written for The British Comedy Guide
“I’m your what? Your deity? Did you not listen at all to the atheism stuff?” The wide-eyed fan sat in the centre of the front row three nights running has failed Doug Stanhope.
Stanhope hates being in London, he’s groggy with Xanax, he’s utterly sick and tired of all of this, and now he’s going to have to change his material to make sure one guy gets his money’s worth. One guy who has managed to undermine Stanhope’s unsentimental rationalism before he even started his act.
But still the exquisitely crafted, rich, dark, ferocious vitriol flows like sharp, strong liquor. The last year has seen Stanhope temper righteous fury with complaints about the ultimate futility of intelligence and rationality, and the failure of him, his comedy and his audience to effect any real change, but this certainly hasn’t diluted the comedy. Stanhope may be the latest in an illustrious (if ill-kempt) line stretching through Bill Hicks, past Lenny Bruce back to court fools and mad oracles, but he is also gut-wrenchingly funny. The grim reality of inevitable death, graphically summoned by his father’s grey, cancerous corpse leaves the audience roaring with laughter.
Whilst attention is usually focused on his dark material, Stanhope is a supreme craftsman of live comedy. At points he pauses before a story’s climax, seemingly bewildered by the scale of the failures and idiocy he finds in reality, humanity and himself. Honest or not, it works better than the self-deprecating stutter so common in alternative comics. His crowd would follow their wounded idealist anywhere, and when he’s willing to respect their intelligence and to change an act halfway through to ensure his front-row superfan gets to see new stuff, who can blame them?
Whilst Stanhope doesn’t do audience banter, much of his material is aimed squarely at them; not the wider world but you, right there, who has come out today to watch, and to laugh but will go home and do nothing different. Specifically in this case a room of smart, broke, angry, young people 200 metres from Trafalgar Square, where many may have marched or rioted less than a week before. One inspired rant about the failure of rationalists to accomplish anything whilst religion motivates people to traipse the world has the audience howling with laughter. Just as the silent smug thoughts about the recent protest action began, before the laughter has faded – before anyone could heckle – Stanhope is ahead of us tearing apart the protest’s logic and we howl again, this time unreservedly and directly at ourselves.
Perhaps Doug Stanhope really is tired of comedy, and the failure of his act and audience to effect change really does chafe. But he has always moulded tragedy into exquisite comedy. Alongside fantastic bits about Charlie Sheen, celebrity doctors, addiction, offensive language and death, his own performance and audience offers new targets for his frustrated rage. “Do you think this isn’t an act?” “Do you think I enjoy this?”
So… by suffering he’ll save us from ourselves. Where have we heard that before?
For more information on Doug’s tour dates, etc. go to www.dougstanhope.com