Comedy: Q&A with Doug Stanhope

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From the September 13, 2012 edition

After 20 years, Doug Stanhope has built a reputation as one of the most caustic and hilarious standup comedians to ever take the stage. When he performs in Columbus on Friday (with a drink in hand, no doubt) nothing will be off limits. He took some time out of his marathon viewing of “Meet the Hudderites” to talk with me about gambling, politics, smoking on stags, his comedic style, small towns, the absurdity of having an intervention with Hunter S. Thompson … and, of course, alcohol.

How is the tour going so far?

We’ve been off for the last two weeks, but the first three weeks were fantastic. We’re doing three weeks on and one or two weeks off to keep our sanity. I haven’t had this much fun in years; just driving around in a van with comics, my girlfriend and my buddy tour managing. It’s old school stuff. Hung over and pile in a van in the morning.

Your style seems to be conversational and improvisational. Do you just come up with an idea on stage sometimes and just start riffing?

Yeah. You have a set that you can rely on if you have nothing else to say and there’s nothing else in your head. But you try to avoid doing it, or expand on if you have a kernel of an idea.

It’s not going to be anything new. I don’t have some new character that I’m doing, it’ll be the same old Stanhope — drunk and yelling, complaining. What topics they’ll be, who knows.

Is there a bit of social commentary in your comedy?

There’s not really a purpose. I’m don’t think I’m going to change the world, but things tend to bother you occasionally and then you add some d--- jokes and try to make it funny. So, it gives me an excuse to scream in people’s faces.

It’s very cathartic, to the point where I get afraid when I find myself enjoying my day, where I don’t have things to yell about. Your life gets too comfortable and it kind of hurts your business. I got to go out and get bothered by something. I’m way too comfortable on this couch watching dumb TV. No one wants to hear me complain for an hour about Dog the Bounty Hunter. If that’s the worst thing going on in my day, I’m not taking enough chances.

Yeah, you’re not one to hold anything back.

I don’t know how much of it comes from the fact that I’ve developed my own underground, marginalized audience. I haven’t really set out to create a style. It just came out of, well mostly from drinking. Alcohol is almost the Abbott to my Costello. We’re almost a duo act — I wouldn’t want to see my act without it. My act sober would be f---ing horrifying. So if there is a style, it would be a drunk guy railing at the end of the bar, staring at CNN.

But you’re funnier than most drunk guys at the end of the bar.

Yeah, that worked out for me, but I still think I’d be that guy if it weren’t for the funny. It would be really intolerable if I didn’t have jokes.

How do you balance that self-deprecation with the confidence needed to get on stage?

That’s exactly what I said. It’s all alcohol. You have to have confidence to talk to a pretty girl, you wait until you’re drunk. I’m the least confident person in the world. In the morning I’m just full of dread and self-doubt. Then at night I have cocktails, and, goddamn, am I full of ideas.

I enjoy cocktails, I enjoy drinking. I was talking about that … and someone said the term functioning alcoholic, which I think is bull s---. Then I came up with the term thriving alcoholic, and that’s closer to being on the nose. I love a good drunk. Ron White is such a fantastic drunk. Can you imagine seeing Dean Martin on “Intervention”? No. He was really good at it. Hunter S. Thompson being sat down by his friends and family with dumb lists of how he’s hurt them? You were never there as a father. You were out blasting snowmen with your .357.

You mentioned railing at CNN. What do you think of the election season?

Oh my god, it’s so awful. It’s the most boring election since [Michael] Dukakis. It’s like if the Olympics lasted for 10 months and that was all that was on. Shut up, give me something else. Isn’t there another shooter. Shooters are fun, hostage situations, tragedy, another tsunami. Really? We have to talk about the f---ing Democratic National Convention. There’s no one to root for. The first time with Obama was fun. You know, the first black guy.

So you don’t plan on using the election for material?

There’s nothing really anything to use. Election years are always really terrible for that. There’s nothing really interesting. It’s not going to affect my day either way. I don’t give a shit who gets elected. My day will go on. It always has. No president has really affected my life on any level that I can point to. None of them are going to do anything radical like legalize drugs. That in itself would solve so many problems; from Mexican violence with drug cartels to employment opportunities. It’s just no one is doing anything.

I live on the border so it comes up a lot. Well, with one pen stroke all of a sudden they have no power, no money. And we have more jobs. Look at gambling; all these poker sites that got shut down. That’s a $12 billion a year industry. Aren’t we f---ing trying to get billion dollar industries in this country and get jobs? All you’re doing is creating jobs offshore, you a--holes. It hasn’t stop me gambling on football.

Are you a big sports fan?

I’m a big gambling fan. I love the NFL. I’m a huge football fan, but I don’t know s--- about it. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, and I still don’t know what a 3-4 defense means versus a West Coast offense.

I like to put money on every game, and put Red Zone on and let my head just go completely retarded just trying to keep up with my parlays, who’s ahead and who needs to score what to cover what to make what ticket win.

And it’s a reason to have people over and barbecue. I don’t have anything to say; I’d rather stare at some dumb game. Hang out with folks.

Do you have a favorite drink?

On stage I usually stick with beer. At home I drink vodka drinks. Vodka and unsweetened iced tea with a squeeze of lemon has been my drink this summer. Or just vodka and soda with lemon.

You also smoke on stage. Did you know there is a smoking ban in Ohio?

I stopped doing that just because you could palpably feel the audience drop off. It’s the same for me. It’s the same reason I don’t go to movies. If someone lights up on screen, all I’m doing is thinking about cigarettes. I’ve lost the plot. I’m looking at my watch seeing how long until this movie ends. So, it’s unfair. If everyone could smoke I’d do it, and f--- the non-smokers.

Do you have a favorite memory from going on tour, or favorite place to perform?

I really love the small towns. I love what we’re doing now. We just did the same thing in the southeast leading up to this. Savannah, Georgia was great. Places I’d never been; Pensacola, Florida s---ty gig, but fun town with a great bar.

I like driving. I flew for the last several years and I have so little fun. You’re just like the delivery man of jokes. You get off a plane, get shuttled to a hotel. You sit at a hotel bar with a bunch of pimps in their khaki pants and their blue oxford shirts having just done some Power Point presentation. No fun. Then you go to the show, but you can’t hang out afterwards because you’ve got a 6 a.m. flight. So you got to taxi back to the hotel. You’re just a businessman.

All the fun parts of comedy — hanging out, getting wrecked, jumping in a van with your peers and joking about it afterwards and trying to recreate the night before the next day in the van — that’s where all the good stories come from. That’s the whole purpose of doing this for a living.

And the small towns appreciate you more. You go to Las Vegas to do a show and they just stare at you knowing they could see Wayne Newton next door for $1.99 and get a free shrimp cocktail.

Is there anything off-limits for your comedy?

Nope. I wish there was, so I could do it. If you have suggestions, please send in your comment cards, or put it in the box. I remember early in my career, I’d write a joke and just laugh my balls off knowing I could never say this on stage. But just the idea of thinking about saying it on stage and you tell your friends, and they laugh their balls off. Then doing that and having it kill, you go, wait I can do this. This is the s--- I should be doing.