(Author's warning: You know that label that gets slapped on certain CDs boasting raunchy language? The one that reads "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content"? Please imagine that label getting slapped on this interview, too.)
If you read the praise bestowed on him by critics and contemporaries in Great Britain, you might imagine that Doug Stanhope is less a stand-up comedian than a stand-up deity.
The UK's daily newspaper the Guardian, for example, had this to say: "Stanhope shocks you with the virulence of his lucidity; he shocks you into realizing how transparent the confidence trick of Western propaganda can be made to seem. What he has in abundance is the charm, don't-give-a-damn swagger, and aggressive intelligence that make for important, exciting comedy."
Iconic British comedian Ricky Gervais, meanwhile, offered this tweet to the world: "Doug Stanhope might be the most important stand-up working today."
So how does the American Stanhope, who makes frequent tour stops in England and Scotland, feel about spending time abroad?
"I hate it," says the 45-year-old comedian during a recent phone interview. "It's not good at all. I mean, I have a great fan base over there, but I just hate the day-to-day of being there. It's so ... depressing. Like, I get seriously depressed, and I don't want to do comedy ever again, anywhere.
"It's just ... it's every little thing," he continues, becoming more agitated - and funnier - by the second. "It's cramped. It's claustrophobic. It's gray. It's ugly. Everything sucks. The food is terrible. Everything's wicked overpriced. The rooms are tiny. The elevators are tiny. It's just this stone and moss and gray and gloom ... . There's no color, no one's happy ... ."
Then it sounds, I tell him, like audiences need his comedy across the pond.
"Exactly!" Stanhope exclaims. "That's why I go over there. They're a dismal people, and I have an act built for misery."
As evidenced by the comedian's dark, acidic, frequently venomous routines on everything from nationalism to Sarah Palin to child pornography, he also has an act built to surprise, and offend, and, for many, many of us, make you laugh like few others can. With his 10 comedy albums, 5 DVDs, numerous TV appearances - including a memorable role as a suicidal comic in a season-two episode of Louie - and corrosive live performances that were twice named "Best Stand-Up Show of the Year" by Time Out New York, Stanhope is a singular, unmistakable voice in American comedy, one that will be heard locally when his "Big Stink Comedy Tour" lands at RIBCO on September 28.
And if the Rock Island nightspot seems an odd place for Stanhope to be performing, a tavern venue should actually suit its guest just fine. As the man says of his stand-up performances, "I go up and I have cocktails and I get half-hammered and yell at people and tell them to go f--- themselves for an hour. I mean, there's nothing that beats it."
The No-Pressure '90s
Though now based in Bisbee, Arizona, Stanhope says he began his career in professional comedy in Nevada.
"I was 23 and I lived in Vegas," he says, "and it was back in the day when stand-up was still on prime time ... . I think I did six open-mics in my second week of comedy - there was that much comedy in a town that, you know, didn't really have much to offer."
Though Stanhope admits that "my memories of being young are suspect," he says he does recall his first stand-up performance. "I went to the same open-mic every week, always threatening to go up [on stage] the next week, and I finally decided to sit down and try to write four or five minutes of jerk-off jokes. I actually just went through some old notebooks, and I have my first set ever written out where I even wrote down, 'Hi, my name is Doug Stanhope.' Like, I wrote that part out.
"If I thought about it now," he says of his comedy debut, "I'm sure I'd be hiding under a couch in shame. But comics are very supportive, for the most part, and your first time, everyone's behind you. So it went great. It's harder the second time, when you repeat the same material and realize the audience is mostly the same comics that were there the last time."
Stuck in a day job practicing what he calls "bordlerine-fraud telemarketing" (before amending his statement with "It was fraud"), Stanhope says his segue into full-time professional comedy "just happened. I was living a pretty transient, vagabond lifestyle anyway, so I was already custom-built for making that transition to the road. I didn't have a kid, and I didn't have a $45,000 job with Procter & Gamble that I had to debate - you know, 'What is my wife gonna say ... ?' I could just go.
"I did well enough," he continues, "that six months in I got a job as a house emcee down at a club in Phoenix, and that's where I got to meet working comics and get connections to get booked into shitty one-night-ers. And then I got in my car in '92 and lived on the road for three years. And had a f---in' blast.
He laughs. "I mean, there's no money, and they weren't prestigious gigs. But you're out getting laid at bars where, generally, no one would even talk to you. If you had time off, you'd find a friend, or you stayed on some comic's couch, or you tried to find a fat girl who had a soft heart and a soft pillow. And you got to drive around some of the most beautiful country in the world. Montana and Wyoming, and all these places you'd never see otherwise. It was fantastic.
"And there was no pressure. Like, I really miss the no-pressure part of it. No one goes to the f---in' Red Lion Lounge in Gray Bull, Wyoming, expecting you to f---in' blow the roof off the place."
As the years went on, though, Stanhope's acerbic, intelligent, rudely hilarious routines began to stir greater and greater interest and awareness. He began performing at renowned comedy festivals in Canada, Scotland, and the United States - winning 1995's three-week San Francisco International Comedy Competition over rival Dane Cook - and eventually released the first of his comedy CDs with 1998's The Great White Stanhope.
"I was just happy to be doing it, you know?" he says of his comedy successes in the '90s. "At first, it was like, 'Wow, I'm gonna get my first paid gig, and it's gonna be $15!' Then you get that, and someone says, 'Hey, do you wanna go do a weekend in Flagstaff?' And you're like, 'Holy shit!' So yeah, I just remember being happy to get what they were offering, and the next thing you know you're making a living out of it."
"I Suck at Acting"
Over the past 12 years, Stanhope has made occasional forays into mainstream show business, co-hosting the last season of Comedy Central's The Man Show and participating in an installment of the DVD series Girls Gone Wild - gigs that he's described as "piles of shit I accidentally stepped in."
But he also was one of the many comedians featured in the 2005 comedy documentary The Aristocrats (seen telling the titular dirty joke to an infant) and enjoyed a 2010 stint as the "Voice of America" correspondent on BBC TV's Newswipe with Charlie Brooker, and has become a familiar presence through his appearances on Comedy Central Presents, Premium Blend, and Howard Stern's radio and TV shows.
Plus, last year, he earned a whole new slew of admirers - yours truly included - for his biting, heartbreaking performance as Eddie Mack on the Louis C.K. comedy series Louie, a role that found Stanhope portraying a bitter, alcoholic comedian who casually reveals his plans to kill himself.
"I've known him for a dozen years," says Stanhope of C.K. "I mean, I've known him from comedy. We don't talk or anything. But yeah, he just called me up and said he'd written a part with my voice in mind, and I tried to talk my way out of it. I told him, 'Listen, I suck at acting. I'm terrible.' And he goes, 'Well, would you want to do it?' And I go, 'I'll try it, but just for full disclosure, I'm a shitty actor.'
"So he says, 'Well, we'll just go through it,' and we went through the script on Skype, and he said, 'Let's do it again in a couple days. Try doing this a little different, and just take this that way ... .' A couple of pointers. And he didn't call back. It was like two weeks. And I'm like, 'What a prick! I told him I was terrible, and he doesn't even have the decency to call and tell me that I suck!'"
Laughing, Stanhope continues, "But then I realized I had a Howard Stern appearance booked, and I go, 'Now that I've memorized all the dialogue for nothing, what I'm gonna do is insinuate all this dialogue into a Stern interview - just sneak it in word for word. So when he [C.K.] finally casts someone else to play this part months later, it's gonna look like he stole the entire episode from my interview with Stern.' And then, of course, when I'm all excited about that, he calls and says, 'Yeah, you've got the part.' And I was like, 'Aw, f---. I liked my idea better.'"
Despite the praise his Louie performance received, though, don't expect Stanhope to make the leap into full-time acting work any time soon. "No, no, no," he replies when asked if other television or film gigs are on his horizon. "I'm glad to quit while I'm ahead."
Besides, TV engagements take time away from stand-up, which is clearly the performance mode Stanhope prefers. (And not just for the rush of performing live, as the comedian says of his Louie gig, "That was three days of filming to make, like, half of what I'll make in Des Moines. Three long days.")
"I've done a few years just flying to gigs where you get in and you might as well have your jokes in a briefcase," Stanhope says. "You fly in, and you get a car to the gig, you tell your jokes, you get to the hotel, and you have a 6 a.m. flight the next day. And it's way too business-y.
"But what we're doing now," he says of the "Big Stink Comedy Tour" he's currently traveling with, "is instead of flying, we get in a van. You know, it's just a couple friends of mine, comedians, that'll be on the same bill - Geoff Tale and Brett Erickson, who are f---ing brilliant comics. And there's my girlfriend, and my buddy who's tour-managing, who does all the driving and deals with the merch and the business ... . We just get to f--- off, just like the old days."
Stanhope also gets to continue honing material for a new CD that he's hoping to record in February, though he admits that - as Chris Rock expressed in a recent New York Times interview - it's become harder and harder to shape polished routines when audiences now routinely film the performance of unpolished material at comedy sets, and post the works-in-progress online. "Of course, it's way harder for Chris Rock," says Stanhope, "which is one of the reasons I enjoy obscurity."
But he does have a solution to the problem. "I don't know if someone's done this or it was my idea when I was drunk or I heard it from someone else, but it's a brilliant idea. Just make the backdrop of all your sets f---in' giant vaginas and penises and penetration. 'Cause that way, if someone films you and puts it on YouTube, it'll be taken down immediately."
Laughing, he says, "Just a whole backdrop of porn would work for me because of my act and my audience. Not so much for, like, Judy Tenuda, maybe."
Building Some Unity
Beyond his stand-up rotuines, Stanhope is known - and, among certain circles, adored - for being a strong proponent of the Libertarian party, and he famously threatened to run in the 2008 presidential campaign.
"I thought the run could be fun," he says, "because it would've been futile, and because when I decided to do it Libertarian, I thought, 'You know, their field is weak enough that we could actually, maybe, get on the ticket, and that would be hilarious. We could actually become their nominee just because they had no one else.'
"But then," he continues, "when I got into the nuts and bolts it was just so nightmarish and un-fun that I quit, and it was one of the best days I've ever had. I was like, 'I don't have to put up with this shit! I was doing this as a joke and now I've spent months, like, studying stuff, and f---in' paperwork, and trying to follow all these guidelines ... . F--- this.'
"There are times where you have a bit that's seven minutes long, and you're three minutes in, and it's dying on its ass, and you can't bail out of it. But that was a bit that was four months long that wasn't funny the whole time."
And beyond his stand-up routines and his politics, Stanhope is also famous (or perhaps notorious) for the level of vitriol occasionally directed at him by hecklers ... and his equally vitriolic yet riotous responses to them.
"I'll never encourage it," says Stanhope of verbal assaults from audience members, "but yeah, there are some times when I've had fun with it. Sometimes, when I'm just bored with saying the same shit, it's refreshing." And, sometimes, hilarious even to Stanhope.
"I had some bit in Glasgow, Scotland, this spring," he says, laughing even before recounting the story. "It was a big theatre, and I pulled out my notes at one point - it was kind of a planned thing - and I said something about how I come up with a lot of ideas over there, but then I don't know if they're gonna translate. So I looked at my notes and said, 'Like this one for instance: Do you guys dream over here? Like, at night? When you're sleeping? Or is that just an American thing?'"
Laughing again, he continues, "And most people got it. But some f---ing guy in the highest balcony is just going ape-shit, in that thick Scottish brogue, 'You're a f---in' wanker!!! Of course we f---in' dream over here!!!"
Stanhope pauses for about 10 seconds while he tries (and I try) to stop laughing, and says, "It was just so brilliant. For him to be so out-of-place with everyone else, and to take it so seriously ... . Yeah, that was fun, and it provided a great callback for my closer that I had worked out. But it wasn't by design. It was just, 'Oh, that was great that you were so f---ing stupid!'"
Still, the comedian says that in general, those who want to be vocally confrontational with him "don't come to my shows. Most people are on my side. If anything, they fight with each other. 'Cause I do have such a diverse audience. I get some pretty straight-laced libertarians that'll show up, and then my frat guys that're way drunk will be beside them, and they all hate each other ... .
"You know, I'm just trying to build some unity. Like a kindergarten teacher. 'Okay, everyone, we're gonna get along tonight.' And then they do."
In addition to unity, Stanhope's RIBCO set will find him building on his reputation for bracing, thoughtful, and riotous social commentary of the type he's mastered even in a 140-character-or-less format. (Among his pointed Twitter.com/DougStanhope comments are "You never hear in the news 'Two hundred killed today when atheist rebels took heavy shelling from the agnostic stronghold in the north,'" and "'I'm against abortion except in cases of rape'... that's like saying, 'Yes, a fetus is a human being, unless his dad is an asshole.'")
But while Stanhope's local audience can expect impassioned rants on ineffectual politicians, the drug-legalization dispute, and any number of topics that routinely raise his blood pressure, there should also be an ample supply of potentially off-putting crudeness, considering that the comedian readily admits, "I like dumb dick jokes and fart jokes." Stanhope, however, adds that it's become tough to truly shock a modern stand-up crowd.
"In fact," says the comedian, "nowadays, the taboo topics, it seems, are almost hackneyed because everyone's decided to go to the darker places, and are kind of beating them up. There's nothing off-limits left, and I've said everything about all the touchy subjects that I'm passionate about."
So how does Stanhope continue to keep his audiences on their toes?
"Oh," he says with a laugh, "I tend to come up with stuff."
Doug Stanhope performs at RIBCO on Friday, September 28 at 9 p.m., with opening sets by comedians Brett Erickson and Geoff Tate. Tickets are $20, and more information on the evening is available by visiting RIBCO.com.
For more on Doug Stanhope, visit DougStanhope.com.