Interview: Doug Stanhope – we talk to the comedian, author and podcaster ahead of a UK tour
Doug Stanhope is probably most well known in the UK for his slots on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, but there’s much more to the man than that – his books and podcasts, for instance, have a huge worldwide following. Nathan McIlroy recently caught up with the comedian as he prepares to embark on a UK tour.
Doug Stanhope is touring Britain next month for the first time in three years. In 2013, he began recording weekly podcasts from the outhouse / sports bar (a.k.a The Fun House) on his ranch in Arizona, with an ever-growing audience logging in for a fix between live appearances. The podcast’s anarchic format is perfect for drunken discussions with fellow comics, family members, musicians and any other debauched folks passing through the town of Bisbee on the Mexican border.
He’s also written a book which delves into his relationship with his late mother Bonnie:
“I realise that I don’t have bullet points. I need a way to sum it up because when you say – oh I wrote a book about my life with my mother – nothing sounds more unreadable to me than that.
- “It starts with her suicide.”
In ‘Beer Hall Putsch’, he describes being present for his mother’s suicide. They watched her favourite film ‘Bad Santa’ and got drunk on White Russians whilst she overdosed on Morphine pills – a decision taken to end the agony of a terminal illness. This segment of the show is candid, intimate, hilarious and humane; firmly cementing him in the lineage of great American comics that turned their demons into assets, imploring the audience to do the same.
When Richard Pryor set himself on fire in a crack addled haze or when Bill Hicks perfected his visceral attacks on the living dead, knowing full well he had months to live – they opened up on stage and forced you to engage with that old neglected muscle imprisoned in your skull. Likewise, Stanhope’s performances are searingly honest journeys through the psyche, skewering sacred cows with barbed wit and fearless insight and challenging the mores of society that are accepted as writ.
When I was given an hour’s notice to interview him, my fanboy giddiness quickly turned into mortification and panic. The following interview was done via Skpe with delays and communication breakdowns aplenty.
Louder Than War: I’ve been stalking you on Twitter and noticed that you have Mishka Shubaly (ex-Fresh Kills bassist / novelist who provides musical interludes to the podcast) staying with you?
Doug Stanhope: Mishka? Those guys took off. They’re on the road but I’ve got four other comedians coming in this weekend. It’s opening weekend of football so it’s a big deal here.
You’ve directed a lot of people to Mishka’s music through your podcast and your shows. Do you have any other music recommendations?
The ones that we play, somewhat exclusively on the podcast, you know that we have permission for are Mishka and The Mattoid.
You seem to have a lot of people passing through the Fun House especially for football games and sports. It sounds a lot like what Hunter S. Thompson’s place was like.
I can imagine his was probably a bigger spread but I’m sure it’s about the same ‘vibe’.
Less firearms though?
They’re available if we need them but I don’t have them personally.
You’re regarded as one of the greatest living comedians…
Except by people who don’t think I’m funny. They don’t regard me the same way.
Ok influential then. How do you feel when you see mediocre comedians sell out vast runs of stadium shows?
I have no qualms with where I am. When I see a comedian selling out a stadium, my only thought is what a horrible show that must be because comedy is just not built for that. I would never want to see my favourite comics in a stadium – I only like watching specials that are filmed in theatres. I have to do some theatres on this (tour) but I’d much rather be in a sixty seater.
I have money in the bank I have nothing to do with so it’s not like I need to sell more tickets. I’m perfect where I am – I wouldn’t want to be more famous. I’ve seen fame on a small enough scale to know that that’s too much already.
The British tour starts in October. You’ve got about ten days between the Manchester and Dublin date (since filled with Scandinavian dates). Does that mean you’re gonna stick about and see the sights?
I’m staying over there. I honestly haven’t looked at the schedule so I don’t know what my days off or days on are. I never know what my manager Brian has scheduled for us in between – extra press or some other bullshit project to fill up my time.
Is another Charlie Brooker collaboration on the cards whilst you’re here then?
I don’t know if that’s gonna happen but it’s always a possibility. That’s how I did it the first time – days off when I was doing London shows and Brian goes ‘Oh by the way you’re doing this thing tomorrow’.
That’s how I met Charlie Brooker and I was on Screenwipe.
You’ve just completed a book about your relationship with your mum. Is there a release date?
On Amazon it says April 12th. I only know that because when I was writing the book someone tweeted me saying I see your book for sale with a link. I actually bought my book while I was writing my book. I took a minute out and I bought it. I hadn’t even given them any pages. It’s under a working title (One Funny Mother) which I’m definitely gonna change.
I realise that I don’t have bullet points that I need. I need a way to sum it up because when you say – oh I wrote a book about my life with my mother – nothing sounds more unreadable to me than that.
It starts with her suicide.
It’s basically a longer version of that bit I did about her suicide and then it goes back to how she influenced my humour. She was a really fucked up, very sad lady.
You’ve said that the hardest thing was looking back to your past and dredging through buried memories. Do you think one of the reasons you drank was to forget these things?
It was hard in remembering a lot of shit. I had to spend so much time on the phone with people I haven’t talked to in years – that I don’t really want to talk to – but I had to fact check and make sure. Are these memories accurate? What do you remember? Who else was there? What year was that?
Mostly it was just trying to just put it all together. My memories shit and where I’ve lived – I’ve been in so many different places.
Do you have any regrets?
Smoking (exhales). That’s pretty much it.
You’ll be here for the whole duration of Stoptober. You could be the poster boy for it if you wanted to be.
There’s no way I’m quitting smoking when I’m on the road. I quit for 6 weeks in February/March but then I got the book deal…
I have an old vintage trailer in the lot behind my house and I just stayed in there for thirty days and we podcasted every day. I was limited to two drinks a day for that reason – at the end of the night I’d have two cocktails. It wasn’t hard.
If I don’t have to do anything, all you have to do is be away from cigarettes. If I don’t have them then you can’t smoke. I’m generally too lazy to go and get them.
You’re friends with Louis CK and appeared in his series ‘Louie’. Do you enjoy acting?
Not really. I’m always uncomfortable acting. The phoniness of it compared to doing stand-up – which is also pretty phoney because you’re saying the same shit every night and making it sound like it’s off the top of your head – but there’s just something phoney about acting. Having Louie be there and be directing as well as acting in it – he has a comic sensibility so it was a completely different experience than working with your normal LA director or New York or whatever.
They tend to coddle you (patronising voice) ‘You know what that was great but let’s try it again’.
Just say I suck! That’s what Louie did. ‘Yeah that sucked, we gotta do this different.’ And you go ok, you fucking talked to me like comics talk to each other – blunt and brutal.
I’ve never found any ego issues with comics. I mean there’s some but it’s not competitive at all. I’ve never found that in comedy – obviously there’s exceptions but compared to other art forms, actors are such awful pieces of shit. Comedy is really a tight-knit community. I’ve made a lot of analogies to that in the book because I grew up in AA. It’s almost a similar kind of kinship where you know you can walk into any comedy club in the country and you have friends even if you’ve never met them.
You grew up in AA?
Yeah my mother was in AA pretty hardcore from the time I was about six through my teen years. I was constantly in AA meetings doing homework in the back of the rooms. That seemed kind of the same kinship. Any time you walk into an AA meeting you have friends – I’ve found the same thing in comedy.
I know it can turn lives around for the better but AA can also turn people into preaching moralists – even more so than when they drank. There’s definitely a religious aspect to it.
There’s a very extensive bit I do trashing AA but I just use the analogy for all those same reasons. Its bullshit, it doesn’t work statistically, it’s no better than quitting on your own but I’m just saying that with comedy you have that built in family the same way AA people feel they do in meetings. I’ve always found comedy to be completely supportive. I love comedians even if their act is shit.
Did you ever have a Road to Damascus moment growing up where you realised you wanted to be a comic?
I know that I must have thought about it before I did it. I remember writing down notes of things I thought were funny. But I never really went any further than that. I just kind of stumbled onto it when there was an open mic near where I lived.
How old were you?
I was 23. I did nothing but dick jokes, I had no point of view or anything. I had no opinions at 23. I had a mullet and I was trying to get laid. It was awful but it went over well enough. I was probably near thirty before I ever started doing anything of any substance.
What are the books you’re reading at the minute?
I’ve been reading a lot of comedian’s books they’ve written – for inspiration…or the opposite – pitfalls to avoid. While I was writing that book I read at least half a dozen biographies – mostly comedians, a few musicians. There’s one by the guy from Ministry that’s fucking brutal, R.D. Laing’s book – I read a bunch. The one I have right now is ‘The book of drugs’, a drug biography from some heroin addicted rock & roll star that I don’t know.
One I just read was John Ronson ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’.
Do you know Frank Sidebottom was? He was a musician who became a comic from Timperly in Manchester. He wore a big papier-mâché head…
Oh yeah, they made that movie about him.
I think the movie draws more on the making of Trout Mask Replica but the look is definitely Sidebottom. Jon Ronson wrote the script I think.
I also read his book the ‘Psychopath Test’.
It’s worrying how Big Pharma companies lobby doctors to pathologize everyday behaviour. It’s a normal reaction to feel sad or depressed if you’re half aware of the world.
That’s basically what the book is about. The difference between psychopaths and when you think you’re a psychopath and you’re not.
The UK press is notoriously full of cunts.
As a libertarian, do you think that freedom of speech should still apply to people who wield such power and sway over people? Disseminating information that suits their own agenda?
Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with it – hate that there’s an audience for it. It’s just like comedy that I hate. There’s comedian’s that I loathe their act but I don’t blame them. Dane Cook was the poster boy for a while, the comic every comic is going – What the fuck? But you hate that there’s an audience that’s laughing at it.
Shitty journalism – the fucking Daily Mail or whatever – you just hate the fact that people buy that. It’s CNN, it’s fucking just relentless, fearmongering garbage, or Fox News – it just bothers you that people watch it.
If you also hate that there’s an audience for it then go and see him play a show next month. Even better, if you know people who buy the Daily Mail then take them. We live in fucked up times where truth is drowned out inside the echo chamber of the internet and misinformation is peddled with impunity by the media.
As popular culture becomes more asinine and apolitical, it falls to lone voices like Stanhope’s to jolt people from their slumbers. For all his misanthropic posturing he is someone who cares deeply which is far more than you can say about the dimwits who get offended by his honesty. The arts have never changed the world and Stanhope is someone who would quite rightly, balk at the suggestion. Still, when you feel most disheartened by the spectacle, it’s great to recharge your sanity listening to someone who can eloquently take on the bullshit and turn it into laughter.
For podcasts and march etc check out Doug’s website: dougstanhope.com, where you can also find details of his October tour.
All words by Nathan McIlroy. More writing by Nathan on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.