About a year ago, my girlfriend, Emily, and I got into the habit of going to bed with TED talks playing from one of our phones. I can’t remember exactly why we started doing this – I think she’s always liked hearing voices at night, perhaps we thought it’d dispel some sleep-disturbing anxiety, and I guess it was a cosy way to get a lazy dose of edification.
We got a little bored of the typical TED patter, so we explored listening to different things like music or stand-up comedy. I’d been a long-time fan of Stewart Lee and Emily was just getting into him (100% pear cider; sardines; there’s a horse, Stew; etc.) so we gave that a go. You can find lots of Stewart Lee clips on YouTube, a fact which Stewart Lee detests, but since I’ve gone to see about 5 of his live shows and bought his autobiography, I didn’t feel too bad.
Our first experience of falling asleep with Stewart Lee on was a mixed bag. Emily fell asleep very quickly (I can tell the exact moment that she falls asleep as her limbs undergo an almost imperceptible sort of recalibratory twitching), and I fell asleep shortly after. I can’t remember exactly what routine we listened to (probably: there’s a horse, Stew). The next thing I knew, I woke up, limbs flailing, a cold sweat on my forehead, momentarily panicked about being on a nuclear submarine or something like that, as a disembodied voice harangued me amidst caustic grunts. Soon I found myself calm again: it was just Stewart Lee, doing his ranting thing, and he wasn’t really angry, and he certainly wasn’t angry at me.
This was the worst wake-up I’d had since falling asleep to Pingu. That time, I thought I’d lost the ability to comprehend language.
But that’s just Pingu.
So it began. On almost every night since then, we have incorporated Stewart Lee into our bedtime routine. It goes: brush teeth, floss, final toileting, get in pyjamas, charge phones, switch off lights, optional intimacy, put on Stewart Lee.
Scientists today tell us that going to sleep with a smart phone on will keep you awake. Well, my hypothesis would be that going to sleep with a torch smack in your face will keep you awake, and to the extent that a smart phone is a torch smack in your face, it will also keep you awake. But a smart phone can be a soporific; and Stewart lee inside a smart phone can be the best soporific of all.
It’s easy to see why the first section of a classic Stewart Lee comedy routine has the necessary sedative effect. His warm timbre tentatively approaches his subject, reassuringly wise and comfortingly Brummie. See, Stewart Lee, what he does, is he repeats long sections, he spells things out, and before you’ve realised the effect of all of this – before you realise what this Stewart Lee has done, with his warm timbre tentatively approaching his subject, his voice reassuringly wise and comfortingly Brummie – you’re off.
And do we enjoy the comedy? It can go either way. Sometimes we will fall asleep before he’s barely set the scene, and then we’ll restart it the very next night, and the next – and it’ll go on all week, us falling asleep whole consciousnesses before any punchlines, left with inchoate notions of loosely connected items (Café Nero; pirates; ball park?). But sometimes we laugh so much we can’t sleep until he’s spent.
At some point we started recommending this routine to friends, who initially found it fairly amusing but all of whom gradually came round to it, most of whom now do exactly the same thing. We gave them tips, such as to keep the volume low to avoid the traumatic wake-ups. And we told them our unwritten rules. There is to be no romantic fondling (“romdling”) permitted while under Stewart’s coarse auditory blanket. I think these were probably taken up in the main, but with house variants.
Our friends told their friends, and word seemed to spread, so this is why we set up the Facebook page to spread the word. It was at about that time when I had my first email correspondence with Stewart Lee where, trying to sound minimally sycophantic and fawning, I told him (thanked him?) his was the voice that sent us to sleep. It surprised me that he replied, and he was obviously quite intrigued about what imbued his act with the quality of a tranquiliser. We also exchanged various theories on what, in general, it is about listening to human voices that makes us feel so soothed. I like picturing a camp fire, somewhere distant in our evolutionary past, where hearing the grunts and moans of familiar creatures would have reassured us that someone was looking out for us. Stewart Lee seemed to prefer the more traditional view, that someone else’s voice derails all your other trains of anxious thinking, thus bringing you to a rest.
At around this time, the Facebook group was gaining momentum and it was clear that Emily and I were onto something fairly special. Disparate groups of people across the country, and even a few in America, were sharing this ‘secret’ and falling asleep as per our routine. Stewart Lee mentioned that Jeff Bridges was working on a project to create a similar ‘product’ with his voice (now available), and Stewart was pretty suspicious about where Jeff had gotten this idea from, saying that he’d back us if it was ever contested. Fortunately it never came to this since – as most people are aware – it was pretty quickly discovered that the Stewart Lee lullaby was far more potent than any of these copycats.
At that time, we hadn’t really considered monetising what we’d found, and we were still in a phase of discovery. This is when we invited Stewart Lee over to Streatham for the first time, and after some awkward hand-shaking and inconsequential chatter about the nature of sleep, we set ourselves up in our bedroom. It was our familiar routine: brush teeth, floss, final toileting, get in pyjamas, charge phone, switch off lights, optional intimacy, and then check that Stewart Lee was comfortable over in the corner, lurking morosely in a somewhat affected way, murmuring dark, self-depreciative satire as we tucked ourselves in. Presumably he went on a while, and one hopes that he completed a full routine, but we weren’t to know as his drone had patiently escorted us to the land of nod.
The morning was a happy one, not just because of the sheer quality of the sleep we’d enjoyed, but also because we were bouncing lots of ideas around with Stewart Lee, who had slept quite contentedly, curled up by Emily’s dresser, underneath his trench coat and a couple of our towels. It was over bowls of cornflakes when we jointly came up with the idea of selling mini radios fashioned into little heads of Stewart Lee, to sit at the bedside tables of fans and/or insomniacs the world over. We went over the details: the logistics, the pricing strategy, the optimal disembodied head size and so on.
At some point, while Emily and Stewart Lee were discussing these details, a sudden, pure and complete idea struck me, and I found myself blurting it out loud. “We have solved sleep.” And then I could not only feel a shiver down my spine, but I could feel fairly tangibly a shiver going down Emily’s spine, and a shiver going down Stewart Lee’s spine, and this served to the accentuate the shiver going down my own spine. We had solved sleep.
As I consider it now, I reflect again on the revelatory sensation I experienced, as it dawned on me that true human and scientific progress will not be incremental or steady, but erratic and unpredictable. It will not come from multinational corporations, research councils, or global democratic initiatives, but from the inimitable ludicrousness of human accident.
And you can get your own Stewart Lee Lullaby Head, for just £9.99.