it to anyone — he’s doing something that is far more nuanced than that. But I *absolutely* accept that that nuance is only there if you’re familiar with his comedy persona already. Without that, I can absolutely see it causing offence, and that offence being entirely justified. (A similar example might be Al Murray, The Pub Landlord, with whom Herring has worked on many occasions. One could easily see his act as being a standard racist, sexist, homophobic working-man’s-club comic, and apparently a big chunk of his audience take him that way, even though he’s meant to be a parody of those sorts of attitudes).

    Herring’s views on religion are much better-informed than those of his character — in his show Christ On A Bike, he goes from the strident New Atheist position at the beginning of the show to have a much more nuanced and tolerant (though still atheist) position at the end. I don’t agree with that position (it tends towards the mushy “Jesus was a great moral teacher” nonsense that both Lewis and Rilstone have skewered so well) but it’s not an uninformed one. There’s an interesting review of that show at http://www.richardherring.com/archive/downloads.php?8602461 by the Vicar of Preston, which ends “By this time I was utterly convinced that Jesus is the Son of God and that Richard Herring is a devoted follower of a man he reveres above all others, even if he publicly denies his divinity.”

    In retrospect, given what you like about Lee’s work, I should probably have suggested Herring’s show Hitler Moustache instead, rather than Someone Likes Yoghurt — Someone Likes Yoghurt is a very formally clever piece (again. pretty much all in the second half), but hasn’t got much to say about anything, while Hitler Moustache is much less reliant on formal tricks but is a much straighter piece, done from Herring’s own point of view rather than that of the “Herring” character (a strong distinction he’s made himself on many occasions), about racism, tolerance, democracy and what stance comedy should take on those subjects, and is a much more thoughtful show.

    Again, I am *absolutely not* saying that your reaction to the show was incorrect — my wife actually has much the same reaction to that material, and for much the same reasons. I recommended it to you because it works for me, but I had a *lot* of contextual knowledge that you were lacking, and without that context I would probably have had a very similar reaction.

  13. OK, thanks Andrew, that all makes sense. Perhaps one of the big reasons I love Lee’s work and hate the little I’ve heard of Herring is that came to Lee’s actual stand-up via his book (How I Escaped My Certain Fate), which makes explicit the sort of comedian-vs.-character dichotomies that you’re talking about here.

    I doubt I’ll go back to Yoghurt, at least not now. But I may give Hitler Moustache a whirl some day.

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