Standing on
the edge

You’d be hard pressed to find a more erudite and witty comic than Doug Stanhope – even on the morning after the night before

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As introductions go, Doug Stanhope’s opening exchange with Big Issue North is to be applauded for its frankness, even if it doesn’t bode particularly well for the rest of our interview. “I’m either hungover or still partially drunk. I feel like I could just open [another bottle] right now and continue going. All those hours of sleep didn’t really slow me up at all,” says the remarkably chipper, if somewhat rambling and confused 48 year old, from his home in Bisbee, Arizona, near the Mexico border. 

On this occasion, the cause of his hangover was a night of drinking and watching his favourite sport, American football, but Stanhope readily admits that this conversation could be happening on practically any day of the year and his demeanour would be much the same. “I live at this level,” he bluntly states. “I always wake up miserable because I’m a drunk. I just try to appropriate that misery in the right place – usually some [legislative] bill. Or it’s a customer service person that suffers the blows.”

For Stanhope’s many fans, such revelations will come as no surprise. Best known to UK audiences for his acerbic appearances on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, the hard-living, Massachusetts-born comic has built up a loyal and dedicated following for his confrontational, provocative and, at times, venomous comedy style that has drawn comparisons to stand-up greats Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks.

Like those men, Stanhope is not short of self-destructive tendencies, although he refuses to view his alcohol dependency as a problem. Asked if he’s ever tried to quit drinking he flippantly responds: “No. I’ve never tried to quit eating either. It seems to work perfectly.” In truth, he’s tried to stop on several occasions, but has never gone longer than “two or three weeks” before hitting the bottle. Alcohol, he argues, is an essential ingredient in him performing stand-up. “Because when I’m not drinking my head is in so many places at once that I wouldn’t have the focus. I could parrot my act, but I wouldn’t be present in any way, shape or form.”

“If you have expectations for this show, you’ve raised the bar too high. I wouldn’t see it.”

The same level of raw, often brutally uncomfortable autobiography exists at the heart of Stanhope’s misanthropic comedy. Previous shows have tackled everything from Keynesian economic theory to sex with midget hookers to stream-of-conscious diatribes on online pornography and child abuse. It’s far from what anyone would call safe, family-friendly entertainment, but when Stanhope is on form you’d be hard pressed to find a more erudite, funny and unpredictable comic on the circuit today. Not that the man himself sees it that way.

“If you have expectations for this show, you’ve raised the bar too high,” deadpans Stanhope about this month’s UK tour, his first in three years. “I wouldn’t go and see it. I’d stay inside where it’s dry. If you know what I do, you know what to expect. I haven’t changed. I haven’t gone born again. I don’t have any new positive slant. It’s the same angry, soulless, obscene shit with different words.”

Self-deprecation is part of Stanhope’s shtick but lurking under the murky surface there’s a deep thinker. In one routine from his 2012 show Before Turning The Gun On Himself, the stand-up makes a sincere speech about how he used to think his insights on marriage (antiquated), overpopulation (the root of most of the world’s problems), drugs (legalise them) and abortion (absolutely) could change the way his audience think. Frustrated when they didn’t, he said, he just didn’t give a shit anymore.

The unifying factor among his fan base, he says, is that they’re all disenfranchised, angry and miserable, like him. “Mostly knock-kneed dudes, alone, wearing a Misfits T-shirt, overweight, bad complexion, standing awkwardly at the exit.”

Aside from scatological references, a recurring motif in that music is death and suicide, with a standout routine in the comic’s last show, 2013’s Beerhall Putsch, concerning the real life tale of him supping cocktails and conducting credit card fraud while euthanising his own mother, a lapsed AA advocate (see sidebar). Given his own dissolute, unhealthy, chemically-fuelled lifestyle and fascination with the darker side of life, has Stanhope considered how he would like to bow out when his time arrives?

“I read about some guy who made a theoretical suicide machine that’s a rollercoaster where the G-forces become so strong that you lose consciousness and eventually die. What a fucking great idea. That’s what they should have instead of cemeteries.

“I just want my own little country – fucking Freedom Island – where you could get away with stuff like that. Forget awful hospice care surrounded by weeping relatives that you don’t even like, holding your cold clammy hand waiting for you to die. Get on a plane and come to suicide rollercoaster land and go out with a bam. I know that I would have a membership.”

Doug Stanhope plays O2 Academy, Leeds, 5 Oct, O2 Academy, Sheffield 15 Oct, and Lowry, Salford, 16-17 Oct 

Mother load

Doug Stanhope talks about his forthcoming book about his late mother, a foul-mouthed former actor and truck driver who, by all accounts, was a formidable character.   

The book’s about my own life and how it paralleled with my relationship with my mother. She was the miserable, dark, obscene, crass person that I developed my humour from. It covers the years when we became best friends to when she became a burden and pariah, until we reversed roles and she was a dependent and then a suicide – I wouldn’t even say victim – a beneficiary. I didn’t assist. I bar-backed. I drank cocktails. The book starts with that [story] and then goes backwards with some mild safeguards in place for legality. She was sober for most of my life. She was in AA and was zealous about it for her initial years. When she did start drinking again she just sucked at it. She was a terrible drunk. I got embarrassed for her. We had a few good nights of getting cocktailed up together, but her return to the game didn’t bode well. She had become a slovenly, weeping mess and then suicidal. It’s not Tuesdays with Morrie [Mitch Albom’s reflective memoir about time spent with his dying mentor], don’t worry. There’s sex with animals and all sorts of stuff. She didn’t actually have sex with animals, but she would jerk off her pets.

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