Stewart Lee describes his first encounter with Canadian comedian Baconface
Cult Canadian comic Baconface is set to sizzle at the Fringe. Stewart Lee recalls seeing this stand-up giant in 1986 and pays tribute to a man he robbed.
A great grizzly bear of a man glows in the hovering smoke of a hotel comedy club on a crisp Rocky Mountain evening, way back before mobile phones and the internet. His Rush t-shirt is too big and his shorts are too tight. He stumbles towards the mic, abusing the Seventh-day Adventists. He is Canadian. He is drunk. And his blistered face is covered in strips of Canadian bacon. He is Baconface, and he is the greatest stand-up comedian you never heard of. Yet.
As I became better known as a stand-up and increasingly arrogant and paranoid, I bullied younger stand-ups for appropriating my own supposed innovations and scorned big-name small-screen funny-folk for subcontracting their supposedly distinct voices to phalanxes of co-writers with spurious TV job titles. But perhaps the sins that annoy us most are the ones we have committed ourselves.
In September 1986, between school and university, I rode the highways of the Canadian Rockies with my uncle, a regional rep for a ride-on mower company, making silent mental plans. Despite a lack of live outlets outside London, alternative comedy was flourishing. I’d only seen two stand-ups in the flesh, the proto-meta comedian Ted Chippington, and Phill Jupitus’ early Porky the Poet incarnation, both opening for bands in Birmingham during the post-punk smorgasbord. But I was arrogant and ignorant enough to think stand-up was something I would one day do. I know what I learned from Ted: indolence, indifference, a punk-rock disrespect of form, and a studied insolence. But now, I belatedly appreciate what I simply stole from Baconface.
Herb’s Ha Ha Hut, Kelowna, British Columbia had waitresses enforcing the two-drink minimum and punters far more diverse than the left-leaning social workers consuming our nascent stand-up scene. Herb Dixon, the bull-necked host, endeared himself to his rural audience with material about farming and forestry, and the uncanny ability to impersonate the sounds of chainsaws and tractors. And when I, a teenage PC zealot, asked him why no women ever played his club, he answered, entirely unselfconsciously and without apparent malice: ‘women are not funny. They’re too concerned with periods’. The girls at college wore earrings depicting men being castrated. But we were not in Kansas anymore. We were in Kelowna.
Then Baconface came through the curtains for his 45-minute headline and melted my mind. What were his politics? Reactionary? Liberal? Anarchist? He switched focus unpredictably, but leavened any preaching with surreal silliness, delivered from behind his primitive bacon mask as if it were of the utmost importance. Baconface seemed to hate everyone and everything, but it became clear he was not a craven cynic, but a defeated idealist. And three years later, I now realise, I made my mark with an open-spot set unconsciously adapted from his legendary Seventh-day Adventists bit.
As Baconface stumbled to the parking lot, I grabbed him by the elbow, told him I wanted to be a comedian, and asked his advice. ‘Be yourself,’ he said. ‘There is no one so low they deserve your contempt, nor anyone so high you must bow down to them.’ And then he drove off, leaving me a maxim I’ve failed to live up to. Twenty-seven years later I’m bankrolling his August run, inviting him to be a programme associate on the third series of my BBC Comedy Vehicle show, and making amends.