"Like Playing Death Metal At A Wedding" - Doug Stanhope Interviewed
, April 2nd, 2012 05:03
David Bennun chats to outspoken US comedian Doug Stanhope, touring the UK in support of his new DVD Before Turning The Gun On Himself
At any given moment in the last five decades, there has been one stand-out stand-up. One man (thus far it's always a man, and he's always American) taking on the Big Stuff with unparalleled and trenchant gumption. By the Big Stuff, I mean race, class, sex, politics, religion, economics, drink, drugs and, in the case of Doug Stanhope, the frequency and consistency of bowel movements occasioned by the last two.
Bruce. Carlin. Pryor. Kinison. Hicks. Rock. Now Stanhope. Some of them have been superstars, some cult figures. None has been quite so marginal as Stanhope; but then none, not even Kinison, has had Stanhope's talent for alienating all but the hardiest of psyches and the strongest of stomachs. If you've watched his invigorating and scurrilous turns on Newswipe With Charlie Brooker, be advised that those are mild by the standards of his own show. You may fancy yourself impossible to shock, but Stanhope will likely find a way. The sharpness of the material redeems him. If his stuff weren't as good as it is, he'd be dodging torchlit mobs on a nightly basis. You'll seldom see a great comic whom you'll laugh at less, because the emotions he evokes are so much more varied, and uneasy, than plain laughter.
His new DVD, Before Turning The Gun On Himself, features a gruesome variation on this celebrated Charles Addams cartoon, depicting a horrified crowd who have, it's implied, just watched him blow his own head off. One of them finds it hilarious. That, we may take it, is Stanhope's core audience. He's the most truculent and least accommodating comic this side of Jerry Sadowitz. Others go out to the brink, then pull back. Stanhope doesn't even acknowledge the brink. He goes straight over and keeps running on thin air, Looney Tunes-style.
Neither a radical agitator like Bruce and Carlin, a het-up instinctive social conservative after the manner of Kinison and Rock, nor a Hicks-style messianic visionary, Stanhope claims political allegiance to America's Libertarians - a party whose ethos might be summarised as, "Do whatever the fuck you like but stay off my land and get your hands off my wallet, or I'll shoot you." You're no more likely to hear the sanctimonies that nourish current right-wing politics issuing from his cupid's bow than you are the pieties of the Left. That hoary cliché, "equal opportunity offender", so frequently used as an apologia for people who are nothing of the sort, actually applies to him; for the simple reason that he is just as willing to risk outraging his own crowd as anybody else.
You're currently on a UK tour. Have you found Britain a more hospitable environment for your comedy than the US, or is there the same division between a very small minority who get it and a very large minority who either hate it, or would hate it if they knew about it?
Doug Stanhope: It's the same, I think. It's a minority anywhere. There's no particular difference I've noticed between the two places in that regard.
As for people getting it - do you consciously try to push it so that even your own audience find themselves wincing? Do you consider, or object to, the idea of people congratulating themselves for being Doug Stanhope fans?
DS: Well, I sometimes say things that turn out to be factually incorrect. Like, I did one thing on the head of PETA, where I'd read an article and misunderstood it and it turned out I was talking shit. But I'm not trying to see how far I can go just for the hell of it. Mostly I just open my mouth and this stuff comes out.
You're not afraid of awkward pauses in your shows, and you're willing to endure silence. Is that because you're deliberately flouting the customs of stand-up, or because you've forgotten what you were going to say next?
DS: Definitely the second one. I'm not doing it for dramatic effect, or anything. I've just been doing it for so long I don't think I notice any more. That's one thing where I do notice a difference between here and in America. I think the English audiences are more patient, show more courtesy. In America, when you're mostly playing barrooms full of drunks, you stop for a second and they're shouting things out, requests for old material and stuff like that.
Do you hold with the idea that we are largely defined by what we hate; or if we aren't, we tend to be pretty boring?
DS: Well, I know I am. Whether the people who aren't [defined by that] are boring I don't know, but they certainly seem to be happier. As time goes on and I get older, I think I'd probably make that choice if I could. They say it's a decision, but it doesn't seem to be.
I live out in the middle of nowhere [in Bisbee, Arizona], so unless you turn the television on, or let it into your house some other way, you can pretty much keep away from [things you hate]. So at home I'm pretty happy. It's going out on the road that involves spreading rage and hate
You refer to "the crippling honesty of comedy". There's a saying about portraying things honestly, that it's "warts and all". Do you feel that your comedy depicts only the warts, and leaves out the rest? Or do you take the view there is nothing else to depict?
DS: It's the warts that are what it's all about, isn't it? That's where comedy comes from.
Are you familiar with the quotation from Friedrich Schiller that, "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"?
DS: Well, I don't read any high-flown shit like that...
Fair enough. Put it this way: do you think that maybe what you and your audience share is a sense - a despairing rather than a self-satisfied sense - that life constitutes a relentless losing battle against stupidity that ends only with death?
DS: Yeah, I often say it's like we're in an AA meeting. We're like a self-help group all gathered together, thinking, yeah, fuck all that. And yeah, not because we're so smart, but because the world is so fucking dumb.
You've been engaged in a high-profile Twitter spat lately. [With Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, in which he was accused of "threatening her with cancer".]
DS: Yeah. that's been fun. I'm looking forward to seeing the police report on that one. The funny thing is it's usually the other way around - a comedian says something stupid or shocking, and a reporter calls them out on it. Reversing the process is pretty enjoyable.
Is having an internet brawl when you've got a tour to promote a bit like a boxer trash-talking ahead of a fight?
DS: Oh yeah, it's great that way. The publicity has been terrific.
You say on your website, "I should have done more benefit shows when I had the act for it." Did you ever really have a benefit-friendly act?
DS: Well, I used to have an act. I've been talking to audiences the same way for 20 years. But it used to be more polished. It used to be that I could probably put together 15 minutes, if I really had to, that wouldn't scare the hell out of the audience at one of those things. But now, it's something you need to be acclimatised to. if you see my show for the first time and you're not expecting it, it will not go down well.
So there wasn't a Richard Pryor-style road-to-Damascus moment, where you thought, I can't do that any more, I have to do this?
DS: No, I don't know if there's ever been a time when doing my show to a benefit audience wouldn't be like playing death metal at a wedding.
In terms of what we might loosely call showbusiness, what's the worst thing you've done for money?
DS: The Leads and Reading Festival. I knew it would be horrible, but my stupid manager [who is, apparently, sitting right next to him] said, [Stanhope adopts what sounds like a parodic Canadian accent]. "Oo, you have to do it, it will be very prestigious." And it was horrible. I was just jeered and booed, they didn't want me there at all.
Worse than working for [Girls Gone Wild DVD maker] Joe Francis?
DS: Oh, that was something I just did for a laugh, because I thought it would be fun to be part of that pop culture for a moment. But he was such a scumsucking piece of shit, just the worst human being that I've met in any back alley in showbusiness, that I regret ever having my name associated with him or the idea that I might have made him a nickel.
Any chance you might have lost him money? Do you like the idea of using your powers for good rather than evil in that way?
DS: Yeah, when my audience gets mobilised, they really go after something, it's fun to unleash them, you just have to find the right target. [Allison Pearson has since described them as like "killer termites swarming all over you".] They're brutal and relentless.
A description much like those I've heard applied to your show. Do you have a list, or do the targets select themselves?
DS: I've got something in mind to do next. We're going to do something like the Santorum thing. I don't know if you've heard about that over here. Yeah? Anyway, I won't let the cat out of the bag, but it should be pretty good if it takes off.