Stanhope: 'If people are yelling shit, they're usually trying to be on my side, even though they're still fucking up the show.'
Every once in a while, there comes a comedian who enchants audiences with a beautiful message about how laughter helps people face life's adversities. Doug Stanhope is not that comedian. Chances are good that Stanhope hates that sort of comedian -- and probably you, too, if you're into that kind of performance.
A comic iconoclast in the tradition of Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Stanhope's as likely to provoke as he is to entertain during an hour-long set. His intelligent tirades, doom-and-gloom prophecies and smoke-grizzled voice have earned him a cult following over the past two decades. Recently, he's received accolades from high-profile peers such as Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K. Last year, C.K. asked Stanhope to play Eddie, a suicidal comedian, on his popular FX series Louie. This year, Stanhope's new comedy album, Before Turning the Gun On Himself, hit number one on the Billboard, iTunes and Amazon comedy charts. Last month, he released a Showtime comedy special of the same name, his first since 2007's No Refunds.
I recently asked Stanhope about his busy year and why he's excited to hit the road again. Here's how our conversation went.
The Daily Page: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
I don't do this for many people. Usually I want my shows to be as unknown as possible with nobody there, but today I'm making an exception. [Laughs.] How's the comedy club there in town?
Very busy. I don't think there's been any drama in a while, though.
Yeah, Madison is kind of a hard place to start up a lot of violence, but we'll work for it. I had some openers there once that the crowd hated so badly I thought I might have to pull them off early, but not on this tour. I've got some good openers this time around, and not just people who I think are funny.
Who are some of the other comics you're bringing to town?
Brett Erickson and Geoff Tate are two of them. I've known them both for a while. There's also a new guy from Chicago that I've taken out named Junior Stopka, who is brilliant. I was flying for a while, staying in hotels for a night and then flying home in the morning. For the last couple years, I've just missed the shit out of comics. So now we're going out like we used to do it, doing it old school and all hopping in a van for three weeks, "up and down the dial," WKRP-style.
What do you look for in your openers, personality-wise?
Well, obviously funny, or at least funny to me. A lot of guys will just die everywhere else in comedy clubs, and when they get in front of my crowds they just destroy. It's weird, really. I tour with guys who won't work anywhere else. Like the Dirty Dozen. Like the 1970s Raiders. All the rejects with a lot of talent but who just don't have the audience yet.
In previous interviews, you've described your audience as being a pretty wild group. What's the hairiest situation you've ever found yourself in during a performance?
The first one that comes to mind is when I was hosting a late-night gig at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was talking about ecstasy, and a girl from the audience screamed out, "That's not funny! My sister died from ecstasy!" And I just lit her up. Saying how you don't die from ecstasy, you die from a shitty bathtub version of ecstasy, or you die from being stupid and not drinking water after you've danced all night. She just went ballistic and ran out of the room.
After the set, I introduced the next comic -- an American named Scott Capurro -- and then went outside to smoke. Well, this girl had gone to the upstairs bar and gotten a bunch of her fucking football, knot-headed friends, and they came down and got on stage, one on either side of [Capurro], and all they knew was that an American comedian was making fun of this girl's dead sister. [Laughs.] So here were these hooligans, and Scott was like, "What do you guys want? Who are you?" Someone came out and whisked me off to another bar after that. But honestly, I haven't that many bad experiences because I think I'm not very physically intimidating.
Now that I have my own audience, if people are yelling shit, they're usually trying to be on my side, even though they're still fucking up the show. But back in the day -- when I was working comedy clubs where it was random audiences, and you're there all week, where you have bachelorette parties coming in and all that shit -- even then people would just yell from the back of the room as they were leaving. I never had any real face-to-face confrontations.
I was listening to Before Turning The Gun On Himself, and it got me thinking about the process of putting together a comedy album. Is it like it is for some musicians, where you create a balance with fast songs and slow ones?
I just take what I've been doing on the road, and when it feels like a full product, I record it. I don't put much thought into it or try and create some arc to the story or anything. The problem is that my bits tend to get longer and longer. Even for the newest album, there's a bit about Dr. Drew that goes into another joke about AA without any obvious break. Then you need to break it up so there's more than three track titles on the back of your CD. You want them to play it on Sirius radio, and they're not going to play a track that's 20 minutes. So sometimes you cheat a break.
How involved are you in editing of stand-up specials for television -- for instance, your recent special on Showtime?
I can be as involved as I want to be, but I hate watching myself so much that a lot of times I get lazy and say, "Do it however. Just put it on there." They mail me tapes, and I get to look at them from the comfort of my own living room. I just take notes; I'm not sitting behind an Avid. It's more like, "Okay, at the 11:43 mark, cut that out. I flubbed that fucking line." But still, it's just anguish to fucking watch myself. I think I'm going to do more CDs from now on.
Last year you made an appearance on FX's Louie, where you played a suicidal comedian named Eddie. Is there any connection between that character and the title of your newest album?
No, no, it was just coincidence. It wasn't a stretch, though; there's a reason [Louis C.K.] called me to play that part. That character was me in my late 20s, when I still had hope. But that's how I lived. I lived out of my car for three years, just gig to gig, one-nighter to shithole to fat girl's couch, with all of my shit in my car. When you're in your 20s and doing that, people think you're an adventurer. But when you're in your 40s, people think you're gonna go kill yourself.
You've said in the past that television is something you only do for money, but I imagine you had fun on that project.
Well, I enjoyed that only because it was Louie, who was basically directing it and everything. So knowing him made it fun. If I had to do that normally with regular Hollywood douches, those industry pricks, it'd be no fun at all.
You were pretty vocal during the 2008 presidential elections. Do you have any opinions about the current political climate?
No. It's just as boring now as it was then. The chances of any third party getting any traction seems slimmer and slimmer. Really, it bores the shit out of me. This is probably the most boring race since [Michael] Dukakis [in 1988]. It's all the same rhetoric. The older you get, the more times you've heard it, and there's just nothing to get excited about. You also realize it just doesn't affect your life. I can't point to [a time] in my entire life where a president has directly affected me, be it his policies or anything. I don't see where they could. Legalizing drugs or something? But I was never in the military, I was never in any place where a president made any difference to me. I won't live to be old enough to give a shit about Medicare or Medicaid. That's other people's problems. I think politicians are mostly corrupt, and the best thing to do would be to just ignore them. I think it'd take away a lot of their power. If there was a dead heat vote of 0-0.
Is there any topic that can't be made funny?
No. I wish there were some so that I could try them out. All the hard shit I think I've cracked. Maybe I'll go back to doing some dick jokes and getting drunk for a little while. Get the party started again.
Doug Stanhope launches a three-week tour called Big Stink this month, and will be performing at the Comedy Club on State Wednesday, September 19.