A conversation with acerbic comedian Doug Stanhope as he returns to where he began
Straight from the American id, it’s Doug Stanhope — trampler of pieties, smasher of taboos, peddler of dangerous ideas (such as, it’s okay to stop caring about 9/11). Also, crucially: a comedian. He’s funny, often hilariously so, but usually in a caustic way about things a lot of us don’t joke about.
So his comedy poses a set of challenges: What will you laugh at in any given moment? Just how far out there is the farthest edge of what’ll make you chuckle? Can you be induced to find the stuff beyond that line funny? If so, what does that say about you? Race, abortion, football homoeroticism, the baser appetites of being human, blistering riffs on the tragedy du jour — no subject is off-limits to Stanhope. He’s not the comedian you turn to for What’s the deal with airline food?
Earlier this year, a writer for Harper’s did a ride-along with Stanhope’s tour, presenting him as a vulgar intellectual voice for a debauched and drunken underclass. “Everyone’s welcome” at his shows, Harper’s declared, “especially those who are unwelcome elsewhere.”
Stanhope got his start in Las Vegas, at an open-mic night at the now-defunct Escape Lounge 2, back in 1990. He’d been living in Vegas for a couple of years, doing telemarketing work — perfect job for a freeform motormouth — and dreaming Dice Clay dreams. He returns this month for a Sept. 27 gig at the Plaza, followed by a Sunday of football-viewing in the Plaza’s sports book, to which his fans are invited.
You have some history here, and you don’t strike me as the sentimental or nostalgic type — so what goes through your mind when you pull into Vegas?
Oh, I have some nostalgia for Vegas, especially old Vegas. Old-school Vegas. The El Cortez, and back when it was the Union Plaza — those were places where you could always get a fun book that had a free breakfast coupon, so you wouldn’t have to spend the usual 49 cents for breakfast. (Chuckles) I remember when 50 cents was a lot of money.
And it’s still just as cruddy down there. I mean, they’re prettying it up, and I like that, but I can’t imagine they can ever give it that same corporate-dullard feel of the Strip. You wouldn’t be surprised if the mob still had their finger on something Downtown.
How long did you live here?
I lived there from '86-88 and then moved back in '89-90.
What brought you to Vegas?
Money, women and danger. (Chuckles) My buddy and I who moved out there, that was our mantra of why we were moving to Vegas: money, women, danger. We were gamblers, and it just seemed like the fun place to be.
How successful were you on each score?
Yeah, the money didn’t work out. That came from the telemarketing, which actually did pay well, especially if you didn’t mind that part of your soul and dignity going away. The women — for a kid with a mullet, I did a lot better than I should’ve.
Other than money, did you get anything out of telemarketing?
I still say I was funnier as a telemarketer than I’ve ever been as a comedian. They used to call me “the customer abuse department.” Any lead that someone got that was overly rude, I would pin up in my cubicle and repeatedly harass them, daily and weekly.
At what point did you get onstage to try comedy?
There was a place called the Escape Lounge 2 on Maryland and Flamingo, I believe, that had open mic. I would go down there all the time and just watch, and say, “Can I go up next week if I write some jokes?” Then I’d show up the next week and wouldn’t go up. It became a running joke: Sure, next week. So after four or five times I put together four minutes of masturbation jokes, everything I knew about it at 23.
Do you recall what it was like to get up on that stage the first time?
Yeah, I was drunk! I got a pitcher of beer, and went up there, and I’d hung around there enough that I knew the guy who ran the place, and the door guy, so I had like three riffs about those guys to make it sound like it was off the top of my head.
It was pure. No one was doing it to make a career of it. My act was junk, and I was learning, but girls who would never talk to you would talk to you now, strippers would let you stay on their couch …
Did you have any anxiety?
Yeah, of course. But the second time is gonna suck the most. Because the first time everyone’s on your side. Other comics want to see you do well. The second time, you go up with the exact same jokes, and they kinda suck, and everyone’s already heard ’em, and now you die on your ass. So you go, Oh, I better keep writing.
How much did your act then resemble what you do now?
Not at all. I had no point of view back then. I was just writing jokes, things that sounded funny — they weren’t necessarily rooted in anything true or any experience. It was just, “Hey, sea monkeys — that’s a funny thing to say is sexually transmitted; let me form this into a joke.” Nothing.
Did you have from the beginning that sense of pushing it as far as you could?
Dice was just hitting it big then, and that was really the catalyst that made me want to try standup. The phone room I was working in, the owner had a cover band. I was just quoting Dice Clay around the office, and the owner said, Hey, if you want to open for my band … I explained to him that it wasn’t my material. He goes, I don’t care. Well, I do. But just knowing I could get a gig if I had my own stuff made me sit down and actually start writing.
You were written up earlier this year in Harper’s, where the writer extolled you as a kind of intellectual voice for the disaffected; but once, when I saw you onstage at Sunset Station, you joked, “My act used to have a point. Not anymore.” So where on the scale between those two points do you really fall?
It varies nightly, and (laughing) sometimes from the beginning to the end of the show. Sometimes you look at your jokes and go, I don’t know what’s funny about this, or why it needs to be said, or why people laugh at it. It’s like the old thing where you repeat a word so many times it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I feel like, Wow, I’m really saying what I want to say, and other times I don’t want to talk.
That’s why alcohol is key. It allows you to fake it when you’re so sick of saying the same stuff. And I have a real short tolerance for how quickly I get bored with any subject or bit.
I try to improvise as much as I can. Sometimes you’re inspired. Sometimes you don’t care, so you don’t even try to stay on script, and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t, who cares, I won’t be back here for a couple of years anyway. (Laughs)
How often does the audience itself let you down?
The only time my audience lets me down is when they’re too drunk. My audience, I get so many drunks. And they want to be part of the show. And the worst guy is always your biggest fan. And he just drove three and a half hours from, you know, Blythe, and he’s been tailgating your show with a 12-pack in his car for four hours, so by the time you get up there, you see — it’s amazing the peripheral vision: Your mouth is on autopilot while your peripheral vision is catching all of these problems and fires about to start, and you see this kid just off to the right, and he’s rocking from the balls of his feet to his toes, trying to stand up. Do I stop the bit now, and address it, and screw up the entire timing of the bit? Or do I try to race to the end of the bit, because this guy’s got a really short timeline before he’s going to fall down or knock over drinks, or scream something out.
As you see the nation’s social fabric falling apart, does that make your job easier or harder?
Chaos and tragedy are always good for business, no doubt about that. But the older you get the more you see things repeat themselves, and you feel like you’ve talked about it all a decade ago about a separate thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily getting much worse.
There seems to be a lot more rancor in the air.
Well, there’s more information in the air, too. Twenty years ago you didn’t have a daily feed on a thousand websites of a thousand horrible things gone wrong. When the girl was trapped in the well, there were probably 20 kids around the world trapped in wells, but only one had a news crew near it.
So how do you go about alchemizing all that into an act?
You’re throwing big words at me. I haven’t even had a cocktail yet, and you’re throwing alchemizing at me? Jesus!
Yeah, it was an overreach on my part.
Well, it’s NPR. You have to have big words in order to justify talking to a guy like me. (Laughs)
Anything that strikes me at all funny, I will jot on a cocktail napkin or in a notebook somewhere, desperately hoping I can beat it into six minutes. When my mother killed herself, there was part of me that I was very aware of going, “I’m going to get 10 minutes out of this.”