Doug Stanhope review – grim, thrilling and appallingly funny
“Is it wrong to use racism to try and stop gang rape?”
American standup Doug Stanhope is back in the UK and, yes, that sound you can hear is sacred cows bellowing. This near two-hour set showcases the best, and flirts with the worst, of this bleakest, blackest comic. Sometimes it is grim, sometimes you’ve just got to hold your nerve, and occasionally it’s thrilling to be back in a room with one of the sharpest minds and loosest cannons in comedy.
Take the opening five minutes. First, Stanhope – jaded as ever – recites the public apology he anticipates having to issue after the show. Then he ventures a comparison between comedians and magicians, the former infinitesimally less fraudulent than the latter. At once romantic and cynical, it’s an exemplary Stanhope joke – and this is just housekeeping before the gig proper. There follows a precis of his world-tour experiences so far, featuring wisecracks about Vietnamese currency (“Can’t we just make it a dong ninety-nine?”) and a gloriously childish riff on the law against insulting the Thai king.
The two most eyecatching routines concern gang rape in India and Stanhope’s take on #MeToo. In both, he takes up highly provocative positions, then brings arguments into play to see if these stances can be defended.
Some audiences may never get over their initial distaste. For others there is a certain appalled pleasure to be had at Stanhope’s devilry, bloody-mindedness and scorn for piety and groupthink wherever he finds them.
He paints a dismal portrait of his own life haunting airport hotels, guzzling pizza before booze “the same way they stack sandbags before a flood”. One skit about his disgust at old people tips into ugliness for its own sake. His section on children’s deaths isn’t much fun either. And yet, making fun, insists Stanhope in a broadside against humourlessness, is all we’ve got: our only defence against life’s brutality. He wields it well tonight – more often than not.