Punching up, punching down, bullying and playing the victim
Far more than you could possibly want to know about a minor Twitter kerfuffle
Stewart Lee was trending on Twitter yesterday. Like all the best comedians, he publishes a regular newsletter, and in the latest edition, he has various lists, including a list of things/people he likes (called On The Pedestal) and a list of things/people he doesn’t like (called In The Pedal Bin). Here is the beginning of the pedal bin list:
Part of the reason Lee began trending is that people on different sides of the trans wars were either mad or happy that he had put Dave Chapelle and Graham Linehan in the pedal bin. Note that the list is just a list, with no explanation of reasoning.
One of the reaction tweets was different:
This guy Darrell is a voiceover (VO) actor and musical comedian. On YouTube he has 2.67K subscribers, and dozens of musical ‘comedy’ videos where he sings the theme tune of Minder in the style of the Beegees, the theme of Only Fools and Horses in the style of Elton John, the closing theme of Only Fools and Horses in the style of Bob Dylan, and many other delightful combinations.
He’s not at all well known compared to Stewart Lee, or to the other people/concepts Lee consigned to the bin, yet there he was on the Pedal Bin list. He expressed that he wasn’t happy about that, over the course of numerous tweets.
Sorry to briefly re-intrude, but for the several of you that have got in touch, yes, I'm fully aware that Stewart Lee has just included my name on his newsletter's 'In The Pedal Bin' list of people/things he loathes. I have never interacted with the man, save a brief email in...
...2007 where he (quite rudely tbh) refused me an interview for my student coursework, so this is baffling to me. I was previously a fan since the L&H days through his return to standup, buying DVDs/tickets and attending the very first tryout of '90s Comedian' after 7/7...
...but had drifted of late (like many others) after his work developed an increasingly boastful, paranoid arrogance in inverse proportion to its actual quality. I actually eBayed all my stuff of his a couple of years ago for depressingly little, and hadn't thought of him since...
...until hearing of this now. As my entire professional performing career to date consists of less than 25 minutes total of online cabaret routines (all in 2020) and half a dozen acting jobs, and my public presence is minimal, I am in all honesty unsettled by the ferocity and...
...power imbalance of him doing this to me today. I came to this very late because, unlike him, I am not an Oxford graduate who waltzed into a 30+ year media career at the easiest possible time to do so then spent most of that pretending he was hard done by whilst the Guardian...
...blew smoke up his arse every five minutes. I'm not going into detail about what my various material, circumstantial and health disadvantages have been and remain, you know if you know. But actually getting myself out there in 2020 was the culmination of 20 years of fighting...
...just to be taken seriously and to exist in the first place. In 2021 I finally gained some professional momentum and self-esteem, but it was a year of abject personal hell, culminating (to cut a VERY long story short) in quite a severe nervous breakdown which I am currently...
...fighting to rehabilitate myself from - a reason I'd hidden for backing away on here. So in all honesty the very last thing I needed was Stewart Lee having a baseless, cowardly sneer at me - whose minor existence does not affect his life one bit - to his braying subscribers.
(Ironically the first thing that really started to turn me off him was that really nasty routine he did about Russell Howard in 2011, because I empathised overwhelmingly with how its target must have taken that. That empathy is a little more three-dimensional now.)
So at first this seems really bad - why would a renowned stand-up like Stewart Lee put this obscure, mentally troubled act on a list alongside universally reviled figures like Donald Trump and Toby Young? It seems very mean-spirited - although after a bit of critical thought, you might question certain aspects of this complaint.
Darrell plays up his struggles and ‘abject personal hell’, but how was Stewart Lee supposed to know that Darrell’s not the jolly musical comedian he presents himself as on YouTube?
Is just putting someone on a list of things you don’t like a “baseless, cowardly sneer”?
I subscribe to Lee’s mailing list, but I don’t remember “braying” at any point.
Even though I skimmed the email when I first received it, of course I had no idea who Darrell Maclaine is. There’s no link from his name in the email. I very much doubt that many subscribers, braying or non-braying, recognised Darrell’s name or bothered to search and find out who he was.
So it’s not like Darrell was being bullied as a result of Lee including him on a list. Rather, he chose to publicise that he was on the list on Twitter, got swept up in the trending topic, and did get a few nasty tweets in response. Someone called him a cuck, which isn’t very nice, or original.
But although one might question elements of Darrell’s reaction, it does still seem mean-spirited for a famous comedian to pick on an obscure act. I don’t think Darrell’s musical mashups are that funny, but they obviously take a fair amount of musical talent. I can’t be bothered to check out any of his voice acting on various projects, but I’m sure it’s good, or at least unobjectionable. Why would Stewart Lee pick on this harmless guy? Was it a long-held grudge about a student interview?
The answer lies in a tweet thread from back in July 2021:
Darrell celebrates Joe Pasquale getting a part, and Twitter user @SameBatTime asks him about Joe Pasquale’s reputation for joke theft:
Isn’t he a notorious joke thief or was that a Stewart Lee fabrication?
referencing this 2005 Stewart Lee routine:
It’s a very funny bit and I recommend watching it, but in summary: a comedian with an outsider personality had a joke where he said “A lot of people say to me: get out of my garden”, and Joe Pasquale stole it.
Now Darrell’s argument here is absolutely fucking insane. It’s one of those infuriating pieces of bullshit that’s so full of mistakes and lies that debunking it takes way longer than the original.
Let’s start with the obvious.
The bit is 5 minutes long, not 30 minutes.
Joe Pasquale is 60 years old. He is only 7 years older than Stewart Lee. They both started to appear on TV shows in the 90s. Pasquale is not from the fucking golden age of music hall. It’s true that a previous generation of comics might have had a more casual attitude to stealing material, but Joe Pasquale is not a contemporary of George Formby or Arthur Askey. He’s a contemporary of Stewart Lee.
Is Stewart Lee making fun of Joe Pasquale for stealing jokes “bullying”? In 2005, when that routine is from, Joe Pasquale was far more famous and successful than Stewart Lee. He had just won I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and done at least one Royal Variety Performance where he used the stolen joke. I frankly doubt that Joe Pasquale was getting a lot of online abuse in 2005, before Twitter existed and when Facebook was still a thing for college kids. Maybe he got some mean emails.
The class analysis is pretty shaky too. Lee was adopted and raised by a single mother in Solihull; he got into Oxford through being smart, not because he went to the right prep school and had a rich daddy. The alt comedy scene, headed up by people like Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen, was hardly middle class, and was actively hostile to the Oxford footlights types.
And in the final analysis, if you think of yourself as any kind of performer or comedian, you should know that stealing jokes isn’t fucking OK! Think of Michael Redmond, the comedian who actually wrote that joke. Once Joe Pasquale had done that joke on a Royal Variety Performance, televised to millions of people, now he couldn’t do it without people thinking he was copying Joe Pasquale. A rich successful comedian stealing the original ideas of a less well-known comic isn’t good!
But according to Darrell, stealing jokes (or as he euphemises it, “being a magpie”) is part of the craft of comedy, apparently not just in the 30s music hall, but today:
Now often non-comedians, people who’ve never written an original joke in their life, don’t get why stealing jokes is taboo among comedians. After all, most people are used to swapping ‘street jokes’. But it’s definitely not OK to copy other people’s stand-up bits. I’m amazed that someone who has bravely defied all the odds against him to do 25 minutes of ‘online cabaret performances’ (which I guess means Zoom gigs?) has failed to internalise this norm. Read any book about how to do comedy - none of them tell you that stealing people’s jokes verbatim is ‘part of the craft’.
So let’s summarise what really happened: Darrell Maclaine decided to publicly criticise Stewart Lee, accusing him of being a ‘bully’ (baselessly in my opinion) while defending joke theft. (Of course when you’re chatting with your Twitter friends it doesn’t feel public, but somehow Darrell has 10.5K Twitter followers, so it’s not like he meant this pronouncement for a small audience).
Somehow Stewart Lee found out about this, and put this guy on a list of people who suck (quite rightly in my opinion). Darrell wrote a screed about how terrible Stewart Lee is, but oddly forgot to mention why Stewart Lee might have a problem with him (going so far as to lie that he hadn’t thought about him for a couple of years).
Now why have I written about this at such insane length? Stewart Lee doesn’t need me to defend his honour, but I feel like somebody needed to do a write-up that explains why he would actually have a problem with this VO guy. Plus I think this whole thing illuminates aspects of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘wokeness’ or whatever you want to call it that I was trying to write about last week.
In the moral system of cancel culture, it’s forbidden to ‘punch down’ by making jokes at the expense of someone who is more marginalised or disadvantaged or whatever than you are.
Darrell clearly felt that, by making fun of the famous and popular plagiarist Joe Pasquale, Stewart Lee was ‘punching down’ in some way.
And it seems like Darrell felt that Stewart Lee was ‘punching down’ at him.
There clearly is an imbalance in that Stewart Lee is a lot more popular than Darrell and has a bigger platform. But does being relatively well-known (although not on TV any more) mean that a comedian just has to ignore insane and baseless claims that he’s a ‘bully’, and that it’s middle class to care about joke theft?
Is this weird Twitter/email/Twitter row between Darrell and Lee a symptom of cancel culture? If you’ve internalised that ‘punching down’ is absolutely forbidden, it grants you a kind of status to be a victim or a member of an oppressed class. You can ‘punch up’ all you like, but if your target dares to respond, however mildly, that’s ‘punching down’.
And it certainly seems like Darrell wanted to milk the paradoxical benefit of being the victim here. There’s absolutely no reason to think that anybody but a few of Darrell’s friends even noticed his name on the list. I certainly can’t find any evidence that he got any nasty tweets until after he posted his overwrought thread. Now he’s got a little bit of abuse, a load of sympathetic attention and he’s plugging his role in an audio remake of some old Channel 4 sitcom.
Darrell also seems to buy into the cancel culture idea that there’s a moral component to the kind of comedy you enjoy. Now of course there are actually immoral, racist jokes, as told by the old working class music hall comedians Darrell likes, like Roy Chubby Brown and Jim Davidson. But he can’t credibly accuse Stewart Lee of racism, so he tries to create a half-baked moralising narrative where Lee represents posh Oxbridge elites who are oppressing and bullying the working class by expecting them not to steal jokes (which seems incredibly fucking insulting and patronising to working class comics to me).
You rarely see anyone say that a certain comedian’s work just isn’t to their taste any more. They have to come up with a reason why it’s actually morally wrong to like it. Darrell couldn’t just accept that Stewart Lee’s stuff wasn’t working for him any more; he had to create a moral reason why Stewart Lee himself is a bad person, which means not liking Stewart Lee makes Darrell a good person.
If I was going to indulge in mean psychological speculation, I’d guess that Darrell instinctively champions Pasquale the joke thief because he himself has never come up with an original idea in his life, and that’s why he’s just a voice actor and sings other people’s songs in another person’s style. He’s obviously very sensitive to anyone being made fun of (note the obsession with “sneering” and the way he, a nobody, empathised with the famous millionaire Russell Howard). And he resents that other comics had success through daring to be born 30 years earlier. What this suggests to me is that he’s psychologically very fragile because he has a huge ego and craves swift recognition in his chosen pursuit of, uh, online Fools-and-Horses-based cabaret or whatever, even though he can’t handle mild criticism.
I just hope the prick sticks with the online stuff and doesn’t start coming to open mics and stealing everyone’s jokes.
(Also, Darrell, if you somehow end up reading this, I only have 3 YouTube followers and no comedy career to speak of, so you can’t criticise me back - you have a bigger platform, so you would be doing a ferocity and a power imbalance, and it would make me have a nervous breakdown).
What the fuck Ben? Recommend some stuff you watched, you know, like Stewart Lee does, but more mainstream and middle-brow
Riders of Justice is available to watch on Now TV and online rental. A war veteran (Mads Mikkelsen) and a bunch of nerds investigate whether an accident that killed their loved ones was actually a gang hit. Very funny at times, thematic hints of Stanislaw Lem. Worth watching even though it’s in some crazy hurdy-gurdy language.
The Premise on Disney+ is an anthology show apparently written by BJ Novak off of The Office. It’s more of a Tales of the Unexpected type deal than a comedy, but the particular episode that was recommended to me is very funny: episode S01E05 The Butt Plug. It’s really something.
Licorice Pizza isn’t vintage PT Anderson; it’s maybe a bit overlong, but great atmosphere and some memorable scenes. Hos are mad about the depiction of a (potential) relationship between a 15 year old and a 25 year old. But it’s a 15 year old boy and a 25 year old girl/woman, so it’s not that bad. And also part of the theme is the question of what ‘maturity’ really means. To be honest, I wish I’d been groomed by one of the chicks from Haim when I was 15.
TODAY Tuesday January 4th 7:30pm (doors 6:30pm) - Lion’s Den Comedy Car Crash, Shaftesbury Avenue
The system to get booked on this night is nuts; let me know if you are interested and I should be able to let you know if I actually have a spot by 6ish. Tickets £5 on the door.
Bar Rumba, 36 Shaftesbury Avenue London W1D 7EP
Thursday January 6th 8:30pm (doors 8pm) - Downstairs at the King’s Head, Crouch End
Tickets £5 from https://www.wegottickets.com/event/529937 (£6 on the door)
King’s Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, London N8 8AA
Thursday January 27th 8pm (doors 7pm) - Monkey Business, Camden
Tickets £7.50 from https://www.wegottickets.com/event/534313
All About Eve pub, 31 Jamestown Rd, London NW1 7DB
Secret comedians part
If you are looking for an experienced comic to give you advice on your material, performance, set structure and so on, Donal Vaughan is offering this as a service and I recommend it. He gave me some good ideas about developing material that I will put into practice. £75 for 2 hours (promotional price, not sure how long this deal will last).