It’s always nice to run into an old friend, and lo and behold, my morning Metro today included a review of a show at the Leicester Square Theatre by American comedian Doug Stanhope. I think it’s only honest to admit up front that I’ve never actually seen Dougie S in action, for reasons that will soon become apparent, but I have come across a review of him before. Some months ago, The Guardian described what I presume was a previous British tour by him thusly:-
"He’s a supreme nihilist who treats the value systems of the left and the right with similar disdain, and glories in booze and drugs as a means of blotting out the world…Expect wrenching honesty with violently offensive crowd-baiting." The Metro’s comedy critic added some flesh to these bones, commenting that Stanhope drank at least five bottles of Budweiser and several Jagermeisters whilst on stage and that his show had "more than its fair share of lost trains of thought and "f*** you, I don’t cares"", but that he remained a thrill to watch, being "a genuine car crash whose wild material and wayward life is fed by drink, drugs, bad sex, prostitutes, TV and unbridled anger." She particularly recommended his anti-religious humour.
Having read all this, my thoughts are as follows:-
1. This guy sounds like a complete cock.
2. Do these critics think that describing him like this is going to encourage me to see a man of whom they must think highly? For all I know, Mr Stanhope is the supreme humorist of the Western world, but after reading the reviews I concluded I wouldn’t like to be within half a mile of him, let alone spend time sharing the same theatre. Who on earth would, although the fact that he’s back in the UK again suggests there is an audience out there who like to be sworn at by belligerent drunks. They could achieve that by just spending a Saturday night wandering around the West End after the bars have started to empty out.
3. Isn’t he supposed to be in the entertainment business? Abusing the audience, despising everyone’s political or religious values and promoting excessive use of addictive substances doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun evening out, not unless you would also find an evening sitting on a park bench with some homeless alcoholics, where the conversation would probably be along the same lines, fun. And that would at least be free. It does underline the extent to which a certain kind of stand-up comedy can amount to no more than being lectured from a stage by a bloke with mental health issues who had no friends at school. Comedy has always and notoriously taken its place alongside psychoanalysis and serial murder as a form of therapy for the victims of unloved and bullied childhoods, but if they aren’t entertaining it seems to me there is no particular reason for the rest of us to take any notice of them.
Mind you, there do appear to be people who regard this approach as the supreme form of comedy. With perfect timing (hey!), the Guardian’s comedy critic Brian Logan today laments the demise of "political comedy of the firebrand variety: comedy that wants to change the world, that uses humour to avenge wrongdoing , comedy to wrench laughter from despair, to help us see through the PR and lies." Well, Brian (to quote Monty Python), there are two very good reasons why most people aren’t interested in that kind of humour. Firstly, the tendency I’ve already mentioned for it to end up as a lecture, and an unfunny one at that. Secondly, if you actually want to avenge wrongdoing, reveal lies and change the world, comedy is about the worst way of going about it.
Slavery was not abolished by people making jokes about it. Nazism didn’t crumble because people did funny impersonations of Hitler. Logan cites, as people often do in this context, the alternative comedians of the 1980s, but they didn’t bring down Mrs Thatcher, in spite of their best efforts. She won three elections and was only deposed when her own party turned against her. If you want to achieve social change, then go into politics, become a journalist, join a trade union or protest movement, march down the street with a sandwich board saying "The end of the world is nigh". Anything, really, except become a comedian. As Oscar Wilde said, "All art is quite useless."
There is also a tendency amongst comedians and those who write about comedy to become bogged down in the pursuit of cool, in much the same way as all other art forms and their critics can do, and in modern thinking aggressive confrontation of the audience and a nihilistic attitude are cool. That’s why the visual arts are overloaded with idiotic conceptual artists out to shock everyone and why music critics worship at the shrine of punk. However, the purpose of comedy is not to be cool. The purpose of comedy is to cheer people up, to distract them from their difficult lives, to entertain them. It’s no more political than Peter Kaye and no more cool, sexy and nihilistic than Russ Abbott and those comedians who think they are political, cool, sexy or nihilistic (and I’d wager Dougie S thinks he’s all four) are really just deluding themelves.