Hitchens’ Legendary 16-Hour Performance at the Hay Festival, Including His Dreadful Standup Comedy Routine

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 12:49 PM

The Hitch at Hay

His terrible standup comedy routine, along with the greatest performance of his lifetime.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011).

Photo by Amanda Edwards.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

There was one year, 2003 I think, we kept him onstage all day at Hay. He started on Waugh with Bill Deedes, the model for William Boot in Scoop. He argued the influence of the Congress of Vienna with Eric Hobsbawm for a couple of hours. Instead of lunch, he delivered an extraordinary lecture on Tom Paine and constitutional law. There was a 20-minute Rothmans break. About eight cigarettes. He hadn’t stopped drinking Johnny Walker Black Label at any point from 10 a.m.

In the afternoon, he and Stephen Fry kicked around ideas and language shared by the spiritual siblings Wodehouse and Wilde. Then he reported from his recent tour of the badder lands of Afghanistan. Typically he talked of the Afghani people, of friends there who were writers and journalists, of teachers he’d met. At some point there was a dinner down the road at Madresfield, the real house and family on which Brideshead was based. He wore a borrowed dinner jacket in which he looked impossibly glamorous. We got him back onstage at 10:30 p.m. for what was billed as Late Night Hitch. He’d talked for a few years about wanting to do stand-up, so we gave him a mic and another bottle of whisky, and 750 people crowded in to share an hour. His routine was terrible. Labored jokes. Tired delivery. After half an hour he gave up and said, “I’ll just take questions. Anything at all. I promise to tell the truth.”


And he did. And it was hilarious and savage and shocking and mesmerizing. Mother Teresa, Clinton, and Kissinger were indicted, of course; he did bisexuality, his relationship with his brother, and even his mother’s suicide. The darker it got, the funnier he was. He was much, much harder on himself than ever he was on the bad guys. He recited (dead-letter perfect) from Jefferson and Kapuscinski and Catullus; he improvised the filthiest, bawdiest limericks you can possibly imagine. Chaucer would have loved it. He finished the bottle at about 1 a.m. No one had left, and in all that time he’d never lost a thread of thought or slurred a single syllable. It was a great day. Not an assumption was left unchallenged, no orthodoxy tolerated.

 I loved him. And for Hay, he was our MVP, here and at all our festivals around the world. How astonishingly lucky to have been alive with him, to have that provocation in print forever. And in a strong field, line for line the finest prose stylist of his generation. Pretty much everything we do is inspired by him. So what do we do now? How do you follow or live up to your heroes? Those are mighty shoulders to stand on.

A couple of years after his marathon day, we set him up to discuss blasphemy with Stephen Fry and Joan Bakewell. May 28, 2005. It’s up online in our archive at www.hayfestival.org and freely available. On this day of all days, treat yourself to the superheavyweight bout of a lifetime between two of the greatest talkers of our age. It’s fascinating to hear the ideas and the language that drove God Is Not Great “in performance.” It’s good to hear his voice.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.