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.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

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.”

Stanhope prefers seedy and neglected venues in part because those who seek him out there have some idea of what they are buying into, which is an intimate act that’s at once intellectually acute and graphically foul. Since 1999, when he first performed “The Transvestite Hooker Incident,” Stanhope has been telling true stories about his real-life adventures, which include tales of sex wagers, abortion, and getting fired. “It felt a little ballsy at the time,” he recalls, to be making money off what someone else would consider his “worst, horrific, closeted embarrassment.” Stanhope’s many CDs and DVDs chronicle his ongoing evolution in the rousing company of some of America’s more alienated citizenry. Recorded in places like the Velveeta Room, in Austin, Texas, or Dante’s Inferno, in Portland, Oregon, the titles give you a sense of Stanhope’s preoccupations: Something to Take the Edge Off, Deadbeat Hero, Burning the Bridge to Nowhere, and Before Turning the Gun on Himself. “Fetish comedy” is sometimes how he describes his type of material. At other times, “Comedy that leaves a stain.”

Stanhope takes responsibility for where he’s been and where he’s going, and he’d like for the rest of us to do the same. An avid proponent of population control, he refers to abortion as “green” and sodomy as “eco-friendly.” He also defends the right to die: “Life is like animal porn — it’s not for everyone.” He wants people to realize they are always making choices, even in their passivity. When his fans complain about their lousy hometowns — as they regularly do — he reminds them, “You can leave.”

Whether despite or because of the darkness of Stanhope’s material, once people arrive at an evening he’s hosting, they often don’t want to go home. An egalitarian ethos infuses his shows. Everyone is welcome — especially those who are unwelcome elsewhere. (Once he crossed the street to avoid a riot as he arrived for a show, only to discover that the mob was made up of his fans.) He dresses for the occasion — lately quite becomingly in pastel thrift-store polyester suits, like a Vegas showman. He refers to people he recognizes in the audience by name, drinks the shots you send him, and usually won’t smoke onstage if you can’t smoke on the floor. He hangs around after the set if the mood is right, to see whatever might happen. “What you didn’t do is never funny,” he reminds his fans, many of whom try to live by his credo — at least for the one night he’s in town.

Stanhope maintains this spirit of radical hospitality on his website, where his entries serve as a postmortem for the gatherings and as a teaser for whatever is coming up next. This is also where he expresses solidarity with beginning comics, inventories his body’s decline, and suggests pranks to keep himself and his core fans, the “sausage army,” amused.

Doug Stanhope’s Celebrity Death Pool, which was inspired by Fantasy Football, is a signature maneuver. “Mourners” join competing “funeral homes” and make their top twenty picks of those celebrities most likely to die in the coming year. The tally is calculated using a formula of 100-points-minus-the-age-of-the-dead-celebrity, with various bonuses for the cause of death: “The Kurt Cobain” for suicide; “The Amy Winehouse” for accidental death by drugs or alcohol; “The John Lennon”; et cetera. Like so much of what Stanhope does, the CDP appears cheap and vulgar while making a political statement. If we are going to comb over the dietary and exercise habits of celebrities the same way bettors follow the training regimens of purebred horses, the CDP suggests, we should get something out of it — some consciousness about our monstrous illusions, perhaps, or at least a laugh or two.

There are no subjects Stanhope won’t approach, and death is a perennial favorite. Beer Hall Putsch, his 2013 album, includes a powerful story about euthanasia called “Farewell, Mother.” He’s currently working up material on a close friend’s suicide. The CDP makes death into entertainment, and — unlike Fantasy Football — “the season never ends.” Recently, he invited fans to bet on his own head (“It’d be a pretty good solid choice, just based on the lifestyle”), a sly nod to his growing popularity and a characteristically preemptive strike: The game of life is rigged and we should all grab whatever fun is available. Stanhope has joked that he wants you had to be there engraved on his tombstone.

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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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