The choice of trick or treat has never been so stark. Last Saturday night, one could either: a) watch the Prime Minister deliver the dourest of Hallowe’en frights in a snap press conference announcing a national lockdown until at least December, amid news of rising death tolls; or b) watch Daniel Sloss tell jokes. I chose the latter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, comedy is only legal for the next 48 hours,” the sweary Scottish stand-up greeted his audience, “so please enjoy the f--- out of this show.” We didn’t need much encouraging. There was a manic, end-of-days quality to the laughter at the London Palladium: who knows when we’ll be able to gather like that and laugh again?
Sloss, 30, has been touring since he was a teenager, but over the past couple of years has quietly become a major star, finding an international fanbase through his specials for Netflix and HBO. In those shows, Sloss tried hard to present himself as a dark, X-rated controversialist, to the extent of calling one show Dark and another X. And yet he always came across as a thoughtful, sensitive chap. The puerility was cut with pathos: Dark’s most memorable moments were the affectionate stories about his disabled sister; X carefully and empathetically dealt with a friend’s experience of sexual assault.
But with the more scabrous Hubris, this nice young man has finally become the provocateur he’s always pretended to be. Even when he’s talking about his career, or his relationship with his girlfriend, the material feels less personal, less earnest, more boyishly crass. He sometimes breaks taboos in order to make a serious point – as in a razor-sharp joke about school shootings – but more often breaks them just for the joy of breaking things.
After a long mime about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – it’s a show highlight, honest – Sloss flashes a naughty grin to the crowd. “To anyone offended by that joke… Yes. Correct.” There’s a word for this: trolling. Done here in its purest form, entirely without malice, it offers a kind of giddy light relief. Sloss is self-aware and self-deprecating about his method: “I just say s---y things to try and get reactions from people, because I am a child.”
After the year we’ve had, it’s natural to have become desensitised. Who, in October 2020, could possibly object to a joke about the taste of koalas barbecued by Australia’s bush-fires back in spring? Sloss has no truck with anyone “pretending to be offended by a tragedy that happened a thousand tragedies ago”.
Hubris’s opening, in which Sloss laments his wretched year, has some of his funniest and blackest gags. “I gave up smoking in January, because back in January I wanted to live longer,” he explains. He misses it every day: “It’s my Diana.”
Going cold turkey in a lockdown is a bad idea. After all, when we can’t go on holiday, we should treasure the alternatives – like “nature’s holiday,” heroin.
Some of his targets are very low-hanging fruit: people who claim they need “emotional support animals” on airplanes, or Prince Andrew, who inspires an overlong sexual mime which – like Sloss’s version of the Prince – fails to reach a satisfactory climax.
Though handled with skill, his observations aren’t always very original. Among the chestnuts: Americans don’t know how to swear properly, Brits only welcome immigrants whose cuisine they enjoy. But by giving each leisurely riff plenty of room, Sloss creates a space for more interesting diversions along the way. Like a Russian doll, nested inside his bit about animals on airplanes is a whole baroque just-so story about the history of farming.
Sloss is a more confident performer than ever, and fully in control of his delivery; he can work the audience with a look, a pause. I suspect Hubris will even play better at the more intimate Clapham Grand, where (barring any further sudden announcements) it’s running until Wednesday. I’m tempted to go watch it again there, if only to enjoy a real communal experience while it’s still allowed. There may be a long, laughless winter ahead.
Daniel Sloss: Hubris is at the Clapham Grand, London, until Wed. Tickets: claphamgrand.com