I’m about to talk to Doug Stanhope, a comedian who’s been known to smoke and drink on stage, who isn’t one to shy away from touchy subject matters in his comedy, who performs with a gravelly, hard-hitting voice, who, if you’re an asshole in his audience, isn’t afraid to chew you out and put you in your place, and who has incited violent reactions from his audience. This is a guy who’s been around, who never received a high school degree and whose showbiz success didn’t come easy. But after twenty-one years in the business he’s done a number of acclaimed TV specials, his live shows have been named “The best of the year” for several years, he hosted his own radio show for SIRIUS Satellite, he’s won comedy awards leaving Dane Cook in his dust, and he has a new live album out called Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere.
This is a phone interview I am supposed to conduct. I have never interviewed comedians. I have conducted pre-interviews with a Shakespeare scholar and a biologist for TV, but never a comedian, one whose comedy will make you laugh and cringe, whose demeanor on stage is caustic and predatory at times. At the Leeds Festival in the UK audience members shot beer bottles at him because of his irreverence towards the Royal Family, but that only made him dispense harsher offenses.
So I am a bit nervous moments before I am to talk with him. I’m no tough guy. Lots of people would confirm that.
But then he comes on the line.
“Savio,” he says (that’s my name). “Savio Pham,” he says at the start of the short fifteen-minute interview. “That’s a great name!”
Whether he means it or not, I am put at ease by the gleeful sound of his voice. And the interview progresses without any prima donna admonishments telling me to hurry up. He seems happy to indulge us with an interview.
Mr. Stanhope is an honest and candid guy on stage. Even off stage. If you were to ask him advice for an aspiring comedian, he’d rather keep his mouth shut, because he would rather not lie and tell that person to stick with it. In his opinion, most people who pursue comedy end up sucking, so should just quit and find something else to do. As in his comedy, he speaks his mind. He’s essentially like that fiery and opinionated friend in your group who rants about issues bugging him (or pleasing him) over lots of drinks. He’ll call us (the human race) on our bullshit, he’ll tell the people of Oslo that he’s thankful for their stinkless pussy. So how important is it being honest with one’s comedy? I ask him. He doesn’t like the term “honest.” “Too Amish-sounding,” he says. He just knows that what he says on stage he means, that he takes any anger he has about any matter in his life and uses it to entertain the crowd. He may be wrong in what he says, he admits, and he may not really agree with it later on, but it’s all about being in the moment.
And that’s the beauty of performing live for him: to be in the moment with the audience he’s trying to make laugh. He’s been quoted as saying “TV is just for money. Live performance is where it’s at.” He tells me how much he despises people in his audience who sit there recording his shows with their phones instead of just enjoying being there in the moment; a shaky, grainy document of a comedy show, he asserts, won’t convey the greatness of live performance, so what’s the point. You’ll actually see how much he hates those camera-wielders when he catches one of them in his latest live album. And listening to Doug Stanhope’s biting rant I wondered if that perpetrator was laughing or crying. Or laughing through repressed tears.
Though as angry as he may be, one could tell he’s still just entertaining the crowd. He’s an entertainer after all. And as an entertainer, does he hang out with others often? Actually where he lives (I don’t catch it), he doesn’t have the opportunity. I ask him if he’s at least still learning from other comedians. Sure, he says. He names Andy Andrist, a comedian and former writer on The Man Show, which Mr. Stanhope co-hosted with fellow comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan.
I ask him who his influences are, other than comedians. He tells me: Hunter S. Thompson and his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which actually (for a week or so, he says) made him want to be a writer, but that didn’t pan out. He says he wasn’t good enough. Nor was he good enough when he tried being an actor after he dropped out of high school and at age eighteen drove out to Hollywood. Like a lot of aspiring entertainers, he endured some hardships. For years he lived out of his car. He lived in LA, Las Vegas, even Idaho trying to make ends meet by performing and doing some non-entertainment jobs. Telemarketing, he informs me, was one of them, which he claims is the biggest moneymaker in Las Vegas after gaming. But he doesn’t scorn those days for the tough times they represent. Those days were a blast according to him. And perhaps it’s that adventurous side that draws him to the wild, crazy drug-induced ride that is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Speaking of drugs, he’s annoyed by fans of his who press illegal substances on him when he goes around shaking their hands. It’s mostly weed they give him, which he says is pointless because he doesn’t smoke it. I ask him if he took that ecstasy tablet at Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland before going on stage? He hesitates for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. And he’s such a pro the press ended up loving the show he put on.
Doug Stanhope is known for being a notorious drinker on and off stage, but he admits he doesn’t care for any of the fancy beers. He prefers watery beer. “Shitty light beer,” he says. “That stuff I can drink all night long.”
He tells me when he’s home he likes a nice vodka and grapefruit cocktail. Also vodka and lemonade. And on sports days he’ll have friends over and start with a Baileys and coffee, then move onto mimosas and Bloody Marys. And sometimes he’ll even have the occasional bottle of wine (red, he clarifies) which he and his buddies share seated around his living room watching football. A nice respite from touring I imagine.
But he continues to tour because people love his stuff, because they can tell he’s the real deal, a comedian with real chops who puts on award-winning shows.
Greatest show for him? His show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, which also happened to be his biggest one. It was humbling, he expresses, that three thousand people came to see him.
Worst time/show in his career? He’s not sure if it’s the worst, but he didn’t like winning the San Francisco Comedy Award. He says it should have made him happy, but in the end when he wanted to go grab a drink the other comedians weren’t in any mood to join him at a bar after his victory. He’d rather be on tour, hanging out with his comedian buddies, with no awards and no reason for resentment. Just comedians living on the road together, trying to put on damn good shows and celebrating afterward with drinks when they’re happy they did.