Doug Stanhope, Edinburgh Comedy Room at The Tron


Boozy and brilliant

Based on tonight's performance by this erratic but gifted American comedian, it's clear that audiences will be hard pushed to see anything better on the Fringe this year - certainly in terms of stand-up. The writing is literally on the wall of The Tron (Edinburgh's most atmospheric venue, though, worryingly, Stanhope is now transferring to the George Square Theatre, which is a different proposition altogether), where Stanhope's posters are adorned with examples of his past eminently quotable jokes, such as: "Would you call yourself a Christian if they changed Jesus every four years?"

There's plenty more where this came from, even though tonight he has to fight against his own drunkenness to deliver his act. It's a great tussle to witness, though. The 39-year-old comic's reputation for partying precedes him and here he's goaded by an audience member to swallow a pill of unspecified origin. BBC cameras are rolling at the back of the room, suggesting the possibility of a set-up, but it doesn't feel like it. Either way, Stanhope remarks a half hour into his routine that something unusual is happening: "I'm smiling. I never smile during my set."

Everyone else is smiling too, of course, even when he riffs on an "extreme" fishing show - it's clearly an esoteric US reference but the humour comes across effectively all the same. Equally effective is his suggestion that the human race should not medicate against boredom because it is there for a reason - it's telling you to change your life. And he advises not to hold back on temper: "Don't take anger management for road rage, be annoyed that you are stuck in traffic." And, if you manage to make it past these obstacles, it's best to remember that "Jesus never took the edge off the working week like alcohol [can]."

It's a recipe for hard-living and forthrightness that the audience lap up. They love the idea that Stanhope never really understood the process of real sleep because alcohol has always dictated his periods of unconsciousness, and that his friends in AA wanted him to stay drunk - because he is so much funnier that way. It's not just about the booze - the audience are prepared to follow Stanhope anywhere, from the battle of the sexes to the dubiousness of jokes about child abuse.

It could be something of a burden for a comedian to be seen to have taken on the mantle previously worn by Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks, as has often been said of Stanhope. But he is a comic exemplar: he does what stand-up is supposed to do: say the unsayable, tell us that we are all schmucks, provoke argument and entertain people.

The show continues at the George Square Theatre (0131-662 8740) to 27 August, except 14 & 21

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