Tue 10 Apr
words NOEL GARDNER
Hard to gauge the precise level of good or bad done by the notion of comedy being “the new rock’n’roll,” or just plain ‘rock’n’roll comedy’. Doubtless it has opened up doors, allowed for greater freedom of presentation in standup, and maybe without it we wouldn’t be here watching American renegade Doug Stanhope’s first ever show in Wales. On the flipside, it has led to arena tours with annoyingly lavish stage sets – often for some of the least rock’n’roll comedians out there, ironically – touring theatre productions imagining Bill Hicks routines were he still alive, and, on the evidence of this evening, Stanhope fans who yell requests and applaud with their arms above their head.
Stanhope, a standup since the early 90s and a regular in the UK for about a decade, deals in equal opportunities misanthropy and a willingness to confront obstacles right in front of him. Even so, he’s not bilious enough to pretend that his audience are anything but his lifeblood. This has manifested itself during his lengthy British tour, in an incident which he explains in detail (following a probably superfluous request). Reading a moronic op-ed piece in the Telegraph by ghastly hack Allison Pearson, Stanhope flagged it up on Twitter; the resulting tête-à-tête between the two led to the latter’s attack dog-like fanbase volleying abuse at the columnist, which naturally was good for another article.
This is a rare excursion for the comic, in that it uses Doug Stanhope the public figure as fodder for material. There’s no hard rules as to what you might hear talked about in a set of his, though: his 80-minute performance is disjointed and makes no apologies for it, Stanhope occasionally retrieving notes from his pocket (supposedly reminders on which of his cultural references are comprehensible in Britain). While his deviations seem off the cuff, and he calls time on a few “bits that aren’t going anywhere,” the meat of his routines – the delivery, phrasing and punchlines – is almost beyond reproach. And when I say ‘meat’, I talk of an eye-wateringly homoerotic routine whose premise is that men watch sports on TV so they can be left alone to fantasise about having sex with the players. He might have tied this in to his suggestion that all straight people should tell strangers they’re gay once in a while, but it’s all a bit of an oily blur.
Although Stanhope has performed at the Edinburgh Festival regularly over the years, he takes time out to pop shots at one of its most pernicious effects on comedy: the story-based show, in which a life event major or otherwise is spun into a rigid routine ripe for Perrier Awards. Or so it’s hoped. The way he looks at it, this merely prevents him talking about current events “if a 9/11 happens” in the course of the festival. As much as he’s opposed to this sort of pompous Artistic Statement, he’s mustard keen to defend his profession/art from those who would censor or dilute it. Referring to Allison Pearson’s inane vow to get him “fired from comedy,” Stanhope crows that only his higher-ups – his audience – can do that, and hardly seem inclined to at present.
So it is that bits homing in on individual audience members (they were filming him on their phones and deserved it) get applause. Bits on the Occupy movement and single-issue campaigner types, which you imagine would prickle parts of his broadly left-liberal crowd (Stanhope is a small-l libertarian, but avoids most of the dickheaded trappings of that party-cum-ideology), get bigger applause. Bits explaining why respect for the dead is largely an irrelevance (using his own late mother’s dying hours as an example) get bigger applause. And his final flourish, another rambling but meticulously detailed fantasy outlining why America is (or can be) a wonderful place, sees him joined on guitar by Henry Philips – Stanhope’s friend and tour support, who is a lot funnier than any comic who performs most of his material as upbeat folk songs has a right to be. That gets a standing ovation, because it’s the end and because he’s invited us to all stay with him in the States – “I’ve got a big couch.”
It may not be as big as St David’s Hall, but it’s a fair bet that it’s got exponentially larger over the years as Doug Stanhope’s cult status has expanded. Assuming the world remains cretinous, shite and hilarious for the foreseeable, there’s no reason he should hit a wall yet.