Review: Reginald D Hunter
I first encountered Reginald D Hunter the way upwards of half a million people did – going HAM against Batman on BBC panel show Have I Got News For You, dissecting the concept’s vigilante mogul creepiness and concluding that “Batman is a conservative’s wet dream”. The well-natured if geeky co-panelists emit perplexed, nervous guffaws. The Brit audience flicks on and off like a drain, because a comedian is speaking and that means there’s a punchline. But you get the feeling Hunter is playing for keeps, and that his riffing is born of serious, genuine thoughts on culture and its abcesses. I liked it a lot.
I also prefer the banter of panels and the generosity of improv to actual stand-up – which, I mean, my cross to bear and not Hunter’s. I’m not alone. Early on in his Auckland Comedy Fest performance, Hunter describes a woman he met after a show who told the performer she preferred him on TV. When he took offence, she shrugged and suggested that was just his interpretation of reality. His exclamation: “I would’ve preferred you when you were younger and thinner – that’s just my fucking reality!”
No one likes pretentious criticism, though it’s odd to see someone who’s obviously done well enough be so defensive so early in the show. That’s just for starters. There’s the woman who wrote something negative on his Facebook page who he called a bitch, the tirade about they can call each other bitches and so can their gay friends but suddenly when he’s the one doing it it’s wrong. There’s the bigoted 80-something mother of an ex who’s a cunt. There’s a rape joke that’s an ordeal primarily because of the cognitive knots tied in justifying it: men who aren’t rapists feel bullied by rape PSAs and so rape jokes are a sort of vital defense mechanism. I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the actual joke but he explains that it works because it has a message, which is that rape victims should go to the police even though they’re not perfect.
This is all unfortunate, because people coming for his skewering take on white, middle-class preoccupations (artsy Vietnam vet trauma films , the oeuvre of Will Smith, being mad at Lance Armstrong) would have be rewarded with moments of joyous, apoplectic hysteria (“The motherfucker rode BIKES!”) hiding moments of pinpoint precision. Based in the UK for nearly two decades, he flits between his Georgia burr and a parodic British dryness on the flip of a dime. He papers over the cracks and you don’t notice the sort of segueways that would stand out in a lesser performer’s show. Some of the sex jokes are great and very real.
There are moments of a better, more powerful kind of tension, too. Hunter talks about his family with a sort of profane reverence – describing the “asshole test” his manipulative, impossibly old and still sexually active father runs on him when he returns Stateside. He talks about the control his father has – still – to reduce him to a meek “yessir”, a decripit man compelling you into a child’s silence. He brightens suddenly. “Luckily, the old man’s 95 years old, so that’s not happening too much fucking longer.”
Love and hate are frightening feelings, and Hunter aims to factor both into a comedy set without switching out of ‘comedy mode’. For all the fun, comedians stand and fall on what they see when they look into the abyss – society at the macro and micro-level. But Hunter’s more belaboured and exhausting moments aren’t doing that. It stops being about society, and starts being about its twisted mirror – a place which is about a reasonably famous person being criticized and misquoted (which is why the rape stuff feels especially tasteless, because he’s toying with it to make a different and trivial point about stand-up). In the meantime, there are points of pitch-dark emotional force here. Your mileage will vary as to whether you see them blotted out by the paratext, or whether long stretches of Reginald D Hunter assessing attacks on Reginald D Hunter are part of that package.