Letter from the South — From the May 2014 issue

You Had to Be There

On the road with Doug Stanhope

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Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a former MacArthur Fellow, is the author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. She is working on a book about stand-up comedy for Random House.

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  • C C

    What’s the point of disparaging Denny’s workers or waitresses? They are just trying to make ends meets, perhaps a single mother trying to save for her kids a college education.

    Also, why would America be the “best” if theres no universal health care, huge gap between rich and poor, poor standing in infant mortality, lack of public intellectual discourse, huge infringement’s on people’s privacy, and neoliberal policies to destroy Latin America.

    That waitress at Denny’s is not going to receive a nobel prize, but she never authorized drone strikes either.

    • BG

      You must be a TON of fun at parties, you humorless shit-stain.

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