‘If I found sobriety I might lose numbers’: Comic Doug Stanhope tells MM about the ‘fraudulent’ world of comedy

Doug Stanhope is a fraud. Yes, he really is a revered stand-up comedian, alcoholic, provocateur, and he really was the cantankerous ‘Voice of America’ on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe.

A decade ago he really did serve White Russians to his mother who, suffering from emphysema, used them to wash down a suicidal dose of 90 morphine pills in his living room in the secluded town of Bisbee, Arizona. He really did make an attempt to run for president.

And he really is currently on the UK leg of an international tour. So it’s not that he’s a fraudulent individual. It’s rather that, as he explains to me, comedy itself is “a fraudulent business, almost as bad as magic.”

Although he’s best known here for explaining his drinking with the line, “I’m Doug Stanhope, and that’s why I drink”, he tells me drinking is a necessary part of overcoming the falsity ingrained in stand-up.

He tells me he doesn’t like reflecting on his style, but his process works like this: “I drink. I get up on stage. I yell shit that I fucking wrote down in the notebooks that I’ve said too many times. I drink so it feels refreshed.

“Because to have to say the same shit every night and act like it’s fucking new, or that you’re just thinking of it…” His trailing off is followed by a sigh. 

It’s not necessarily what you might expect a comic who’s been cloyed with critical acclaim for over 20 years to say of his medium. Back in 2002, he won the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Strathmore Press Award for Best of the Festival – a press critic’s alternative to the Perrier Award and accolade which was only ever awarded to Stanhope.

Since then, his reputation in the UK has ascended in almost direct correspondence with how the UK’s reputation has descended for him. I ask him if he’s dreading being here.

“I don’t have any problem with the UK people,” he tells me. “It’s just the aesthetics of being there. It’s cramped, I’m claustrophobic anyway, and you have tiny fucking roads.”

Of his catalogue of UK criticisms, he says: “I think a lot of it is cocktail related. After 30 years of daily drinking, I’m very particular about certain things which I think tell ad nauseam in that book.” 

That book, This is Not Fame: A ‘From What I Re-Memoir’, really has to be read to be believed. It does indeed include a cavalcade of complaints about being a scrupulous booze hound in UK bars (“They almost never have cocktail straws. I like cocktail straws. I have big ugly teeth and I don’t like ice cubes bashing against ’em when I drink.”).

It’s ostensibly a string of stories from his career, all told under the titular claim that Stanhope can’t really be thought of as a famous comedian because if he were, he would surely have been crucified by now for his work and behaviour.

“There’s whole audiences that I’ve pulled my dick out in front of,” he laughs. “I was never a rapist, but some of the other things that people are losing jobs over, I wrote a book about.” 

Stand-up comedians, perhaps to a degree unlike any other kind of artist, enjoy a certain liberty to go against the stream of public opinion, to openly offend and appal, without fearing that stepping outside the bounds of acceptability will destroy their careers.

By and large, they are not beholden to corporate interests. Or, as Stanhope puts it: “They’d demand I apologise if I was going to keep my Burger King sponsorship.”

But given that he’s entirely unburdened with such contractual obligations, “The only people who can fire me are the ticket buyers, and they’re unoffendable.

The only way I could lose fans is if I either, like, joined AA, quit clean and sober, or was born again. If I found Jesus or sobriety I might lose numbers, but other than that… It’s almost like a Trump thing, where he said ‘I could go out in fuckin’ Time Square and shoot people and I would still get elected!’”

He might liken himself to Trump in terms of his fans’ devotion, but Stanhope’s a million miles away from The Donald.

When he was attempting to become a presidential nominee in 2008, it was for the Libertarian Party.

His comedy has been vehemently moral on liberal issues (though he would never phrase it that way), and couched in a consequential despair at the state of the world.

Though he doesn’t talk about him on stage, Stanhope says of Trump: “He’s a fucking a rapper president. He’s all fucking braggadocio, he says fucking dog shit, and if you call him on it he doesn’t care. And that’s what [America] created. They fucking celebrate fucking asshole shit-talkers from Jersey Shore to Kardashians to all these fucking zeroes, and that’s what you celebrate and that’s what you watch on TV and that’s what you elected so ha ha ha.” 

The anger behind the invective is real; the laugh isn’t. One of the things most striking about Stanhope is that he enjoys the reputation of the outspoken, irreverent nihilist, whilst weaving an undeniable sincerity in his work. It’s hard to imagine who else would manage to find the humour in their mother’s suicide (which Stanhope turned into both a bit and the opening chapter of his first book, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story), or even wish to talk about solemnly in public.

Given his transgressive character and the current social climate, in which sensitivities seem to be a high-water mark of sorts, I asked him if this is a strange time to be doing comedy, particularly in the wake of scandals surrounding some of America’s most vaunted comedians like Louis CK? He tells me: “It is for other people. My audience is fucking steel.” 

He likens the current zeitgeist to one that was in the air after September 11, 2001.

He says: “9/11 was a boon to my career. It was right around then where I was starting to phase out my dick joke era (when I started at 23, that’s all you know about – pussy and titty bars and stupid things), and then I started reading books and stuff. I started having opinions about shit. I was very anti-authoritarian and that’s when 9/11 happened, and everyone went very gung-ho with patriotism. And I was the only one talking about it, and that’s the first time I played Edinburgh.

“I think I would be a non-event in the UK if it weren’t for 9/11. God bless those fucking planes crashing into the twin towers that gave me a UK career. Because I was the only one talking shit about the overblown patriotism and fucking flag-waving nonsense and National Day of Prayer… I still remember that bit. If I had more ambition, I could really be doing something with this climate.” 

And so, for better or worse, it’s in this climate that he will be taking to the stage again in Manchester. He tells me about a bit he had that was inspired by a poster he saw here that said something to the effect of ‘Please don’t attack ambulance drivers’.

“I remember the first time I brought it up on stage,” Stanhope begins. “I was playing a fucking Chinese restaurant. I remember it had mirrors behind you and in front of you so it was like playing a Chinese funhouse. It was in the bathroom and when I brought it up on stage, no one seemed like that was a problem!

“If you had a poster saying: ‘Don’t rape kids’, and everyone’s like ‘Oh, that just happens’. It happens often enough that they have to put up posters to remind you not to do it?!”

If it’s not abundantly clear, don’t go and see his show if you’re easily offended. What can be expected, though, for those who are taking the plunge?

“I will be mocking the King of Thailand. That’s the only guarantee. He cost me $12,000, and unless he pays me fucking $12,000 I’m going to be making fun of him.”

*Doug Stanhope is performing at Manchester Academy on Friday, June 15. You can buy tickets HERE.

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