After a long hold out, the UK Border Agency finally allowed me to go visit my wife’s family in England.
Two visas had been rejected. The first two times my heart beat hard on my way to the Teleperformance office and I peeped at the paper bearing the final judgment as I pulled a small part of it slowly out of the plastic envelope while pretending everything was okay, like a beggar eager to know how much a generous passerby has just given him. I was wrenched by a heavy feeling of humiliation in being forced to fawn over an entity whose people-evaluating methods I don’t respect, while at the same time trying to prove that I’m a “normal person” like any Englishman, that I’m not aspiring to swap my career in Egypt as a cartoonist, scriptwriter and fictional character in a fake radio station for British social welfare, that I really want to see my wife’s grandmother who is really old, and that’s it.
But the third time there was a weird smile on my face. Suddenly I saw how ridiculous the whole thing was, and I didn’t really care about the verdict.
The first thing I did in London of course was ride the famous beautiful shiny red bus, not as an experiment or as a tourist, but because it was the only way to get home. The bus was full of tired sad faces of every color, and as it sighed and labored past cheap shops on the Old Kent Road and we clung onto our suitcases, I started remembering scenes from Alfonso Cuarón’s apocalyptic 2006 film Children of Men and thinking about the end of the world.
A few stops before ours the driver pulled over and had a conversation with a lazy voice that talked to him through his walkie talkie. We understood that he was supposed to do something that he hadn’t because no one had told him to do it. He then apologized in a very formal polite way and asked us to leave the bus and take the next one. Everyone looked back and, feeling confident that the next bus was right behind us, left with minor mumbling.
On the next bus, after everybody had positioned themselves wherever they could manage, the driver stepped out of his booth and started examining the exit doors with obvious befuddlement. He stretched his leg out of the bus and pressed a button so the doors closed on his leg, repeated the move six times, then turned to the passengers and announced without formality: “Sorry ladies and gentlemen, this bus isn’t going anywhere. You’ll have to take the next one.” One passenger tried to explain that we just… But he interrupted decisively and said: “That’s how I lost my licence last time, I can’t lose my license again.”
Everybody got off making exasperated noises. Luckily a third bus was right behind the second. Everybody crowded onto it grumbling angrily. The driver wasn’t even checking people’s Oyster cards now — everything was becoming meaningless. Everyone sat down, the engine rattled intermittently, and people looked at each other (for the first time since the beginning of the story). The driver failed to get the engine running, picked up the microphone and started talking in a quiet, quavering voice: “Sorry ladies and gentlemen, there’s a malfunc…” A passenger with red hair and a red face screamed of the top of her voice: “ARE YOU HAVING A LAUGH, THIS IS THE THIRD BUS!” The driver turned back, fiddled with the key, the engine started and everything straightened out.
Her expression surprised me despite its familiarity — the reminder that laughter is often linked to repeated suffering or a joke made in bad taste. I remembered a scriptwriter I worked with once saying that a basic feature of comedy is seeing a man and a banana skin, then seeing the man slipping on the skin as you predicted, so that you can laugh. We discussed the order a lot and what it means, but not the poor man whose suffering everybody enjoyed watching.
A few days before the end of the England trip, we managed to watch A Room with a Stew by Stewart Lee, a comedian my wife’s family, who the UK Border Agency hadn’t wanted me to see, gave me the gift of knowing about. Truth is, the hour and a half I spent watching Stew was the only time while I was in England that I felt there’s something to envy the English for.
In a TV interview, Stewart Lee explains that when you see his dark jokes and see other people’s dark jokes, you’ll know exactly why the others never take the extra step — take it to the end — and why he does. Stewart Lee is not famous in Egypt because his videos don’t show up in the related list when you’re watching Louis CK on YouTube.
In A Room with a Stew, Stew jokes about how he’s always named his pets after celebrities. He tells the story of his dog that had the name of a B-list British actor, and how his dog died after a failed jump to a high shelf. He seals the joke with a simile between the dog and the actor and how both met their end while still thinking they could reach something much higher than their true capabilities. A section of the audience releases a sympathetic wince. Stew looks at them and nods unapologetically as if to say: “Yes, it’s not a joke.”
The thing I find most interesting about Stew’s comedy — other than it being extremely English — is how it analyzes the very phenomenon of making people laugh. He doesn’t just superficially bring up his own miseries or other people’s miseries to make you accept sadness and have more hope in tomorrow and love life. When he says something sad he means it. He makes you laugh at how sad it is, not despite how sad it is. There’s no denial in it, and it’s not delivered in a “funny” way. He also judges you in your laughter and tells you why you’re laughing at one thing more than something else.
The first thing I remember watching by Stewart Lee was a show called 41st Best Comedian Ever, where he talks about being ranked as the 41st best comedian in the UK. Of course this is sad, and it’s definitely funny. What does such a ranking mean? What does ranking itself mean after number 3? Or 10? In the show he talks about how his mum attended the show of a famous traditional comedian who was ranked higher than him while she was on a cruise. He imitates his old mother trying — with great admiration — to tell him the joke, he said, that she really loved. It takes him 30 minutes almost, during which he repeats a sentence expressing how clever this other comedian is nearly 30 times. He finally tells the joke his mum loved, in the silliest possible way, and the audience laugh really hard at how silly it is.
Many comedians repeat a joke to milk out the last drop of laughter, yet repeating a joke is a haunting nightmare for a comedian who’s slowly and steadily mauling his self-confidence and his ability to create. Stew breaks into this nightmare, tames it and makes it do exactly what he wants. Despite how dangerous repetition is, repetition is always the most unpredictable joke.
When Stewart Lee makes fun of young people, he first makes fun of himself for being old, then makes fun of the kind of jokes he made when he was younger, then makes fun of what young people are into compared to what old people are into, then he pushes the old person’s game to the end and says today’s kids think they’re into violent sex but our old timers’ violent sex used to end up in death or in hospitals. You find yourself thinking about how ridiculous it is to brag about things you have no hand in, like when you’re born, even though Stew doesn’t say that.
Stew says: Young people aren’t into my comedy? Of course, because they like other stuff. Young people like smartphones. Then he pretends the microphone is a phone and keeps hitting it with his finger with a manic expression on his face, and he does it for 40 seconds until you hate yourself.
Stew is aware of people’s love for the rudeness of jokes, and their longing to hear what should never be said. He appears to have more fun the ruder and more decadent his jokes get. Also what Stew does feels a lot more complicated than a direct response to this primitive urge for impropriety.
Stew plays multiple characters in his show. He says many things he would never say in normal life. He responds to your expectations, ambitions and suppressed dreams and lets you hear what your subconscious wants you to hear, but he does it with conscience. He gets you involved in the moment and explains to you what’s going on. It feels like a psychological experiment.
In A Room with a Stew there’s a 30-minute segment about Islamophobia where he talks about the West’s relationship with Islam and Muslims at the moment. He acts out an imagined argument with an angry right-wing Islamophobic English person who’s mad at Stew and his blind Muslim-aligned prejudice because of Stew’s feeble liberal political correctness. Stew tries to please this angry white person and promises him that within the next half hour he will tear Muslims apart. He starts thinking out loud, and tries to formulate the joke the way the bigot will like it, then he starts saying it. You see very clearly how he comes out of his own skin and down to the level of the argument to please, and you think of every similar public act of rhetoric that lowers itself the same way, and you laugh at Stew swinging back and forth on the stage chewing nothing in his mouth.
In his show Stew calls himself a politically correct liberal comedian. He quietly explains between jokes what he thinks is wrong with his country. He talks about minorities and social harmony, he talks about nationalism and makes fun of the British national anthem. At the same time he presents an extremely funny and extremely complex show. He talks about how he writes, how he designs his script and adjusts his timing. He says what he thinks of himself and other people doing the same job. He also makes fun of religions and religious people, his audience and everything.
To put it simply: He says everything he wants without offending anyone.
Watching Stewart Lee was a comfortable experience in the middle of the chaos of the England visit, all the emotional expectations around it and actually being surrounded by England. It was comfortable because — unlike central London where the theater was located and unlike Louis CK — it was realistic and honest, and its anaesthetic repetitiveness synchronized smoothly with the world’s normal repetitiveness, just like the guitar in The Fall’s Blindness, which played on loop from the theater’s speakers until Stew emerged at the beginning of the show. We just noticed now how similar it is to Roots Manuva’s Witness the Fitness, which I sung with my wife’s family — who the UK Border Agency doesn’t want me to hang out with — throughout the holiday.