Howard Marks, ex-dope-dealer extraordinaire and veteran of America’s toughest penitentiary, is tonight treading the boards at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, joint in hand and sounding lethargic.
Recently Marks has become something of a pop-culture phenomenon, his fascinating life story and rock-star charisma enough to catapult him into the world of celebrity and stand-up comedy. Appearances on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and other panel shows, a column with lad-mag Loaded and a cameo as the preacher of spliff politics in pill-popping brit-pop movie Human Traffic; all have boosted his reputation as the benign, herb smoking philanthropist first encountered in his charming autobiography Mr. Nice.
His show is slow-paced, almost sleepy, and feels quite unlike other comedy performances. Howard is a natural story-teller far more than he is a joker. Belly laughs are rare, chuckles more frequent, and while his voice and delivery often captivate his stories occasionally hint at punch lines that then fail to materialise. Best then to treat his show as story hour rather than comedy gold.
Thankfully Mr. Nice lives up to his pseudonym, a seemingly genuine bond existing between himself and the audience (although given the proportion of stoners in Shepherd’s Bush that’s perhaps less than surprising). It’s all very cosy, almost like an old uncle holding court with anecdotes that you may have heard hundreds of times before, yet which are still oddly comforting in their familiarity. This is heightened by his reading aloud in a booming voice passages from his ‘going straight’ follow up novel, Senor Nice.
From growing weed legally in Switzerland to tripping out after a clandestine meeting between a psychedelic frog and his own tongue, Howard’s anecdotes are often amusing, if a little over-dusted in THC. Frankly however, the new show suffers from the same problem as the new book: namely that Howard’s life since prison is far less interesting than his life before. It also seems he feels the same way. Toward the end of the evening the audience is given the chance to shout out questions for Marks to answer; to the question, ‘do you miss dope-dealing?’, he replies that being on stage is the only thing that comes close to the buzz of pulling off dope-scams. As someone who has always championed the legalisation of drugs, in the political as well as the cultural forum, it is pretty obvious that Marks was drawn to dope dealing by the thrill and excitement as much as by the money and his own attitudes to drugs.
Perhaps this newfound fame is the replacement for that buzz. Perhaps he should just be admired as someone who has refused to compromise his own values in order to gain that which he might want (greater acceptance, influence with politicians etc.). He seems to delight in the ‘fuck-you’ philosophy of lighting reefers onstage while relating the account of his attempt to take charge of the government’s ‘crack down on drug crime’ program (his application for the post was based on his own excellent credentials as someone who knows a lot about drug-crime and proposed a simple solution: legalise drugs and the crime disappears. Genius!) Essentially Howard doesn’t have a lot more to say, but then how many comedians really say anything that important anyway? The problem is that his continual riffing on the same subject kinda excludes those for whom it’s no big deal (i.e. those who don’t do drugs). If Marks expanded his act to appeal to non-stoners as well, greater advantage could be taken of his engaging personality and stage presence. Until he does, his performances as well as his audiences will always be limited, unchallenging, and occasionally semi-conscious.