Words & illustrations by Emily Doyle
Andrew O’Neill seems like a strange choice to warm up for Doug Stanhope. The self-described occult comedian and heterosexual transvestite has eschewed the skirt tonight. He wears an oversized vest and skinny jeans, tinny in hand.
O’Neill delivers rapid fire one liners (“a bad workman doesn’t blame his tools, he blames ‘the Muslims’”) and enforces audience participation. It becomes clear that he has a tough job. The room reluctantly plays along as he sings…
“If you’re depressed and medicated, clap your hands!”
His set is short, but towards the end it’s become evident that he’s running out of material. By the time he’s getting the crowd clapping along to ‘We Will Rock You’, it’s time to introduce the main man. By way of a goodbye, O’Neill boasts of how he recently fist-bumped Ozzy Osborne.
Stanhope shuffles on stage in his trademark oversized suit, grumbling about O’Neill. The 38-year-old’s comparatively youthful energy made our host feel like an “angry old grandpa” in the green room.
In his interview for Birmingham Review back in May, Stanhope made it clear that he was not looking forward to his trip to our fair city. Tonight he announces that he “didn’t think it could get worse than Leeds”. This entrance is a far cry from the staple exercise of most touring acts; it seems customary to walk on stage to Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ any time you’re in the West Midlands. Instead, Stanhope tells the crowd that he feels like he’s in the Island of Dr Moreau every time he steps out of his hotel. Similar sentiments surface on his Twitter page the next day, where he writes the following:
‘The ferals of #Birmingham have come out in mass. They literally look unearthed. Every venture out for a smoke is a dangerous experiment. What is it that they seek? What is the addiction? Paint? A Gassy rag? I wear similar ratty pajamas as camouflage.’
He must be enjoying his day off.
It may come as some relief to know Stanhope doesn’t reserve this level of disdain just for his UK crowds. A Magners sponsored tour of East Asia earlier this year saw him performing to a string of expat audiences. Tonight he announces that they all reminded him of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Following this, Stanhope launches into a much anticipated retelling of the Bangkok fiasco he detailed in his podcast, and how he avoided being detained under Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws. These laws state that ‘whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment’.
“When they say don’t make fun of the king, it’s not a suggestion… I did a very timid show, but I’ve made fun of him every show since.”
He tells of people who’ve fallen foul of these laws, including author Harry Nicolaides. Nicolaides was imprisoned for three years over a 2005 novel which sold a total of seven copies. Stanhope encourages the skeptical crowd to check his Twitter feed for the facts. They can be found amongst a string of tweets criticising Thailand’s monarchy tagged #KingOfThailand.
As Stanhope’s set progresses, he delves deeper and darker into comedy’s untouchable subjects; he quips on racial prejudice and sexual violence at whim. It’s uncomfortable to watch, especially when he’s performing to an audience which is predominantly male and entirely white. When challenged by hecklers on his choices of topic, he shuts them down, shouting, “I’m not done with Indian gang rape, you fucking questioner!” The couple sat to my left, who are about five Jagerbombs deep in their evening, go from laughing at every sentence to a stony, indignant silence. One of them resorts to shouting their objections at an increasing volume, until Stanhope acknowledges them with a cursory, “Wow, you REALLY wanna get noticed.”
He goes on to dedicate his next joke to them, which happens to be on the topic of dead children.
“I’m sorry, did I take a subject that’s horrifying and maybe unavoidable and try and make it fun?”
At times Stanhope seems to defend his right to make jokes about certain topics. In the past he’s done whole bits about his partner’s mental illness. Tonight he tells how his longtime fan and friend Laura turned up to his North Carolina shows without fail in her final months, each time demanding new zingers on her terminal brain cancer. It’s all well and good, but this angle seems to undermine his jokes about race and gender. Why bother to justify the odd jibe about schizophrenia when in a heartbeat you’re rolling out cheap shots about black Americans and tipping?
The audience for Stanhope’s brand of comedy can be split into three groups. Some people seem uneasy with a lot of his material; he dares people to laugh at the jokes he makes, and in doing so pushes them to examine their own internal prejudice. Others seem worryingly oblivious to the whole subtext, cheering and laughing at every cliché. Stanhope acknowledges this himself, openly lamenting the upshot of his staunch anarchism.
“I think I’ve moved a lot of Nazis in my direction…”
It’s hard to make people sit and reflect on their own flaws, least of all at a stand up show where the bar sells plastic two pint cups of lager.
The third group of people can be described as the eagerly offended; it feels like a portion of the audience are here to hate on Stanhope as a pastime. After all, his reputation precedes him everywhere. No one can have bought a ticket not knowing what to expect.
For a follower of Stanhope’s work, it’s a strange and awkward evening. It turns out that watching his heavily edited TV performances, or even listening to his very candid podcast, is a sterile way to consume Stanhope’s comedy. What seems like a nuanced and thoughtful observation on capitalism becomes far blunter and messier when it’s just a sweaty man shouting over a drunk crowd, “how many jobs would be immediately lost overnight if you cured cancer?”
The couple on my left are still heckling, in between holding a conversation amongst themselves about whether or not Stanhope is a “real alcoholic”. It’s hard to believe they’re this outspoken in day to day life. The next day fans tweet at Stanhope that they were ‘suitably offended’ by last night’s show; it seems his comedy hits home with some and not others. The man himself seems not to mind.
For more on Doug Stanhope, visit www.dougstanhope.com
For more on Andrew O’Neill, visit www.andrewoneill.co.uk
For more from the O2 Academy Birmingham, including venue details and further event listings, visit www.academymusicgroup.com/o2academybirmingham