Criticizing Doug Benson for being high is a little like criticizing Chris Rock for being black or Jerry Seinfeld for being Jewish; it’s beside the point, and it’s not like anything can be done about it anyway. Benson might have spent 30 days not getting high in his documentary Super High Me, but that was mainly so he could point out how much awesomer it was when he did get high for the following 30 days. At his rather haphazard show in the Louie Anderson Theater at Las Vegas’s Palace Station, Benson was completely stoned (he stumbled over the line “How high am I right now?” at the beginning of his set), and the audience would have been shocked if he hadn’t been (certainly a decent number of them were high as well).
That’s all fine if it contributes to Benson’s comedic persona and makes for a better performance, but maybe being high all the time has made Benson a little too relaxed, a little too in touch with his fans. Or maybe being high isn’t the problem; maybe the age of Twitter and podcasts and Facebook has just put comedians like Benson on too even a playing field with the people who follow them. Whatever the reason, Benson’s short (his headlining set lasted just over 45 minutes) performance was less like a show and more like a hang-out session with the amiable stoner who’s everybody’s friend.
Being everybody’s friend is not the same thing as being funny, though, and a lot of Benson’s act was based around sharing stuff with friends rather than telling jokes. He brought out his phone and read Tweets from fans in the audience, some of whom clearly have been going back and forth with Benson on Twitter for a while. He produced a newspaper clipping and read an odd endorsement of his act from Seattle Weekly. He even built on a bit that opener Graham Elwood had performed, reading aloud cable-TV services’ absurdly understated descriptions for famous films. A lot of the stuff Benson shared was pretty funny, but if fans on Twitter, alt-weekly journalists and cable-blurb writers are coming up with his best material, then what exactly is his function?
That’s an oversimplification, of course: Benson can be plenty funny on his own. One of the audience Tweets requested Benson’s impression of Mr. Belvedere sitting on his own balls, a delightfully odd (and oddly specific) bit that Benson pulled off perfectly. And his intoxicated state did lead him on some amusingly random tangents, including a brief Mitch Hedberg impression and a long digression about the logistics of punching a goldfish in the face.
That bit, however, came at the end of a series of unfinished jokes Benson said he was working on for an upcoming album project in April (one guess which day during that month the pot-obsessed Benson has tapped for his recording session). He started with amusing premises that ultimately petered out into nothing, and even though he acknowledged the half-formed nature of the bits (“This story needs some sort of punchline.”), they still came off as stoner ramblings rather than stoner comedy. “Would that joke work better if it was a cat?” Benson asked after getting minimal laughs for a joke about hitting a dog while driving. Actually, making it into a goldfish and punching it in the face turned out to be funniest, but Benson probably should have figured that out beforehand.
And then it was time for party games. The sparse crowd (“This show’s just for us,” Benson joked when he first hit the stage) was full of Benson fans, the people who Tweeted jokes to him and had put together handmade signs for the chance to participate in “The Leonard Maltin Game” from Benson’s popular Doug Loves Movies podcast. So Benson brought back annoying opener Elwood and called one lucky fan onstage for a bit of trivia. The game is clever, but it’s more about people hanging out together than it is about comedy, and the line between comedians Benson and Elwood (whose manic self-promotion effectively overshadowed Benson when he was onstage) and the fan plucked from the crowd (whom Benson recognized from a previous show) was basically obliterated.
Obliterating that line is part of the social-media model of comedy, and Benson has clearly mastered it. This was his third Vegas show in as many months, and he’s obviously built up plenty of goodwill with fans who feel like they connect with him personally. But being personable can’t replace crafting an act, no matter how many Twitter followers or podcast listeners Benson has. Maybe when that April recording session comes around, he’ll have honed his ramshackle performance into something sharper and funnier (but still personable). On this particular night, though, he was content to just hang out and soak up the vibes.