Doug Stanhope: On the offensive

Doug Stanhope is shocking. So shocking that 600 people recently walked out of his stand-up show. But then he does make jokes about high-school shootings and 9/11. Now, into his schedule of drugs and women, he's squeezing in a visit to Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As I walk into the small comedy club, in Anchorage, Alaska, a young woman on stage interrupts her routine and stares at my companion, Doug Stanhope. "You know," she tells the audience of 80 or so, "I once went out with a guy who'd slept with 200 women before me." I look at Stanhope; his eyes shift, and he gives a kind of guilty shuffle.

As I walk into the small comedy club, in Anchorage, Alaska, a young woman on stage interrupts her routine and stares at my companion, Doug Stanhope. "You know," she tells the audience of 80 or so, "I once went out with a guy who'd slept with 200 women before me." I look at Stanhope; his eyes shift, and he gives a kind of guilty shuffle.

"Two hundred," she repeats. "At that point, I feel a man should be marked with an indelible stamp: 'Hazardous if taken internally. In case of contact with skin,'" she continues, "'seek immediate medical advice.'"

As she's leaving the stage a few minutes later, she points at Stanhope. "It's him," she says.

It's a tribute to Doug Stanhope's lively and gregarious history that he can run into an ex-girlfriend in Alaska, in a venue on the edge of town, at the lowest point of the tourist season. Outside, the snow on the pavements is a foot deep, the roads are sheets of ice and the temperature is minus 18. But the comedian likes Alaska best at this time of year, when conditions - it's dark for all but five hours in the day - are best suited to sustaining the city's reputation for unbridled hedonism. His only problem with Anchorage, he says, is that smoking is prohibited in most public places. "And this," Stanhope complains, "in a town where it's practically legal to shoot a man dead for giving you a queer look on a Saturday night."

You could argue that there's a kind of Olympic torch of extreme American comedy, which passed from Lenny Bruce, through Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison, among others, to the late Bill Hicks. Doug Stanhope is its latest, and equally brilliant, bearer. A perverse indifference to fame, and the gross obscenity to which he sometimes descends, have disguised his abilities as eloquent satirist. He had ecstatic reviews when he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago, but has since neglected to capitalise on that success, and remains largely unknown in Britain. He spends most of the year doggedly touring venues in the US. We were originally supposed to meet in Baltimore, but he cancelled that show - according to his website - "through exhaustion".

"Actually other stuff came up," Stanhope explains. "I put 'from exhaustion' because it sounded mysterious, and fishy." The sadder the town, says the comedian, who is 37, "the better the reception I get." He's very well liked in Baltimore. But they greet him like royalty in Anchorage.

Later in the evening, Stanhope - in his thrift-store overcoat, and holding a beer and a cigarette - gets up on the club's small stage. He eases his way in with a routine about drunken driving.

"Is the limit .08 here?" he asks.

Nods of assent.

"Who's too drunk to drive at .08?" says Stanhope. "No one. I don't like these blanket laws. One anorexic sorority girl has a sip of Baileys, screws half the football team, then drives into a mall and ruins it for everybody."

He pauses. ".08. I would rather be behind any of you thick-necked drunks driving at .16 than I would be behind your sober 100-year-old grandpa with his watery glaucoma eye, when he climbs in his car every day and sets off to what he believes to be the store."

Stanhope draws heavily on his Marlboro.

"But when your grandpa burns a red because he thinks he's seen Jesus beckoning him through, and ploughs into me, driving impeccably with a blood-alcohol level of 0.9 - on my way to the party - what does the headline say, the next day? 'Drunken Driver Kills War Hero.'"

Uneasy laughter.

"I'm a drunk," Stanhope says. "I'm good at it. Where's my individual rights?"

Somebody sends him a shot. Stanhope swallows it and surveys the room with practised ease.

"You know sometimes you have a great idea," he continues, "but then you forget to act on it, and someone else goes and does it first?"

Murmurs of recognition.

"Well that's how I feel about high-school shootings. That was an idea I had, and now everybody's doing it. High school is horrible. I quit in ninth grade and it was the best thing I ever did. After every school shooting, parents come on television and say: 'Rap music is the problem. And drugs. And the lack of metal detectors.' No. The problem is that a lot of your kids are aggressive dicks and you won't do shit about it. That's the problem."

Tentative applause from some drunks at a couple of tables. I wonder if they, like me, have been reminded of Thomas De Quincey's "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts", in which the essayist argues that a house blaze, if it allows itself to be extinguished by firemen, "should be hissed, like any other performer which has raised public expectations it failed to fulfil". Possibly not.

"You never hear these parents say: 'It's terrible that Andy Williams shot up Santana High School, but I accept it was also our boy Ethan's fault, because he was a sadistic prick to that kid,'" Stanhope continues. "'Tell that to the cameras, Ethan. Tell them how you pulled Andy's pants down, then pushed his head down the toilet.' I never hear that on the news."

Williams, Stanhope continues, "was this frail little kid. A lot of people thought his technique was derivative of the Kip Kinkle school shooting in Springfield, Oregon, though personally I thought Andy had his own style and panache. But with a high-school shooting, everyone's a critic, right?"

Williams, he goes on, "was bullied, and shot up his school. George W Bush came on the news and called it 'the ultimate act of cowardice'. Bush," Stanhope adds, "went to a private school where he was a male cheerleader and lived. You got no idea how the world works, do you George? Bring your pompoms to Santana High for a week and let's see who you're calling a coward then."

Fearless, irreverent and inspired as Stanhope may be, his act, as the comedian himself concedes, "is like animal porn - it's not for everybody". When he was starting out, he admits, he tended to indulge himself in vulgarity for the sake of it. As his career has gone on, he has evolved the kind of moral centre that Bill Hicks possessed pretty much from the start. That said, 600 people recently walked out on him, en masse, at a theatre in Ohio. The Anchorage faithful stay put, though one or two expressions resemble the faces of the first-night audience for Springtime for Hitler.

"Cowardice," Stanhope mutters. "The ultimate act of cowardice is the fat-headed wrestling guy sitting behind the frail kid in math class, clipping him on the ear, saying: 'What are you going to do about that, faggot?' That is cowardice. When the bullets start flying past that jock's saucer-shaped ears, that's not cowardice. That's payback."

There's mounting applause from an audience which recognises that, behind this twisted rhetoric, lies an interesting and valid perception - even if, as Stanhope says, "there are some truths that you don't want to know".

"Coward," Stanhope says, "is the most misused word in this society."

"I remember the TV presenter John Walsh talking about one guy, I think it was Richard Allen Davis, on his show America's Most Wanted. 'Call this number and get this cowardly murderer off the streets.' Cowardly? There's words that would fit. Sociopath. Whack-job. But... coward? This guy was driving around with body parts in his car," adds the comedian, who has a gift for presenting the most alarming of concepts in terms of highly inappropriate sensitivity. "I get clammy palms motoring with an expired tax disc. I'm not trying to condone his behaviour. I'm just saying that - as a recreation - it's a trifle nervy.

"It's like that phrase: 'Suicide - it's the coward's way out.' Screw you. Life," he goes on, "is like a movie. If you've sat through more than half of it, and it's sucked so far, the chances are it's not going to get great right at the end. No one should blame you for walking out early." His voice drops and coarsens, adopting the tone of a macho truck driver. "'I knew he was going to chicken out and blow his head off with a Magnum 44. He wouldn't even do a shot with us, the homo.'"

In the case of many public figures - Tony Blair springs to mind - their speech patterns convey less about their history than their intended future: there's a quality in * their voice that hints at the even more admirable person they're striving to become. Stanhope isn't like this. His voice is rooted entirely in the past. His laugh, especially - hoarse, low and dirty - is redolent of late nights, cheap whisky and too many cigarettes. He is the embodiment of everything your parents warned you against.

"They say 'life is precious'," he growls. "To who? To you, when you're young and you've got a few dollars in your pocket. Tell that to the 90-year-old lying awake at the graveyard shift in the nursing home, groaning with dementia. The only reason he hasn't killed himself," Stanhope goes on, "is that he hasn't figured out a way he can do it with pudding."

He leaves to a small ovation. But even here in Anchorage, Doug Stanhope has been physically attacked on stage. Southern audiences, in particular, didn't appreciate his response to 9/11, which appears on his best CD, Die Laughing.

"It's been a month now," Stanhope says, "and the President has advised us to return to our normal lives and habits. So I've gone back to thinking that George W Bush is a soft-headed tit who's a danger to us all, and I've started drinking again. I took a couple of days off," he adds, "in memory of our fallen heroes."

Recently, his shows have started getting picketed. In Madison, Wisconsin, he joined demonstrators outside the theatre, passing unnoticed as he carried a placard demanding that the authorities "Ban This Garbage". One of his own fans failed to recognise the comedian, and berated him as a Born Again lunatic.

"Misguided though I think those people were," Stanhope tells me, "they were still my first protesters, and I wanted to hug them all, and buy them beers."

Many stores refuse to stock his CDs, with their prominent references to drugs, pornography and prostitution. His act, like his website, is a forum for explicit and sometimes horrific imagery. More than anybody I have ever met - with the possible exception of Hunter S Thompson, who used the following quotation as the preface to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - he has taken to heart Dr Johnson's remark that "He who makes a beast of himself forgets the pain of being a man."

Stanhope's status as a serious comedian hasn't been enhanced by his decision, a year ago, to co-host The Man Show, a programme which describes itself as "a woman-free zone, unless they're in bikinis or on a trampoline". The Man Show began screening in Britain this year, on Rupert Murdoch's channel FX UK. It makes Topless Darts look like University Challenge. For one edition, filmed earlier this month, Stanhope, who is not at the peak of physical fitness, somehow survived five rounds with the self-styled "Bad Girl of American Boxing", disgraced ice-skater Tonya Harding. The Man Show isn't his finest hour, and he knows it. "Nobody," the comedian says, "has more contempt for our viewers than I do."

"I know what he thinks of these kinds of shows," a friend of his told me. "But he had to make a choice between struggling financially and being comfortable."

After he gets off stage in Anchorage, we enter an adjoining nightclub where he's filming his other base but lucrative television venture Girls Gone Wild, substituting for regular host Snoop Dogg. As television concepts go, it doesn't suffer from over-sophistication: each week a film crew visits a bar in a different city and sees how many young women it can persuade to take their clothes off.

At one point, Stanhope looks on, bemused, as three naked girls, one upside-down, balance in a precarious-looking tableau whose pivot is Ron, a person of restricted growth. "Good evening," Ron calls out. "I am in midget heaven."

When the filming's finished around 3am, the crew unwind on their bus with the owner of Anchorage's lap-dancing club and several of his employees. Stanhope remains on the edge of the party, a beer and a whisky at his side. "Unlike some people who've been involved with this kind of show," one source told me, "there's nothing creepy about Doug; he doesn't see it as an opportunity to sleep with vulnerable women half his age."

When I wake up at the Anchorage Hotel, late the next morning, I find that, as if by some reverse form of magnetism, I have lost almost everything I had when I set out with Stanhope - hat, scarf, money. Around lunchtime, in the street, on my way to the clothing store, I meet the comedian. He approaches me with his hands in his pockets, and asks me if I know what happened to his gloves.

In daylight, Stanhope is a softly spoken, considerate kind of person: thoughtful, and practically bookish. ("I do good things in my life, too," he says. "It's just that none of them are funny.")

But it's dark again when I call on him next, later that afternoon, back at his hotel room, and it does feel a little like dropping in on the devil. His stock of Xanax (a benzodiazepine meant for the treatment of anxiety disorders) and a number of other drugs, are on a table beside him. He keeps half an eye on a documentary about Goebbels. In his left hand there's a cigarette; his right is tapping at his laptop, placing spread bets on the NFL.

Doug Stanhope, like Bill Hicks, is not a performer you could recommend unreservedly, even to a hardened adult comedy audience, because there are moments in his performance (one relates to the so-called "abortion pill", RU486) which would revolt anybody.

"Believe me," Stanhope says, " 'I often wish I had the jokes people come expecting to hear. Jokes like, 'Isn't it dreadful when your girlfriend sends you out for tampons, and you're so embarrassed when you get to the counter that you can't ask for them?' But if I told a woman: 'I am too embarrassed to buy you tampons,' she'd say: 'Are you the same guy who once fucked a midget because he 'thought it would be fun?'"

"Did you?"

"Well I did once, after a show, because I had the opportunity. How could you not?"

It's been an extraordinary life, not least because it all started so well. Stanhope was born to middle-class parents in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father Russ, who died four years ago, was head of science at Doug's school; his mother Bonnie was a waitress. But Bonnie, an alcoholic, left home when Doug was 10, then headed for Florida, and he was brought up mainly by his dad.

Bonnie now lives near Doug in West Hollywood. She relocated from Florida in 1998, at his suggestion. "I got the idea in the early hours, one Sunday morning," says Stanhope. "I called her up, and said, 'Hey, Mom, come and live near me.' And now she's there, around the corner, with her 11 cats that all look like burn victims. You know how, in some states, when someone's been convicted of drink driving they fit a breathalyser to the ignition system so that the car won't start until you breathe into it, to prove you're under the limit? Well that's what I need on my telephone."

His mother reviews porn for The Man Show. "I sit there with my cat on my lap," she tells me, on the phone from LA, "and say things like: 'Today's film is a drama called Hard Evidence. It's very like Perry Mason, or rather it would be, if Perry had been a young whore who spent all day getting boned in the keep cell. I liked this movie, but I couldn't help but think how I'd have loved Doug to become a big trial lawyer. He didn't - but hey, these are the breaks when you smoke through your pregnancy.'"

Living with Russ, Stanhope says, he and his older brother Jeff (who runs an ice-cream parlour in Rhode Island) were allowed to get away with almost anything. "My dad was a gentle, generous man," Doug says. "Literally to a fault. There was no discipline; no boundaries." There's a picture of the comedian kissing his dead father's forehead on his website.

When Doug was a boy, says his mother, who stopped drinking when he was eight, "there was so much tension in the house". As an infant, Bonnie recalls, he was in trouble at school for drawing violent and obscene images (an impulse he hasn't fully shaken off; pornography, for Stanhope, remains a good way of appalling the right-thinking citizens of Middle America). "He would get stomach aches at the dinner table, and have to leave and lie down. But Russ and I knew he didn't have a stomach ache. It wasn't the food," Bonnie says. "It was us."

When Stanhope dropped out of school at 15, he got jobs in the world of telemarketing "in that side of the business," he explains, "that verges on fraud". Like most of his experiences, it has found its way into his act.

"Old people always tell you: 'When you've been around as long I have, then you can argue.' As soon as they're ripped off, it's a different story."

He puts on a mournful, imploring voice. "'They took advantage of me because I'm old. They called up and said I'd won a new Mercedes, and all I had to do was leave $8,000 in a locker at the bus station. I was sceptical at first, because I've been burned by this 11 or 12 times before.'" He pauses.

"'I haven't learnt anything in the past 15 years * that hasn't just depressed me more. I'd rather be oblivious again. Oblivion was nice.'"

Like many men who've had a turbulent childhood, he is a bachelor by instinct, even though, last year, he married his girlfriend, Renee Morrison, who he refers to as "my gay lover". Their relationship has a certain flexibility: Morrison, 29, lives in a remote mountain village in Colorado, while Doug spends most of his time in LA, or partying on the road. He gave his speech at the reception with his trousers down.

"My girlfriend," he once told an audience. "She's flawless. She's beautiful. She doesn't drink or take drugs. She recycles. Everything she does just serves to amplify my flaws a thousand fold. My advice is, find yourself someone with as many defects as you have, if you want to retain a modicum of self-esteem. Someone like a nice manic-depressive crack whore. Because, in two and a half years, the only flaw I've ever managed to find in her is that she is occasionally late. And that's not a great deal of ammunition when you come home drunk at 3am, smelling of pole dancer, and your girlfriend is saying: 'You totalled my car.' And all you can say back is: 'Yeah, well, maybe I wouldn't have; if you weren't... occasionally late.'"

First impressions aren't everything, of course, but I had a suspicion from the moment I set eyes on Stanhope that domesticity wasn't his strong point. I first met him in Hollywood, last July, when he was filming The Man Show. He was living in an office on the studio lot at that time, the programme's lawyers having tried unsuc- cessfully for three months to evict their presenter, who was squatting there with his co-writer, Andy Andrist.

They were still asleep when I arrived, at 9.30 on a Monday morning. When I went into the room - which, in addition to the usual office equipment, was furnished with a sleeping bags, empty beer bottles and a clothesline of damp boxer shorts and socks - Stanhope's first action on waking was to peer into a box, home to a Madagascan Giant Cockroach he'd won that weekend in Las Vegas.

The first words I heard him say - before "hello" - were: "She's dead. I think it was that bastard Roy. When I told him we thought she was pregnant, he hit her with a golf club."

When he'd pulled on his clothes and made coffee, he told me that he'd decided to cut down on sexual material in his act. An hour later, in The Man Show studio, with the cameras rolling, he was pelting me with silicone breast implants from the stage, "to see if the British can catch".

Andrist, a deceptively quiet-looking figure, is Stanhope's preferred accomplice on some of his more bizarre projects. They've been experimenting with a routine which begins with their young friend Kelly standing beside a highway, hitching a ride. When a car stops, Stanhope, Andrist and two male accomplices, all naked, leap out of the bushes and attempt to follow her into the vehicle. ("Most guys speed off," says Andrist. "But you'd be surprised how many give us a ride.")

The moment you may have expected to alter Stanhope's aberrant lifestyle came a few years ago when Renee got pregnant: the couple resolved the situation with an abortion and a vasectomy. "Those were decisions," Doug says, "that neither of us had to think about twice."

On stage, when he talks about marriage and children, it's like the mind of WC Fields connected to the mouth of Richard Pryor. Die Laughing contains a routine called "In Praise of Sodomy".

"We're outbreeding dead people by a rate of two to one," Stanhope complains. "Nine thousand people per hour are dumped on the planet. Sodomy is the solution. Sodomy can legally be defined as 'any sexual activity not intended for procreation'. I know that, because it said so on a sign hanging above my bed at the Allen Park Hotel."

Global resources are depleted, he argues, "because of your kids. I have to pay for cable TV just to hear a comedian say 'fuck' - because of your kids. I have to struggle like a mongoloid with a safety lighter when I'm drunk - because of your kids. And at three in the morning, when I want to moon a sorority girl from a taxi cab - because I have issues going way back - I can't even do that, because the window will only go down half way; to protect your kids. I've wasted six bucks on a taxi because you had to have more babies. Because you didn't want the muddy Nicaraguan orphan who really needed you. And," he goes on, "because you wanted to know what you'd look like if you didn't eat so much cake."

"You got kids, and you want to pre-board an airplane? No. Fuck you. You wait till last. You're the problem. Let the homo pre-board."

When I called Renee to ask if she'd ever sought to control his behaviour, there was a hollow laugh.

"When I first met Doug, six years ago, he disgusted me to the point of interest," she told me. "Since then we've discovered that we can be really bad for each other. So we take it in small doses. I stay in Colorado getting a little reality. He's out there doing as much damage as he can. I know exactly what goes on in Anchorage, and I don't have a clue how he has the stamina for it - but that life feeds him. That's his home, in a sense. But I do love him. We will grow old and get weird together. And we look out for each other."

"For instance?"

"Well, the only times either of us have been arrested, we have been apart. Usually we're quite good at keeping the other one from prison, or, er..."

"Yes?"

"Death."

Life expectancy in Anchorage, as any resident will tell you, is shorter than elsewhere in the US; I suspect the locals' spirited defiance in the face of mortality is one reason Doug likes it here so much. If there's one quality that unites the great performers in his school of comedy, it's that they have found longevity elusive.

"Watching you," says one correspondent on his website, "is like watching a five-year-old put a loaded gun to his head. Point blank Doug - you're going to end up at the morgue."

In the weekend I've spent with him in Alaska, food - to use his own phrase - has been "an evil that takes a coloured-only seat behind coffee and legal smokes."

Everybody I spoke to about Stanhope, including the comedian himself, addressed the possible consequences of his punishing regime. His mother Bonnie told me she is "mainly worried about the Xanax, ecstasy and drink in combination".

"I see myself as a distance drinker," he tells me. "I do drugs now and then. I rarely tear it up." The secret, Stanhope says, is "Excess in Moderation".

Betsy Wise, who dated Stanhope for 18 months, is a former attorney from Miami. An outstanding comedian in her own right, now based in New York, she's the woman who spotted him from the stage in Anchorage.

"When I got together with Doug," she recalls, "I told him I didn't know how far I could go in a relationship with someone who was so clearly self-destructive. I think a lot of his problems stem from the fact that - by contrast with his stage persona - he is such a generous person. When he arrives in a town, his fans have expectations of a certain pattern of behaviour, and he doesn't like to disappoint. People don't realise that he works hard at what he does, over a notebook and a coffee. He is passionate about the smallest detail of his writing, which is why he is such an amazing performer. And this, remember, is someone who dropped out of the school system - he is essentially self-educated. When he steps on a stage you can hear that passion, and it comes out as a kind of poetry."

Most comedians, Wise believes, "are driven up there by ego. It's never been that way with Doug. For Doug, it's always been the work."

The most immediate threat to Stanhope's well-being is the annual party he throws in the first week of May. For several years now, he's taken over a run-down motel in a remote area of Death Valley, California, where 40 of his friends converge for a three-day bacchanal in the desert. Most are American, though Glasgow, perhaps unsurprisingly, is also well-represented. (To the delight of the Scottish contingent, Stanhope recently announced that he will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival again this summer.)

This year's invitation to Death Valley reads: "Don't bring anyone you couldn't imagine tripping alone with for three days in the desert. If you do drugs - bring them. Automatic weapons? Your call." In view of certain events during last year's Rental Car Drag-Race, it goes on, "we recommend taking out full insurance". One of last year's delegates required a spinal tap.

Stanhope says he traditionally visits his hungover guests every morning, "armed with the master key and a Polaroid for the 9am Surprise Beauty Pageant". They go home, he adds, "with the dirty smile of people who did something wrong".

"Come," he says, demurely.

"I'll think about it."

"OK," Stanhope says. "Like I say to people - please yourselves. You live your own lives. I like to wake up with a story." *

Doug Stanhope will be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival

Comments