written for The British Comedy Guide
Doug Stanhope’s act is infamously drunken, filthy and furiously intelligent. After 20 years exploring areas few comics would touch, he still draws unsettlingly insightful social commentary from sex with deformed babies, suicidal elderly mothers and the darkest depths of internet porn. His rock & roll lifestyle of the extremes of drugs, sex and booze has become legendary in itself. He managed to start a riot in Leeds, stir up regular press-storms and most recently launch an attack on the arrogance of comedy producers and reviewers.
When he opens the door wearing longjohns and woolly hat, and tells me to get in quick before the hotel smells the smoke, it’s not too much of a surprise.
“I hate coming over here, but the crowds are great. Comedy is respected in a way you never see in the States. I’ve never once seen a review of a comedy show in the States – in the big cities they’ll do the occasional preview all ripped out of your Wikipedia page, but there are no critics. Here it’s respected as an art form – which is a double edged sword. Whilst in the States you can be really fucking lazy, here any random show you do might be in The Herald tomorrow: ‘He was drunk, he fucked up a lot, told the audience to go fuck themselves.’ Still, it keeps me working. I work out of fear rather than out of love for the art.”
Comedy itself doesn’t factor too highly in his description of influences. “Sure as kid I listened to Bill Cosby, but my influences have always been my peers. I always had funny friends, and they influenced me far more than any stand-up comic. Then when I started reading deeply things like Howard Bloom’s You Are Being Lied To, conspiracy theories, and so on – my act changed. It went from transvestites, dick jokes and sex-stories to something with more meat and value. But the act began ruining my life – it still does to an extent – I get so angry at stuff that I have no power to change. Yelling into a mike doesn’t do anything, and if you read more, you just get more paranoid. At some point you have to put it in perspective. There might be an Illuminati, world bankers might be conspiring to enslave us as a nation but it doesn’t affect my day. You have to realise that you’re not going to change the world.”
Political comedians will never change anything: “That’s the whole point of comedy. But if you can laugh at something you should – it’s better than weeping. Charlie Chaplin said ‘you have to laugh in the face of your helplessness against the forces of nature or go insane.’ I’ve read things that say knowledge doesn’t have to lead to this, but all I’ve found is despair.”
“There are things I’ve never been able to talk about because it just comes out as anger. The prison system for instance: the entire judiciary system is so inhuman, so illogical. So much of what we do is based on no logic whatsoever. Where would you start writing jokes about Libya? Ok, so the rebels are taking over so the people will elect their own leaders. Well why do you need leaders? The basic principles are flawed. I have a lot of topics like that where when I’ve tried to do bits it just comes out as preachy with no jokes.”
“On the other hand when you are actually angry about a subject it’s a lot easier to sell. That’s a problem when you have to repeat yourself so often as a comic. It’s always felt very, very fake. I do drink to excess on stage, and that gives spontaneity and realism. I really have just remembered this bit and I’m not sure how to do it. Sometimes I’ll forget the punch-line, or the set-up, but I’d rather that than try to seem passionate when you’ve said the line a thousand times.”
So it’s a gamble coming to see you? “Yeah. Sometimes you lose.”
Despite the occasional press-storm and riot, Stanhope writes off any worries about censorship: “It’s never really been an issue in live stand-up comedy. Frankie Boyle got good press from a few articles, but in live stand-up there aren’t any taboo subjects anymore. There is nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about on stage, particularly since my audience is about as jaded as you can get. It makes it harder to push buttons.”
The stadium tour doesn’t appeal. “Comedy – especially what I do – demands intimacy. All things being equal I’d only do 75 seaters; Lenny Bruce-style, single spotlight, low-ceiling rooms you can smoke in. Unless something tragic happens I will end up going back down that route; I’ll be back on the road in 50 seaters and be happy if I can get them full. Right now I work Rock’n’Rolls clubs, so I feel quite outside of the industry.
“In a comedy club they have to worry about their regular clientele; people who think comedy is all the same as late night with Conan O’Brien. So they usually will book very mainstream, very middle-of the road acts, and even if they do agree to book you, you’re going to have people coming in expecting what they saw last time they were there. I have enough of a fanbase now that I don’t need to deal with that. In a Rock’n’Roll club no one’s telling you what to do. You could be preaching sermons and christening babies; they don’t care so long as it brings a good bar haul.”
“The comedy industry is a business at the end of the day. They do what sells. It’s why entertainment across the board is so mediocre. Dancing With The Stars is the number one show on television in the States. Who watches dancing? I can’t even imagine it… I suppose it’s far more lucrative to be a middle-of-the-road type of person.”
Right now, there’s little in politics or culture that angers or excites him: “Except Charlie Sheen. He’s brilliant, the first time in ages I’ve been not just aware but passionate about something in pop-culture. It’s usually so bland and awful that you only have to be a little bit weird to stand out, but he’s full-blown Hunter S Thompson weird and over the top. Not just that, but amongst all the ‘vatican assassin warlock’ t-shirt-ready stuff he makes points that are completely valid.”
“They ask him ‘Charlie Sheen what happens when your children are old enough to read about this?’ And he said ‘I hope they do – what better education can there be?’ He talks about how we hide children from the truth. ‘You tell your children ‘don’t eat candy, don’t eat candy’, but then on their birthday their head explodes from eating 7000 candy bombs all at once.’ It’s all true but he cloaks it in this incredible language.”
So where have the Rock’n’Roll comics gone? “I might be the last comic drinking in the States; everyone’s sobered up, they’re working on a screenplay, everyone’s got a project. Here at least you still have people getting hammered.”
On who he like to watch himself, Stanhope enthuses: “David Attell is probably the best comic of our generation, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, are great comics’ comics. Maria Bamford and Glenn Wool) are brilliant. Neil Hamburger I love. I ran off the stage to be there in time to see him. His act is set up for people to not get it and hate it. I love that.”
“I find it really hard to watch other acts unless they’re really great or really bad. Watching someone die miserably is so much fun for the audience. I mean really horrible deaths. People complain about it, but that means they’ll be talking about it – something interesting happened. Just watching some guy do ok is the worst comedy in the world. I’d rather have you throwing bottles than looking at your watch.”
“The riot in Leeds was fun. But you can’t plan that. ‘You know what’d be fun, if I suck in front of 1200 people and they throw garbage at me’. That was fun in hindsight, when I was running out the back door with a cheque in my pocket giggling, and the driver still had to open a door for me. This week I do Hammersmith Apollo, my biggest ever solo show, and that’s twice as big. If the Apollo goes down I’m going to make sure it goes down in flames. If it’s going to suck it’ll suck to infinite levels. And I’m going to stand up there and wait until everyone leaves – all 3000 of you. Every single one.”
To find out more about Doug, and for his UK tour dates see www.dougstanhope.com