Calling Doug Stanhope an underground comedy icon isn’t quite fair.
It discounts his devoted international fanbase and increasing exposure on shows like FX’s “Louie.” It downplays his years of road-dogging all over the country, and it ignores the accolades he’s earned from comedy diehards in every English-speaking country in the world, as well as the fact that he regularly sells out theaters.
But he’s still a harsh, subversive voice in an art form that’s seen a recent explosion of mainstream exposure.
Stanhope was one of he first wave of comedians abandoning traditional comedy clubs for theaters, bars and music venues, and his reputation for appealing to the disaffected and disgruntled only grows with each new album and tour.
The 45-year-old Worcester, Mass., native tends to do very well in Denver, and not just because he taps into the stereotypical party crowd with his filthy mouth and a love of alcohol and drugs. Stanhope’s unyielding politics — let’s call them Libertarian — and views on everything from pornography to relationships remain genuinely transgressive, even after two decades of shredding boundaries.
We talked to Stanhope via phone recently for a freewheeling discussion that included everything from his crazy (and we mean crazy) fans to his spot in the larger comedy world and a potentially lawsuit-inducing show he’s got coming up.
So I see from your tour itinerary that you’re in upstate New York at the moment. How are things there?
Pretty bleak. It’s tragic. It’s every reason I left Massachusetts, every reason I hate the U.K. It’s all stone and gray and depressing.
But the U.K. loves you. You kill over there!
I tend to do well where people are most miserable, so I’m assuming it’s just that. There are some of the most miserable, cantankerous, negative people I’ve ever met over there. I kind of play into that hand. And yet there’s not a lot of crossover British comics here. Like, every time I go there I’m looking for a reference of a bad comic they don’t like here, but nobody knows who the fuck I’m talking about. Maybe Russell Brand.
This current tour seems timed to the Nov. 6 release of the CD/DVD version of “Before Turning the Gun on Himself.” Is that the case?
Nah, comics just tour. It’s never-ending, 22 years really. I titled the last (tour) just because it’s fun to title stuff, but it wasn’t anything unique.
I was talking with Denver comic Ben Roy awhile back and he was telling me a story about you, how supportive you were of this other comedian, giving him some stage time, things like that. And as much as I hate using that cliché of the comedian’s comedian, you really seem to be that. Do you see yourself that way?
I love comedians. I feel like the AA people — how there’s a meeting in every town and how I always have family. That’s how I feel about comedians. It’s just a whole different dialogue, especially since I moved to a small town in Arizona where I actually interact with normal human beings. You just realize how limited and fucking stifling a lot of those relationship are and how most people live their lives in those types of settings. It made me really appreciate the life I’ve spent in comedy. It’s always going for the funny, no matter the circumstances, no matter how dire the situation. It’s a blessing.
Do you have lots of people approaching you because of your recent “Louie” episode, since Louis C.K. is so hot right now?
Oh yeah. Every fucking comic has seen it, of course, but I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say they saw it — and it was disturbing!
You mean because they thought you really were as suicidal as your character?
Yeah, which is great.
Do you think DIY approach Louis took in releasing his own specials and selling his own tickets is paying dividends for other comics, or is it only good for Louis C.K.?
The way he’s putting his DVD out is groundbreaking. I was sad I was stuck in record contract, because I’d like to do that. And what I’ve been doing for the last few years is trying to cut out the people who get paid for no reason. When you look at the amount of people that just take a percentage that don’t really add anything it’s amazing. And record companies are at the top of that list because there aren’t even records anymore ever since going digital.
But you’re on record label, too.
People ask me how I like my deal with Roadrunner and fuckin’, I don’t even know what to say. I don’t even know what they do other than pay me up front. My manager sets up most of that stuff. My manager is basically my business partner. He doesn’t work for anyone else. He works solely for me and he has a business background, not a shithead Hollywood background. I worked for him the first time when he was booking a room at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, and I walked off the plane with more press than I’ve maybe ever gotten since then. And getting out of comedy clubs — where you’re just getting a straight deal — he did that, too. Of course now I’m going back into comedy clubs because I can cut my own deal.
That’s definitely a change from consciously no playing them.
Yeah, but that’s where I’m at. I’m putting out this DVD and I’ll be paying $8 a unit for myself, so to re-sell that at any profit when people can steal it is nuts. Or when you do what Louis C.K. did, yeah most people are going to be honest and you just take out the record company’s cut — charge $5 and you’re making the same money you could have made and people are happier. It was a fuckin’ brilliant move on Louis’ part.
I know before the election you endorsed Gary Johnson (in the post “Presidents, Apocalypse and Death”) and called this presidential election the most boring one since Bush/Dukakis. What would have made it more exciting for you?
Someone else in it, any third party, anything different. I just think the older you get the more you realize it’s just recycled garbage rhetoric. Every election is “the most important election of our lives!” and they’ve all sucked. None of it’s really affected my life.
Sometimes you get to a point in your act, as I’ve heard on your last couple albums, where you say something about how it’s hard to be so mad all the time, or “What’s the point of being so idealistic?” And the last track on your most recent album is called, “Remember When I Used to Give a Shit”? How do you fight against becoming completely jaded?
Well, I drink heavily when I get agitated and that always helps you wanna fluff up an anger boner. Then again, I always try to keep enough smut in my act to keep it fair and balanced. I guess maybe I should just put out a whole bunch of dick and shit jokes, because I think those are funny. And if you do enough of that and then something else irritates you, you’ve got the angry part of the act. There’s definitely a need to keep the balance.
You have no fear of engaging your critics, although you seem to have realized how pointless it is sometimes. Do you read your own press?
No, no, not unless it shows up a breakfast or I walk past the weekly and pick it up and go through it in the morning. But in general I don’t because you get misquoted so much it makes you crazy. “Oh, he was the winner of the Montreal Comedy Festival!” What? There’s no winner! Or they’ll quote your jokes without the punchline. They’ll print the premise but not the payoff. That’s not the joke! So in general I don’t read them. And plus you end up repeating yourself in interviews so often when the questions are all the same.
The last time I saw you was at Herman’s Hideaway here in Denver, and it was particularly drunken, rowdy crowd. Are you ever afraid of your fans? And I don’t just mean the crazy fan mail you get, like the child porn guy who wrote you just before he committed suicide. Which I looked up, and apparently he really did kill himself by overdosing on helium.
Yes, oh yes, certainly. That’s one of the trade-offs with selling merch: I know I can make a lot more money if I sell the merch myself after the show, but that means I have to sit out there amongst them, when they’re at their drunkest.
I’ve seen the wave of people buying you drinks at shows, and I can only imagine they invite you to go and party with them afterwards, sort of like everybody does when Anthony Bourdain comes to town.
Yeah, it’s fun. I like having that fanbase, knowing that there’s so many fuckin’ reckless, edge-of-sanity-type of people in the audience. It does keep it interesting, but some of them seem to think that I’m there for more than just telling funny jokes, like I’m some kind of fucking mentor or Big Brother program. The e-mails that I get are… Jesus… just desperate. Maybe mentor isn’t the right word, but they want advice, to unload their life problems on me, and I’m guessing the Larry the Cable Guys of the world don’t get the same type of feedback. People telling me about dying of cancer and shit. It’s really a sad lot.
I see you’ve got a Dec. 21 “End of the World” show with Joe Rogan, Joey Diaz and others at the Wiltern in L.A. Are you prepared for the world to end that night?
The question should be, “Are you prepared to follow Joey Diaz?” That’s what I’m concerned about. We’re supposed to do mushrooms, which I think is a bad idea. If anything, I’ll take ‘em right before I go up so they’re kicking in when I leave. That’s a mistake that I’ve made several times. “What if we do it early in the afternoon? It’ll be kind of warn off by the time I go on stage.” No way.
When was the last time you did them on stage?
New Year’s Eve in Alaska, 2002. I went up and was still tripping pretty hard, and there were people with party hats and shooters and horns. I used to do it opening for bands when we were first starting out, just to get stage time, and it was always just the most miserable failure and disaster. “Well, maybe this time will be different?” NOPE. Hallucinogens always make you completely misread the crowd. But I remember Rogan telling me about the Mayan calendar while we were tripping on mushrooms once — to kick off the (recent) Iraq war. They had almost a Superbowl pregame show, a countdown, where they’d given them to however much time before the bombing, and we were tripping our balls off watching it and he was telling me about all the end-of-the-world stuff. It was almost fuckin’ ten years ago! So this is a nice reunion show.
And a potentially extreme one at that.
I’m doing a show in West Palm Beach right before I come to Denver and my buddy Andy Andrist, who’s one of the funniest guys I know in the world, will be there. He was molested as a young teenager by a friend of his father’s and he found out where the fucking guy lived — and he lives down in West Palm Beach. Apparently when he was molesting Andy, this guy told him he’d buy him a car as some sort of enticement. And Andy wants to get his fucking car that he was promised. He wants his photos back that this guy took so he can sell his own child porn online. So Andy invited this guy to the show and he doesn’t know who Andy is these days, and we’re going to have cameras there and try to do this kind of “This Is Your Life” surprise thing. So I booked this show so I could go down to watch it.
Holy shit. Are you afraid the crowd is going to tear this guy apart if he shows up?
I don’t know. We’ve been trying to get this guy to sign a pre-release so we can get footage of him, ambush him, use it online.
Yeah, all these other (comics) are working on screenplays and I’m fucking Googling celebrities who have been molested and planning this Chris Hanson-style comedy ambush. So hopefully I’ll have a story to tell on stage in Denver about it.
That’s easily the craziest thing I’ve heard all week. Anything you want to add?
Feel free to include a giant fabrication in the article. I’ll stand by whatever it is.
Note: Shortly after we hung up, Stanhope retracted that statement via his lawyer and threatened to sacrifice himself inside a Wicker Man-style effigy of Larry the Cable guy.