Letter from the South — From the May 2014 issue

You Had to Be There

On the road with Doug Stanhope

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When Doug Stanhope began his Big Stink Tour, in 2012, he had just returned from an overproduced seven-week run in the United Kingdom, playing to half-empty theaters and riding in an unnecessarily large touring bus. He wanted to get back to the basics with his carefully chosen comrades — his girlfriend, Amy “Bingo” Bingaman; his road manager, Greg Chaille; and his two handpicked openers, Carlos Valencia and Junior Stopka, whom he referred to as “the children.” “Old-school,” Stanhope told me excitedly, “in a van, like we used to do, driving around and telling butt-fuck jokes.”

I caught up with the crew that August in Tampa, Florida. Before the first night was over, I was already worried about going the distance. I made my bid for physical moderation at four a.m. in Stanhope’s suite at the Hilton Garden Inn, after we’d closed down a local bar, the children had been poured into the comedy condo, and Bingo had passed out in the bedroom. Even the indefatigable Chaille — who was once a manager at the biggest bar in Anchorage, Alaska — had been sent to bed. Stanhope was still drinking when he invited me to continue the conversation downstairs so he could have another cigarette. He laid out his reasoning for his hard-driving lifestyle with the practiced charm of someone who’d encountered pleas like mine before. He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny, refined it onstage, and pursued whatever chaos ensued from the gig. We went back upstairs and he poured another drink. “I’m a comedy team,” he said teasingly. “I am the comedy team of Doug Stanhope — morning and night. One of ’em wouldn’t work without the other.”

The lines between work and play in Stanhope’s life were frequently invisible, yet I had to concede he was an utter professional; he never missed a morning radio spot and he never threw a set in the trash. Whereas some comics use the same jokes for years — even decades — he consistently comes up with hours of new material. And he is a practiced host. As night gave way to morning and the early edition of USA Today thumped against the door of the hotel suite, I realized I wasn’t sure which Doug I was talking to: the seeker who lived fully in the moment or the pro who took care of business, which involved taking care of me along with everyone else.

Stanhope was the first up the next morning, and we pulled out of the parking lot before ten, with Chaille, the only one Stanhope will let drive, at the wheel. Valencia was riding shotgun and manning the radio; behind them, Stopka nursed a hangover beside his girlfriend, Maggie Ednie, who is also a comic, and who had no memory of meeting me the night before. Stanhope and I were in the third row of seats, and Bingo was asleep in the back of the van. The companionable quiet was not only due to the hangovers — it was a happy peace.

On the road, we listened to three comedy podcasts. Stanhope was mentioned admiringly in each. No one talked on their phones or texted much or talked much at all. So it was startling when, an hour outside Valdosta, Georgia, Stanhope’s phone rang: Phyllis Diller had died.

I assumed, because Diller was a comedian, that the caller was passing on bad news. But after Stanhope hung up, he immediately called his CDP team’s scorekeeper. “Somebody must have had her,” he said excitedly. “Diller,” he continued, getting impatient. “Like the pickle! Phyllis Diller! The old comedian lady — somebody must have her.” At the moment, Stanhope held second place in the CDP and Bingo was in third. In February she’d moved up with Whitney Houston as a solo pick.

It was dusk when we arrived at the Valdosta Days Inn, a grim spot tucked just below the interstate where the tour would spend a night off. In the parking lot, a very large biker was cleaning an immaculate and very large motorcycle. The tractor-trailers rumbled past. In the near distance, a billboard with the advertisement strippers: need we say more? as seen on jerry springer. I wondered aloud about the prospect of going for a jog — in terms of safety. The liquor store, across the street from the ransacked convenience store, was heavily barred. The attached lounge where Stanhope had planned to spend the evening was closed, and he was already recalibrating for us both.

“Do you want a sleeping aid to help you get through this?” he asked cheerfully. He had a few extra Xanax. “Not a place where you want to be up all night. Or ever.”

To make the best of the long evening, we all ended up in Stanhope’s room, where we watched Intervention. The children taunted the woman on the screen, and Ednie, who was sitting close to the TV, kept saying, “This is my life” and “This is me.” Meanwhile, Stanhope composed tweets about watching Intervention while drinking. (“There’s no such thing as addiction,” he has said. “There’s only things you enjoy doing more than life.”)

For years, Dr. Drew, the host of Celebrity Rehab, was one of Stanhope’s principal targets. In a 2011 nine-minute bit called “Dr. Drew Is to Medicine What David Blaine Is to Science,” Stanhope attacked the doctor’s selective empathy: “You would step over a dozen dying winos in the street just to get to Lindsay Lohan’s bedside to offer unsolicited advice.” He compared Dr. Drew to a gynecologist who says, “Teenage Norwegian pussy is all I really work with anymore, because I want to give back.”

By the time the night wound down, Ednie could have used some help making her way to her room. Stopka was emptying already empty liquor bottles like a scavenging bear. Valencia had gone to bed and Stanhope and Chaille were snoozing on their lumpy mattresses. Bingo was the only one upright, singing along to music on her old CD player in the open doorway.

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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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