His last two visits to the British Isles have ended with a bang. At the Kilkenny comedy festival in June, the US stand-up Doug Stanhope caused a tabloid storm and had all his shows cancelled after heaping scorn on a child-abuse panic then gripping Ireland. And his month at the Edinburgh Festival culminated in a riot at the Tron pub, where he was performing. Stanhope got embroiled in a violent affray with an audience member, the police were called, and the funniest, most honest and most brutal comedian in the world was forced to flee the venue.
Between those two events, however, Stanhope enjoyed a blazingly successful Edinburgh stint that finally established his reputation in the UK. “A comic, a drunk and a lover of losers” (according to his website), this is a man who performs not simply to entertain us, but to make sense of the world and to keep its disappointments at bay – at least for one night. His comedy is a battle royal with hypocrisy and banality, and you sense that if he couldn’t rasp it into a microphone he would be bleeding it through slashed wrists. His material is unflinchingly explicit, and ranges across religion, his own lurid sexual adventures (a recent routine featured “pre-term necrophiliac paedophile pornography”) and the blandness of modern America.
Watching Stanhope, it is hard not to wonder: what’s America’s secret? How does the country keep spawning these incendiary stand-up prophets? And why don’t we? Stanhope and his most recent predecessor, Bill Hicks – and before them Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor (not to mention Sam Kinison, John Belushi and even Andy Kaufman) – are holy fools for whom comedy is more than just a career choice: it’s a non-negotiable way of life. It’s a game of chicken with authority and mediocrity that they’re damned if they’re going to lose.
These are comedians who walk the walk. In the Fifties and Sixties, Lenny Bruce’s struggles with the American censor – he was repeatedly arrested on obscenity charges – drove him to an early grave (though the drug overdose helped). Richard Pryor’s stand-up drew deeply on his own life as the abused son of a pimp and a pros titute in Peoria, Illinois. These were comedians whose lives, as well as their acts, were fights for self-assertion, for the right to say important things. Accordingly, they were deemed artists, and not merely light entertainers. Bruce was defended in court by the likes of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. Pryor won the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humour, awarded by the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Britain’s comedy legends are cut from a different cloth. We’ve had our fair share of troubled geniuses: Tony Hancock, say, or Peter Cook. But these weren’t comics who died trying to change the world; they simply wanted to make people laugh. More recently we’ve had political come dians – Jeremy Hardy, Mark Thomas, the early Ben Elton – but they have never quite combined moral candour with explosive comic performance in the American way. Elton is a case study in the mildness of British commitment to polemical comedy, having moved in the twinkling of a sequinned suit from left-wing rants to playing jester to Her Majesty the Queen.
The likes of Hicks and Stanhope aim altogether higher. Hicks, the son of a Baptist preacher, devised an evangelical comedy irradiated with desire for a better world. Stanhope’s material today is less political than it once was, but only because “I want to see immediate change after I perform the material,” he once told me. “I want everyone in the audience to go, ‘Right,’ and in the morning it’s different. But that doesn’t happen.” He has now redirected his political energies and is standing (semi-seriously) for the Libertarian Party of America’s nomination to run for president in the 2008 election.
Stanhope has too battered an ego to consider himself, publicly, the latest in the Bruce-Pryor-Hicks line, or to speculate why America generates such firebrand comics. But there is evidence for both in practically every word he says. His experiences in Edinburgh this summer, he says (on the phone from Kentucky), only reinforced his opinion that, back in the States, “There’s nothing going on. There’s just no adrenaline over here at all. Everyone’s in bed by nine – and that’s not just people my age [he is 39], it’s people in general.” He’s not surprised that he, like Hicks before him, is far more popular in the UK. Because “when you look at what is popular in this country, you don’t want to be part of it. If you were part of it, you’d have to question everything you’re doing.”
Since the Pilgrims, America has been in the business of saving the world – it’s the country of superheroes, after all. Britain, however, is self-deprecating, ironic, and too sceptical to buy in to scenarios either apocalyptic or redemptive. America, in short, makes a more extreme commitment to everything – and if the stultifying homogeneity of its McCulture is more extreme than elsewhere, so, too, must be the reaction.
That’s where Stanhope and his forebears come in. His comedy, he says, is “a struggle to keep things fun. It has definitely gone from being an act to a desperate cry for help, a rallying prayer for revolution. But no one seems to give a fuck. There is so little outrage over here, it makes you outraged. And it makes you feel alone.” He has company, however, in the annals of comedy.
Doug Stanhope will be at the Soho Theatre, London W1 from 10-24 October. For more details visit: www.sohotheatre.com
A tragicomic tradition
Lenny Bruce (1925-66)
Labelled the “sick comic”, Bruce insisted that society was sick, and not him. He was infamous for his foul mouth: nurses refused to treat his broken ankle until they had sealed his lips with adhesive tape. Bruce was found dead in his bathroom at the age of 40, following an accidental drug overdose.
John Belushi (1949-82)
His gravestone read: “He made us laugh, and now he can make us think.” Having started his career on the American comedy powerhouse Saturday Night Live, Belushi claimed a hit film, album and late-night television show by his 30th birthday. Aged 33, he was found dead at the notorious Château Marmont Hotel, having taken a cocktail of heroin and cocaine.
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
For years the world’s press predicted fast-living Pryor’s demise. “It’s a bitch to be watching the nightly news and see the motherfuckers talking ’bout you in the past tense,” he reflected. After an accident in 1980 when he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, Pryor lived out his final years in sobriety.
Robin Williams (1951- )
He may seem cuddly now, but Williams was addicted to cocaine through much of his early career. He gave up after visiting the Château Marmont on the night of Belushi’s death. In August, he admitted himself into a rehab centre following a relapse with alcohol.
Chris Farley (1964-97)
A disciple of Belushi, he led a life that followed an alarmingly similar path of self-destruction. Having attained success on the big screen, Farley battled with obesity, alcoholism and drugs. His fatal overdose of cocaine and heroin fuelled the myth of the “Saturday Night Live curse”. Like Belushi, he was 33.
Bill Hicks (1961-94)
Hicks mounted an eloquent, at times misanthropic, attack on the American dream. Broke by 1986, he performed up to 300 shows a year to fund his drug-fuelled lifestyle. He eventually gave up drugs and alcohol in 1988, falling back on smoking as his only vice. He died from cancer at the age of 32.