Comedian Doug Stanhope knows a thing or two about hard living and hard truths. But are the masses ready for his scathing brand of stand-up comedy? We’ll see who’s still standing after his new Showtime special, No Refunds premieres next month.
by Dylan P. Gadino I photos below by Heidi Kikel
Stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope is inside us all. He’s the part we keep in check until the weekends, the bad ideas we suppress to avoid arrest, the dormant habits we’ve laid to rest years ago in favor of a traditional life spent commuting and sitting in cubicles. He’s our hero.
Though to many he’s known as the co-host of the last season of Comedy Central’s The Man Show or as one of the faces of Girls Gone Wild videos, Stanhope is most valuable onstage, dissecting society within a shred of its existence. His jokes are defined by ugly truths, deft analysis and an Aronofsky-esque poignancy. In the end, Stanhope makes it all brutally funny.
For the first time ever, thanks to his new Showtime special, No Refunds — premiering Aug. 3 — Stanhope assaults the small screen, completely uncensored. For hard-core fans of the 17-year comedy veteran, it’s been a long wait; for those not yet schooled in the way of Stanhope, it’s going to be quite an education. Punchline Magazine recently caught up with the Arizona-based comic to talk about No Refunds, the state of comedy and tons more.
How are you these days?
Good. So you interview comics. That’s got to be a tedious living.
Are any of the comics you talk to fun?
They’re usually pretty normal.
You’d figure that this would’ve been a far more interesting job in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Now everyone, they have an act, and then they leave right after and go back to their hotel and work on a screenplay. There’s very little fun out there anymore.
Yeah, you think?
There’s a lot of ambition and not a lot of adrenaline.
So that’s the problem — not enough adrenaline?
I don’t think so. But I think it spreads far beyond the borders of comedy. It’s life in general, but comics especially. That’s why I’m doing more rock ‘n’ roll clubs now.
Rock clubs and Showtime specials. Did you do anything differently to prepare for the Showtime special than you normally do for a regular show?
The problem any time you do a CD or a DVD, is that to some extent you have to know what the fuck you’re doing. I have 17 years of material to draw off of. Just to go wherever my head’s going is not going to work for something like this. It’s very hard for me to stick to a set list.
But usually, before a regular show, I figure out what I want to do — you know, jokes I want to open with or new stuff that I want to do, and the rest I can just go wherever my head’s going or wherever the crowd’s going. But when you’re recording, you don’t want to do stuff that’s previously released, so to some extent, yeah, I’ve stuck to a script of sorts.
Did you rehearse specifically for this show?
No, the day of the show I sit down with a notepad so it’s all fresh in my head. If I did it the day before, I’d forget everything I wrote down. Not that I’d forget the material, but all the segues and what bits I definitely want to get in. I didn’t treat it differently than any other gig. I still got hammered and smoked cigarettes.
How do you feel the Showtime special compares to a traditional Doug Stanhope live show?
Well, this is the first time I’ve ever done any stand-up on television that wasn’t censored. Anything I do censored sucks on some level — between sucks and really sucks. I have to consider my language. It would be like telling a Mexican guy, “Don’t use that accent.” When you’re constantly trying not to do something, then you’re not in the moment; you’re focused on other things other than flow and your jokes.
And censorship is a lot more than just dirty words. I did a half-hour special for Comedy Central, and during the phone call with the network censors, my jaw was just agape. I had a suicide bit and they said, “You can’t do that because if someone hears that and they kill themselves, we could get sued. And you can’t talk about drugs unless it’s negative.” So they’re censoring ideas. And that’s far scarier than saying you can’t say “cocksucker.” So yeah, this is the first time I’ve done anything that’s uncensored.
Showtime didn’t give you any parameters?
Nope, not a thing. I never even met with Showtime. In fact, the only notes I got weren’t even Showtime-related, they were for the DVD release of the same show. We talked about titles. Because they wanted to be able to sell it in box stores, they had to approve the title. Best Buy isn’t going to put just anything on their shelves.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
It depends on if I’m doing more than one show. If I have two shows I wait until I’m on stage to drink during the first show, and then I continue to drink. That’s about my only ritual. And I try to stay away from people until after the show.
Why is that?
Because I’m thinking. I have no social skills until I’m drinking and don’t have shit to do.
What do you think about?
What to say on stage. Something new to amuse myself. Something in the moment. I can go on stage and have a first joke, something new or something that I actually think is funny, and it makes all the difference in the show. If I have nothing but repeating shit I’ve said before, it’s soul-wrenching.
On stage, you do a lot of dark material and say some pretty twisted things, things that aren’t normally reserved for a comedy show. What is it about your personality that people find likable?
I don’t have the slightest idea why people wouldn’t enjoy what I do. And I don’t spend any time trying to figure it out. People are really into self-help and self-analysis. You might come up with an answer — Well, it’s because my uncle touched me — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s true. That’s just an answer you’re comfortable with. So if I try to analyze why I appeal to the people I appeal to, I just come up with some bullshit answer, but it’s not necessarily true, and I don’t give a fuck anyway.
I mean, I don’t mean to come off sounding like I don’t care about the audience, but if you focus on making it fun for you and amusing for yourself, that will show through. If you’re doing what you want to do, and saying what you want to say, and saying something that you’re passionate about, you’re going to find an audience. It might be a very small one, but that’s how you can continue doing it without wanting to kill yourself.
There’re acts out there that have done the exact same word-for-word fucking show since 1986 and they have no problem with it. I have some envy for that. They still draw audiences, and people want to hear it. And sometimes I wish I could do that without feeling my fucking guts turn upside down like I’m a complete fraud.
I get nervous when people stay for the second show. Oh, you were so funny, we’re going to stay for the second show, like all of it’s off the top of your head. All I can think about is that person and their balloon bursting, and I completely dismiss the other 99 people in the audience, just worrying about the one guy who stayed for two shows. So I’m trying to change up my whole set in a drunken hour.
You moved to Arizona after living in LA for years. What was it about LA that you couldn’t stand to be there anymore?
First, traffic, as trivial as that sounds. And crowds. I mean you hear that everyone’s plastic. I don’t think they’re plastic so much as they are self-involved and ambitious. And when you live in that circle where their entire lives are their career, it’s just so dull to be around.
There’s very little in the moment that’s not narcissistic or self-serving or people thinking like, Where is this going to get me? What about fun? And when it’s even your peers, it’s not just new comics up and coming, it’s your peers. Like I’ll tell my friends to go to Costa Rica with me, and they’re like, “No.” [Dave] Attell won’t even fucking come to town without doing a set. Who cares about this business? It’s so ridiculous.
How long have you been in Arizona now?
And how would you describe where you live?
It’s an old mining town of about 6,000 people on the Mexican border. It’s vaguely hippie — which is annoying to me — with enough minuteman element to keep it in check. It’s an artist community, but it’s really not my kind of art.
How do you mean?
There’re lots of big turquoise belt buckles and sculptures, and that’s not the kind of people you can work out your new fist-fucking jokes with over coffee.
But obviously something keeps you there.
It’s really quiet. There’s one stoplight in town, and because I’m on the road as much as I am, I really enjoy doing nothing when I get home. But I wouldn’ want to stay here for any long amount of time. I’ve been here for six weeks right after a tour. After two weeks, I’m starting to get itchy and scratchy to get the fuck out. There’s really no place I’d want to live forever.
You’ve said that it’s kind of sad that there’s so little social relevance in comedy. But if hundreds of comedians were trying to be socially relevant, wouldn’t that make what you do…
Moot? Yeah, sure. I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t think there’s a lack of social relevance in comedy, it’s in the comics that are popular. I blame the market, not the art form. There’re enough people that if you wanted social relevance in comedy, you could hand-pick them.
But I don’t think there’s a lot of social relevance in any media. The music is all fucking Pablum, as far as what’s popular. Television is all just dumb and dog shit. People have so many distractions now and so many toys. There’s so much attention deficit disorder, and I think that’s a bullshit disorder, but people are so distracted.
You’ve got fucking text messaging and cell phone cameras and instant messenger and MySpace and the 10-minute ticker and the news crawl. I mean, there’re so many things fighting for your attention that entertainment itself has become diluted, and people have become more stationary.
You hear stories about people going to see Lenny Bruce in the ’60s and catching a show at 3 a.m., and now you do a 10 p.m. show on a Friday and people are yawning and falling asleep in their chairs because they just fucking work too much so they could buy too much shit that they don’t need. But when I go over to London, you could fill a house on a Tuesday night for at a 1 a.m. show.
So you think the problem is more in the States?
All I know is they [the British] have four channels, and they all suck. We have 300 channels. People are fucking stapled to their couch here.
In other words, If you have fewer options at home, you’re going to go out more.
Right. And when you’re not presented with fun or entertainment, you go create your own.
Yeah, that’s got to be frustrating to deal with that mentality on stage. Do you feel like a lot of people just don’t get what you’re trying to do?
Now that I’m doing more rock ‘n’ roll clubs, I’m bringing in my own audience, as opposed to comedy clubs, where people just show up for a fucking bachelorette party with a balloon hat on and have no idea who they’re going to see. So I get a lot less shit –to the point where sometimes I delude myself into thinking that maybe I am relevant to the masses and not just to those people who already know what I do. But then I’ll shuffle into a comedy club to do a guest set, and I realize how much I don’t fit in the real world.
I just think people don’t care about [socially-relevant comedy]. People will say, “We came to the comedy club to get away from that.” And you go, “Well, you were never really involved in that; don’t act like that’s your fucking life, that’s CNN. The longest running fucking reality show on TV is the news. It doesn’t affect your life. You haven’t been out looking for missing kids all fucking week. Come on now. Your whole life is away from that. The fucking cubicle, crunching numbers and getting a bonus, that’s your life.”
Yeah, I guess people do act like they’re so embedded in what’s going on.
To the point where if you weren’t hyperaware, you’d think that’s your life. It’s being hypervigilant about homeland security and all this stuff, because it’s bashed into your head with a ball-peen hammer. The fact that they can sell fear that easily is because it’s easier than facing the reality that probably nothing of any significance is ever going to happen in your entire life.
You’d much rather believe that fucking immigrants are trying to take your job, and pedophiles are trying to fuck your kids, and terrorists are trying to blow up your Ford Focus in particular, than realize that you’re probably never even going to break a bone. You have a couple of kids with a woman; you settle for less and that’s it. You fucking have an embolism and die. So people want to believe that all this shit on the news is coming down on them. It’s the hand-sanitizer generation.
Why do you think people are willing to go to comedy shows when they don’t even know the comic? They wouldn’t do that for a movie or a band.
Well, when you look at the boom, comics were trying to be TV-friendly because of Seinfeld, Paul Reiser. And then when comedy clubs started dying, they tried turning comedy clubs into adult Chuck E. Cheeses; they’re giving away 20 passes, you fill out the comment card and we’ll bring you in on your birthday for free. You just pay for $9 pina coladas and we’ll take care of the rest. So they catered to those type of people.
They’d show up for their birthday party and wanted everyone in their group to be satisfied, so they have Las Vegas-like comedy that appeases the masses, and that’s how they sold it. And they did that for so long. Comedy is such a fucking silly thing, that it’s amazing it’s even marketable. People are paying me to make them laugh.
So you’re actually surprised that it’s even this popular?
I mean, when you look at the type of comedy that people are going to see generally in middle America — at the Funny Bone or whatever — it’s like, “You have to pay for that? Don’t you have a friend that’s that funny? It’s not a business that seeks out originality.
Yeah, I guess it’s risky for a club owner to book edgier acts. They want the majority of people to like it and to come back.
Yeah, but there’re lots of people who are doing alternative venues, which is really great. Todd Barry does a lot of them. Between satellite radio and the Internet, it opens up a whole new way to reach people and get crowds to your shows where you don’t have to Clear Channel-it-up for morning radio. I mean, radio’s fucking completely dead anyway. So you MySpace and YouTube and get the word out, and you don’t have to suck some club owner’s dick. You market yourself.
You’ve said before in reference to The Man Show that you’re not at all interested in doing television.
It would never be a focus for me. I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. They always blow smoke up your ass about one thing or another. “Hey, come do this E! channel show.” “All right. I can just sit there and talk? I don’t have to try?” I’m not going to be studying lines. I’m a fucking horrible actor, and there’s no reward in it for me. I have zero desire to do anything to be famous or known.
Television is work, and that’s the best thing about doing stand-up is you can go up and say what’s on your mind for an hour, hammer a few beers and a Jagerbomb and that’s it. The only work is really the travel. With television, you’ve got to get up at 6:30 in the morning and study fucking lines and rehearse and block it out and everything — all to do something that really sucks in comparison to what you do onstage. So what’s the payoff? I don’t need money. Once I have enough money for beer and cigarettes and my rent’s paid, what else do I need? I’ve never been motivated by money.
Yeah, for you then, it doesn’t seem worth it.
Yeah, I still sneak into LA to do something ridiculous. I don’t go out and audition. I have no agent in LA or representation trying to seek stuff out, but if someone calls and it sounds like it’s going to be fun to do, I’ll do it.
You’ve recorded three of your albums at the Laff Stop in Houston. Why did you decide to do them all there?
Yeah, back when it was a good club. Back when Mark Babbitt ran it. The guy that took it over is a tool. When Mark Babbitt used to run the Laff Stop, everyone was taping discs there, because he really cared about the art form, not just the comment cards and the chicken wings, and he wasn’t trying to exert authority over comics like a lot of clubs do. There were no power plays, like “If you work for them you don’t work for us.”
So many club owners are just douche bags. But Babbitt was just such a fun guy and really cared about the business. And he had the place wired so you could just come in and throw a DAT tape in and you’re recording. Literally, all you had to do is hit record, go on stage, and you had an album.
Do you have a better response in Houston than you do in other places?
Yeah, the crowds were good because he booked the comics that he liked rather than what comedy-club audiences might prefer – even if he was taking a risk, and even if he thought it would fail. That’s how you train an audience. It’s no different than a fucking punk-rock club. You throw a country-western band in there once a year to amuse yourself, it’s going to suck. You have to train them on a certain genre of comedy.
A lot of clubs aren’t willing to take those risks once a week or once a month or whatever it takes to train an audience.
Well, yeah, you have to stick to it. A lot of club owners want to bring me in just because they like me and they’ll try it.
In your act, you kind of talk at length about your frustration – whether it be with politicians or the government or just normal people. It’s clear that you have some anger. But what is it you fear, if anything?
Why is boredom so scary?
It’s more lack of desire really. You know, those days where you’re bored but there’s nothing you want? If someone asks you, “If you could do anything what would it be?” And you go, “I don’t know, I’ve done pretty much everything in my life I’ve wanted to.” But again, that just comes out of a sense of laziness. Getting too set in your ways.
I fear cops. I fear the IRS. Airport security. Traffic. Morning-radio-show audiences. Criticism.
You don’t seem the type of guy who would care about criticism.
Well, it’s tough with the Internet, where everyone’s a pro bono critic, and you don’t know who it is. If some fucking goober in overalls fucking hates my abortion bit at the Funny Bone in Des Moines, I can look at that guy, size him up, know who he is and know about his life. But when you have that self-doubt in the back of your head, and you get an e-mail that says, “You fucking suck,” then you picture the worst possible person that you could be getting that from.
It’s the same way if your girlfriend fucking doesn’t call, and you know she went out with her fucking ex-boyfriend, you make the worst possible image in your head of what’s happening right now. You picture that e-mail coming from the person you respect, the person whose notice and recognition and support you long for, and you think that’s your crowd. And it’s probably a 15-year-old kid who only knows you from The Man Show. But in your head, it’s a comedy connoisseur who’s seconding the voices in your head that say you suck.
So it’s anonymous criticism that you fear.
Right. But it all goes with the roller coaster of your day, too. If you wake up and you feel good, and you took it easy the night before, you don’t have a lot to do, and you’ve got a bunch of shit happening later that’s going to be fun, and you have self-confidence — then all right, that e-mail? Delete. Who cares?
But if you wake up in a fucking spiraling hangover after six weeks on the road, and you don’t think you’re funny anymore, and you’ve said your jokes so many times they don’t make sense, and you hate yourself, then that e-mail can destroy you.
You’re constantly compared to people like Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor. Are you comfortable with those comparisons?
Well, obviously there’s a fine line between a comparison and being called derivative of someone. Someone like Hicks, I just never saw the connection between me and him, other than having topics that were of a relevant nature.
Bill Hicks was a sober guy who was very deliberate and paced and well-spoken. I’m a fucking drunken rambling idiot. The styles don’t seem very similar at all. But there’s worse people to be compared to.
Comics always talk about how their lifestyle doesn’t allow for the most normal romantic relationships. But you’re married now?
Oh, you’re not married?
No. Even when I was married I wasn’t really married.
Yeah. We called ourselves married. We had a ceremony that was just mocking the institution of marriage. But it wasn’t legal at all. It was a big party with a lot of debauchery and drugs and nudity and ingesting of bodily fluids – naked Elvis. You had to be there.
I guess so.
It was a complete Sid-and-Nancy relationship. Or maybe a Hank-and-Wanda, Bukowski fucking Barfly relationship — two great drunks that didn’t go great together kind of thing. But I’m in a relationship now.
How does your road lifestyle affect your current relationship?
It works out fine. She comes out occasionally, and she’s got her own life and her own shit to do and her own projects, and that makes all the difference. She’s not needy of constant attention, and she works fine on her own when I’m away.
Sounds like a good situation.
A lot of times people would just assume my girlfriend would be angry or jealous because I’d do Girls Gone Wild or Stern or whatever dumb shit I’m doing. Like it’s so common for people to be in relationships where one person is intolerant.
Like, “Oh, I can’t go to strip bars anymore, I’m married.” Why would you fucking marry someone that wouldn’t allow you to be who you want to be, so long as you were loyal? It’s just baffling that that’s so commonplace in our society. They settle for less, and then you have to be in relationships where you have to pretend to be someone you’re not. It’s fucking mind-boggling.
Yeah. It’s very common. Comics, they’ve got to go outside and get in the car from the nightclub to pretend they’re in their hotel room when they call. You’re just out drinking!
You turned 40 not too long ago. How has that affected you personally as well as your comedy?
Well, I’ve been depressed about 40 since I was about 33. It really didn’t make a difference. I haven’t really grown emotionally or spiritually at all, so the number really doesn’t matter, it’s just the amount of time I’ve done things. You get to a place where you go, “What the fuck can I say that I haven’t said in some fashion before? What topics are left?” Any time you do that it’s because you’re being lazy as a human being and not doing enough new shit with your life.
So you didn’t go through that cliched crisis when you were days away from turning 40?
No. I mean, with my lifestyle, every morning is a waking crisis of mortality. It has nothing to do with aging. It’s not like I’m worried about a prostate exam when I wake up and don’ know what town I’m in and who I should apologize to. [laughs]
So age doesn’t really affect you.
Well, I never have any of the mile markers that other people have. It’s not like I have kids and I’m watching them graduate middle school. It’s just the same shit – staggering from town to town causing trouble and trying to find new and inventive ways to amuse myself.
In your live shows, you don’y really shy away from talking about drinking and drugs. To what extent do those things influence your comedy and your writing process and your performances?
Alcohol is definitely something that enhances my stage show. I don’t want to use the fucking cliched performance-enhancing drug line, but yeah, I’ve credited alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics for my career. I think I used the line in the Showtime special that drugs have expanded my imagination enough to think of some weird shit, and cigarettes give me the patience to write it down in a comedy-friendly format, and alcohol gives me the courage to come up in front of a group of judgmental pricks and say it into a microphone.
You’ve found a winning formula there. You need all those things?
Yeah, working together. Of course, now I’m fucking 40 and coughing up phlegm all the time.
I’m sure that’s a lot of people. You’re not alone there.
I know. I immediately assume that it’s my lifestyle doing those things. I don’t remember anybody’s name, and “Where did I meet you? Oh, we did that thing? I don’t know, it’s been 17 years.” Then I go, “Wow, it’s all this fucking drinking and drug use over the years.” And then I talk to my friends that are my age that don’t party every fucking night, and they don’t remember anything either. And I go, “OK, a lot of this is natural. I’ll stop beating myself up.”
That’s right. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Right. Let’s have a cocktail.