Acts performing in the concert room of St George’s Hall are practically contractually obliged to be impressed with the surroundings. They always mention it. With that in mind, even hearing this gig had been announced was enough for a double take. Him..? …There?! More accustomed to any dingy dive brave enough to let him on stage – mainstream American comedy clubs practically banned him long ago – Doug Stanhope expressed the sentiment the best way he knew how. Isn’t this amazing, he slurred, glass of neat Jagermeister in hand (yes, neat Jagermeister). This is the perfect place I could blow my brains out after a standing ovation.
Stanhope – alcoholic, misanthropic, depressive defender of the filth, has been pushing the boundaries of comedy and taste for more than two decades now. He seldom stops off in Liverpool, making last night’s gig something special, and all the stranger for the opulence. For Peter Serafinowicz, in the same room just a few days before, the venue was transformed into a happy, warm, love-in of a place. That was never going to be an atmosphere Stanhope would recreate (!), and the venue didn’t particularly serve him well. Practically the whole audience was drunk (and more than drunk), and a great deal of people shuffled round, messed about and kept going to the toilet throughout. That’d be fine in your normal dark club, but in St George’s Hall it could really break the concentration. Hecklers were frequent and so generally wasted, the rest of the auditorium was left yelling at them to shut up. One guy walked out about half an hour in – yelling “never play Liverpool again, Doug” as he went – but before anything offensive of note had even taken place (see the comments thread for full story). It was, frankly, quite weird.
But Stanhope – best known for his blisteringly good segments on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe series – pulled through. Nothing would faze a grizzly old comic such as he, and with his mix of irritation and resignation, he soldiered on regardless, occasionally giving the more-than-fleeting impression he might just walk off.
It’s not frisson, exactly, but something keeps Doug Stanhope beyond edgy, and just a tiny bit dangerous. He might make it look like any old drunk can climb up and do what he does, but it’s clear he works hard. A great deal of the material he came out with was clearly new, topical and tailored for a UK audience. His fantastic Royal Wedding riff, in which he suggested a his own way for anarchists to cause havoc on the big day, was achingly perfect stand up. His older material – including a competely unrepeatable segment about an early sexual encounter, was risky, disgusting, and needed the grace of never being taken out of context, but was smart and considered too. Personally, there was only one segment that really seemed to go too far over the line for no good reason, a piece about Japanese women and the tsunami that was too unpleasant to laugh at. I was expecting more of those uncomfortable moments, and was glad they were sparse. Unexpectedly, there was no queue for the ladies’ on the way out. There hadn’t been too many of us there.
Offensive, yes, but if you can handle it, Stanhope – enigmatic, antagonistic, wasted, prickly, obscene, vulnerable, challenging, pitiful, smart as a tack and oh so human – is worth a watch because he is such a great and seasoned performer of stand up, and such a fascinating and complex character.