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Essays By Doug
Once you do standup, it spoils you for everything else," says Doug Stanhope. "There're no censors, there're no sponsors to get offended, there're no standards and practices. It's just you, and it's immediate gratification. You say it, and drifts off into thin air, and you can say it a different way the next day."
Stanhope's confrontational rants, who's live show was twice named "Best Stand-Up Show" of the year by Time Out New York, encompasses caustic social commentary, outlandish first-person narratives, graphic sex and perversion, sometimes within the same sentence. Fueled by equal amounts of anger, outrage and alcohol, Stanhope rails against western civilization's slide into apathy and stupidity, always on the edge of implosion yet fully in control and never afraid to risk pissing off his audiences. "Stanhope is a genius parading around the slums of failed ideology…he's Charles Bukowski with dick jokes drunkenly fueled by Thomas Payne," declared The San Antonio Current.
In a field crowded with conformists and copycats, Stanhope is a genuinely original comic voice, albeit a gleefully vulgar one. "A visionary douchebag" says The Times (London). Raw, agitated and unflinching, he holds forth on all manner of major injustices and petty annoyances, excoriating himself as much as any of his other targets. But Stanhope's venomous bile is matched by his passion and conviction, as well as a fierce intellect that gives his work a level of substance and subtlety that belies his snarling exterior. His comedy is as corrosive as it is hilarious, and his righteous self-immolation is exhilarating and life-affirming in its cathartic honesty. "Stanhope shocks you with the virulence of his lucidity; he shocks you into realising 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," says The Guardian (UK).
Stanhope has been compared to such fearless comic revolutionaries as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. But his work makes it abundantly clear that he's a complete original. As Ricky Gervais tweeted, "Doug Stanhope might be the most important standup working today."
In recent years, Stanhope has won a large and rabidly devoted fan base both in the U.S. and abroad on his own uncompromising terms, bypassing the conventional comedy circuit and most forms of mainstream media exposure. The Denver Post calls Stanhope "A truth-teller and astute (if messy) social critic…one of the most bracing live acts on the stand-up circuit…" He routinely sells out large theaters in Europe and in Britain.
In many ways, Stanhope's organic grass-roots success and close relationship with his fans seem more akin to rock stardom than comic notoriety, so it's fitting that he's signed to Roadrunner, a rock label noted for its deep foundations in the heavy metal and hard-rock communities.
One measure of Stanhope's international fame is that his previous Roadrunner standup CD/DVD, Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere, was filmed in the Norwegian city in an abandoned factory, in front of an audience for whom English is a second language. It quickly shot to the #1 spot on the comedy charts upon release. The Laugh Button named it one of the top five comedy albums of 2011 while Laugh Spin too included it in their year's best. In September 2011, he performed for an actual captive audience in a maximum-security prison in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Stanhope's fans embrace his work with a level of devotion that can border on obsession. "People," he notes, "will show up early and tailgate at my shows. 'Hey, we've been here drinking since 3:30 PM!' That's when you're walking into the theater at 7:30 PM and they have still another hour and a half of power drinking before the show. You can pretty much pinpoint the ones who are not gonna make it to the end. But I have as many doctors as school shooters in my audience. Although it's easy to forget about the smart ones who actually get it, because they're not the ones who are on my Facebook page starting fights with other fans by telling them what stupid pieces of shit they are."
One reason that Stanhope knows that there are doctors in his audience is that one recently took him up on his offer to perform an operation to repair his hernia in exchange for a charity event. Another performed Doug's vasectomy, an operation that he shared with fans as a live webcast. His fans also recently sprang into online action after Stanhope discovered that a blogger was plagiarizing his bits and publishing them as blog entries.
"They came out in droves and basically ran this guy off the internet," Stanhope marvels, adding, "So now I need to be doing something with these people, just like the pope who started the crusades because his soldiers were bored and started turning on each other. I've got an angry mob at my disposal, so I need to find something a little more productive for them to do than hounding some halfwit off the internet."
The Worcester, MA-born Stanhope began performing standup in 1990 in Las Vegas, to amuse co-workers at his dead-end telemarketing job. He made his public debut performing a five-minute set, opening for his boss' cover band. But it would take a few more years for him to find his own creative voice.
"When I started, I was just a know-nothing dick-joke guy with a mullet," he recalls. "I was 24 years old, with no point of view and nothing to say, other than 'Please fuck me.' It wasn't until '95 or '96 that I started doing something that felt more like an art form than a centerpiece for a bachelor party. That's when I started to take true stories and craft them so they worked on stage, rather than just telling them in a bar. I stopped making stuff up and I stopped doing jokes that I didn't really believe in, and started working on stuff that I meant."
It was at around that time that Stanhope began making well-received appearances at a variety of high-profile comedy festivals, including the 1995 San Francisco International Comedy Competition, where he edged out Dane Cook to take home the top prize. In the years since, Stanhope has delivered attention-getting performances at virtually every major comedy festival, including the Just For Laughs in Montreal, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, the Chicago Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where he won the Strathmore Press Award in 2002. By that point, Stanhope was receiving already receiving considerable attention from audiences in Britain, where he made numerous TV appearances, including an infamous spot on the BBC's Live Floor Show while tripping on ecstasy. Back in America, he won new fans with appearances on Howard Stern's radio show, Comedy Central Presents and Premium Blend.
In 2005, Stanhope hosted his own radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio, and was featured alongside a large roster of comedy legends in the film The Aristocrats, in which he was seen telling a filthy joke to a baby. In 2006, he published his first book, Fun with Pedophiles: The Best of Baiting, a collection of online pranks played on chat-room perverts. In 2007, he made two TV standup specials, one for Showtime in the U.S. and the other shot for Britain's Channel 4. In 2010, he was featured as the "Voice of America" correspondent on BBC TV's Newswipe with Charlie Brooker.
Along the way, Stanhope has had some uncomfortable brushes with mainstream show business, including a frustrating stint as co-host of the final season of Comedy Central's The Man Show and his less-than-enthusiastic participation in an installment of home-video monstrosity Girls Gone Wild.
"I never had any interest in being a TV guy, and those things were just piles of shit I accidentally stepped in," he asserts. "Girls Gone Wild was just a lark, but I didn't think I'd have to see the ads for it every ten minutes for the next year and a half. The Man Show was a huge letdown, but it was a great learning experience, and it was worth the shame and humiliation to learn how TV works and why I don't want to be part of it."
Stanhope is considerably more satisfied with his memorable performance as a suicidal comic in a 2011 episode of old friend Louis C.K.'s series Louie. Louie, as he wrote the character, had Stanhope in mind. But he still has no intention of succumbing to the same acting bug to which many standup comics enthusiastically submit, although the critics have praised Stanhope. Indeed, his experiences with mainstream Hollywood strengthened his resolve to focus his energies on his standup work. They also helped to convince him to leave Los Angeles in favor of a quieter life near Bisbee, Arizona.
"I'd been living in L.A. for ten years and hating it," he states. "But every time you want to leave, they throw more money at you—'Hey, here's a pilot you can do. It'll never get picked up, but it's 35 grand.' But I don't need 35 grand anymore, so I'd rather just enjoy my life."
So what motivates Stanhope now? "Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failing. Fear of sucking. Fear of bad comments on a Facebook page. I admit that that's not a really good place to be fighting from, but I don't know how to change it at this point. I just ride through it until something breaks."
"I've never tried to drive my career in any particular direction," Stanhope concludes. "I've always been an in-the-moment, live-for-today guy. I've never had a goal, and nearly everything I've done has been an accident. I just play to me, and if I can amuse myself, I consider it a victory."