Comedy is a dark art, best practised late at night, long after the cocktail hour. As a result, comedians don’t tend to be morning people, and Doug Stanhope is no exception. When Bad Sounds calls him at his home in Bisbee, Arizona (population 5575), it’s 6pm in Oslo and 9am over there. Stanhope is starting his day slowly, and his voice sounds like an overflowing ashtray.
While few had heard of Stanhope at the start of the century, he has since become a true comedian’s comedian, appearing in the amazing one-joke film The Aristocrats, guesting on Louie CK‘s show Louie, and making a series of segments for UK broadcaster Charlie Brooker‘s Newswipe and Weekly Wipe. But his main focus is touring and playing live. For many in the business and in the audience – this writer included – he’s the best living comedian, and has been for some years.
He’s currently working on a memoir about life with his mother, who he has described as an “attention-seeker, hoarder, avid alcoholic turned AA addict, truckstop waitress, truck driver and aspiring regional theatre actress”. In his 2009 show at Fabrikken in Oslo – later released as the album and DVD Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere – he made a phone call to his ailing mother in the US from the stage, with the conversation running through the PA. She died not long afterwards.
“Oh yeah, ‘Mother are you dead yet?’ I remember that. That’s the book,” Stanhope says, grasping for words somewhat and sounding less than enthusiastic about touring again in October, when he will play two shows in Norway (Rick’s in Bergen on October 22, and Sentrum Scene in Oslo on October 23) after a UK run.
“You have to understand, you’re doing this interview with me at 9 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “I’m never in a good mood at 9 o’clock in the morning! If the roles were reversed I might be telling you how excited I am to go on the road, but crawling off a couch with the threat of less than two weeks until the deadline for this book, staring at the computer…. no, nothing seems really good right now [laughter].
“The guy that performs for you has had several cocktails, he’s in a good mood and he’s riled up, and he’s put himself in that headspace to be on stage. The morning me is nothing to do with that guy at all. This is a fucking Jekyll and Hyde interview. Always feel free to make up egregious lies if it makes the interview more interesting. I’ll back you up, I’ll say I said whatever you put in there.”
For many comedians with audiences on several continents, the travelling can be a source of rancour, with the concerts and the audience energy (and alcohol and drugs) often the only things that keep them going. Stanhope is the opposite (apart from the alcohol and drugs bit). On his website he writes about amusing himself by flying simply for the purpose of going on pub crawls in airport bars, often involving different countries between one bar and the next.
“Usually it would happen at the end of the year when I was however many miles short of hitting the elite status, I’d go out and catch up on those miles if I had to,” he says. “Then it became kind of a personal coffin contest. So now I’ll do ’em generally throughout the year. Sometimes I just want to get the fuck out of here, and I don’t necessarily have a destination. I like flying. I sleep like a baby, I take a bunch of Xanax. I love airport bars. Smoking bars are the best – they still have one in Atalanta. Amsterdam, at Schiphol, there’s a Delta Sky Club that allows smoking, that’s a winner. There’s one in Johannesburg, all I remember is that it’s red. It might be called The Red Bar, I don’t know. It was just red.
“I never get sick of the travel. All the things that people tend to bitch about, or assume that you hate, I really like. I love staying in hotels. I love hotel bars, I love airport bars, because everyone’s on equal footing in those places. You never walk in and feel like, ‘Oh, I’m out of place here’. There’s no regulars, and everyone knows that your relationship is temporary – you don’t have to worry about seeing that person again, ‘Oh, did I make an asshole of myself? I don’t want to go back to that bar’. Well, you’re not going to for a long, long time.
“I hate the shows. Other comics hate the travel, I hate performing for people,” he laughs. “You know that rush that they get from laughter? I don’t get that rush. I get overwhelmed with anxiety, and either I feel like I didn’t deserve what I got or I don’t want to face up to having to fuckin’ talk to people after shows, or run into them before shows. I’d rather be on a plane, travelling, packing, unpacking. I don’t know when that turn happened. At the shows, if the audience energy isn’t there I’d miss it, but there’s no ego involved any more.”
Doug Stanhope live in Edinburgh in 2006 – Photo by Don Simon
Stanhope’s shows are dark, cynical and twisted, but utterly honest. In the early days, he had his fair share of walkouts, but he refuses to dilute his material – hence the reason he has never dedicated his career to television, for which we can be thankful. The result is that, apart from 10 albums and DVDs, most of his material vanishes into the ether, as he doesn’t like audience members filming him on stage.
“It was so nice before cellphones. You just said it, and it was just open to interpretation how people remembered it. Now every asshole with a cellphone camera has proof that you didn’t do as good as you thought you did. Although that’s really died down, people really seem to respect that a lot more. At first it was just everybody… you still see it, you see people, like they’d win a championship, and the team is on a float having a parade for themselves, on live television, and they’re on the float filming themselves. There’s already every television network filming it, just hit record on your DVR. Your cellphone camera’s not getting footage as good as Fox Sports is. It’s fucking crazy. I never see people watching the footage they take.
“But it’s great for cops killing people! That’s a bonus. We just had a cop kill a guy here, but this is a town of 5000 people. People said ‘Ramirez, he killed Crazy Carlos’, and that was it. There was this crazy guy, he had a history of mental illness. He evidently pulled a knife, and one of the known cops in town shot him at noontime behind a grocery store. My neighbour Alice came in and I said, ‘They killed Crazy Carlos’. She goes, ‘Oh, that’s sad’ It’s not sad! He used to chase us around the parking lot. There was a little bit of scuttlebutt, whether or not the cop needed to shoot a guy with a knife, but no ‘crazy lives matter’ protests going on.”
While his brother has played in bands (Stanhope sent out one of his brother’s band’s CDs with every DVD a few years ago) music isn’t something that he takes any real interest in. However, he’s still unflinchingly honest on the subject.
“I listen to music about as often as a general person sees standup comedy – your average person, if they go to see standup comedy at all. So maybe once a year. I just don’t get it. I like what I like. There’s a couple Nickelback songs I like, and that’s the equivalent of thinking Russell Brand is funny. If you told me you thought Russell Brand was funny, I would judge you, that would be a serious black mark in my opinion of you. That’s why I just prefer to say I hate music, rather than risk saying ‘You know what? There’s actually a couple of Nickelback songs I find catchy’,” he laughs.
Stanhope has toured with numerous comedians, at one point putting on a show with a lineup of his most offensive and uncompromising friends called The Unbookables
. Among the highlights of those shows were Sean Rouse
, who has since more or less disappeared from the circuit, and James Inman
, who specialises in spectacular failure.
“He’s kind of undercover now,” Stanhope says of Rouse. “He’s living back in Texas, and he has his own demons he battles with. I think Sean Rouse is one of the funniest guys, I’d say he’d be my favourite guy that has come up after I have. Inman’s just a crazy person. He’s not a guy I’d say ‘Oh, you definitely have to see this act’, but as a human being, he’s just a human piece of art. An unwitting human piece of art. Junior Stopka is a guy that I love, a Chicago guy. But to see him you’d probably have to go to Chicago, because like a lot of these guys, they’re not really motivated to get out there. I think I just got lucky. I don’t know, when I was younger I think I was a lot more motivated. I certainly couldn’t start over, I wouldn’t have what it takes.”
There are some revealing clips from early in Stanhope’s career, from the 1990s, on the extras of his Deadbeat Hero DVD. They’re still funny – outstanding for any young comic, in fact – but pale in comparison to his work post-2000.
“I couldn’t even watch those. When I was giving them to the record company, I tried to watch them to tell them what to use, and it physically repulsed me to the point where I gave the tapes to my manager and said, ‘You pick, I can’t watch this’. But I did think it was important to put it out there, just for new guys. You go ‘Hey, listen, everyone stunk when they started, some more than others’.”
Doug Stanhope, the early years
Your comedy has evolved since then, was there a point where it all fit together?
“No! No, there never is. I think you have to have some of that in you just to be motivated to keep creating. If you think you’ve got it all nailed, that’s when you start to suck.”
Doug Stanhope plays Rick’s in Bergen on October 22, Sentrum Scene in Oslo on October 23, and Sodrateatern in Stockholm on October 25. Info and tickets here: