Listen to Doug Stanhope’s stand-up long enough and you might just become as angry as he is. But Stanhope’s degree of rage isn’t of the Lewis Black flash-of-anger quality. Stanhope’s anger is a slow burn, overarching despair about what’s going on around him in the world. In his career, he’s directed his anger at politicians, governmental regulation, people who insist on procreating, and audience members who use their cell phones to record his act. But at this point in his 20-plus-year comedy career, Stanhope, who has settled in Bisbee, Arizona with his girlfriend Amy “Bingo” Bingaman, wants to offer solutions to the problems he rages about.
He’s still working on it, though, as evidenced by his latest DVD Oslo–Burning The Bridge To Nowhere, where he complains to a Norwegian audience about the perils of talking about doing weird stuff on the road as well as why he doesn’t want to have sex anymore. On the heels of this DVD and another one he recorded in Salt Lake City, as well as his well-received guest appearance on Louie, Stanhope is rolling into Denver to do a show at the Oriental Theater Nov. 4. Stanhope called The A.V. Club from Iceland—where he did a show at a maximum-security prison—to talk about European audiences, why he doesn’t want to be angry anymore, the Louie appearance, and why the thing he wishes he could do is quit.
The A.V. Club: So you’re in Iceland, huh? First time there?
Doug Stanhope: Yes sir. It’s pretty outstanding.
AVC: What’s some weird stuff that you’re finding out there?
DS: The mayor [of Reykjavik] is a comedian that got elected on a joke campaign at the economic crash. We’ve just been hanging around with him. We went to Hofdi House where Reagan and Gorbachev held their summit 25 years ago. Goofed around. Just hanging out doing stupid shit.
AVC: Did the mayor know you because of his comedy background?
DS: I just sent him an e-mail. A friend of ours was talking about going to Iceland, and I said I’d always wanted to go. I looked the guy up and found an e-mail address, and he said he had just gotten into my stuff on the Charlie Brooker show in the UK. We started trading e-mails, and he said he used to have a pen pal in Arizona, in the prison, and I told him I used to have a death row inmate pen pal, so that’s when we thought it’d be fun to tour the prisons. I didn’t want to do a show, because shows always fuck up vacations. I’ll do a show that’ll pay for it, and then you’re just worried about the show. I’ll do a free show in a prison, and I don’t have to sweat it.
AVC: Right, it’s a captive audience. Literally.
DS: Right. It’s not like I have a lot of fans or critics there, so I just say any old shit that came to mind. They got it, and it was fun to see. They call it a prison system—and these are murderers and rapists living in dormitories, and they make their own food with butcher knives and stuff. They’re attached to the kitchen table, so if you stab someone, I guess you have to do it while you’re making dinner. It’s really relaxed, and it was a lot of fun.
AVC: So you didn’t exactly feel like you were amongst hardened criminals even they were just that?
DS: Yeah. We heard a lot of the stories after the fact of what different guys had done. But they were extremely polite and welcoming. They even gave us souvenir T-shirts. [Laughs.] There’s only 300,000 people in this country, their entire prison system is like 189 people in six prisons.
AVC: When you did the show, what kind of topics did you talk about?
DS: I just kind of go to the well of every dick joke I’ve ever thought of ever in my life. [Laughs.] A lot of them are Polish or Lithuanian; I don’t know how good of a grasp they have on the language. I’m sure they weren’t there to hear socially relevant commentary. Lots of dick jokes and fist-fuck jokes.
AVC: So they understand the word “fuck” pretty well.
DS: Oh, yeah. They were pretty much with it. They loved the smut.
AVC: What have you seen that makes it different from the other European countries you’ve visited?
DS: There isn’t that feeling of angst here, like there is in Europe. It just seems like they’re happy people. You don’t feel like a douhcebag for being an American here, although I’m sure some people should feel like that. It’s so remote that other world rules don’t apply.
AVC: Also you eat a lot of seafood there.
DS: I’ve been shitting a lot of sushi, too. I’m taking some chances. I have no idea what that is. They have horse on the menu as nigiri sushi. I’m sure it’s cooked. We ordered it, but they were out. We ate whale, which you can’t get much anywhere, but Norway or Japan. I took a chance on Mexican food because it’s really cold and rainy and shit. There’s an alleged Mexican place right next door. It looks so far removed from anything, even like those $1.99 Banquet frozen dinner Mexican foods are better.
AVC: I can’t imagine they have a good grasp on the concept of Mexican food up there.
DS: No. But they had a cutout from the newspaper that said, “Real Mexican Now In Reykjavik.” What the fuck? They told me they couldn’t make a bean burrito because the concept was—so I asked them if they could give me a side of beans and some tortillas, and after much head-scratching, they said they could do it. Then I realized they weren’t even refried beans, they’re just beans. And white rice likes Uncle Ben’s. It’s my fault, I walked into this place.
AVC: The nightlife in Reykjavik is pretty out there. They stay up all night there. It’s kind of like a cold version of Rio.
DS: That’s what I’ve heard, Friday and Saturday it turns into Mardi Gras in the street. The only bad neighborhood in the country is downtown on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s just falling down collapsing drunk and smashing glasses in the streets and violence. So I’m glad I’m here Sunday through Thursday. I don’t have that in me anymore.
AVC: What made you decide to record the last album in Oslo? You made a joke that it’s because they’re 10 years behind and you’re washed up. What was the real reason?
DS: The real decision behind it was my manager got a deal. We were shooting an album cover for my previous CD with Bjorn what’s-his-name, some big photographer over there. He had told my manager that if I wanted to film the show for DVD that night—we were just doing the cover shoot before the show—that he had the equipment and we could do it on the cheap. So my manager told me a day and a half ahead of time that we’re filming a new DVD, which I thought I had new material for. If I had it to take back, I would, but it’s out there.
AVC: Have you gotten more popular in Europe over the past couple of years? Or is it going over there and relentlessly touring?
DS: I’ve been coming over for almost 10 years, to the UK at least. I think we’re there too much. If I write a new hour in a year, only half of it’s going to work in the UK. So I really should be there every two years, but I end up going there every six months ’cause the fuckin’ money’s good. That’s not a long-term plan, but I’ve never been known for my long-term goals.
AVC: Who was in the audience? Was it ex-pats? Is it Norwegians who know what a fist-fuck is?
DS: Little or no ex-pats, but you forget that they don’t speak English as their first language, but they speak as well as anybody. Finland is where it started to get a little shaky, but Sweden and Norway, they speak perfect English. Humor is the last thing that transcended the language barrier, which is why acts like Pablo Francisco do really well over there, ’cause you don’t really have to think too much.
AVC: When you were doing the Oslo shows, what do you think really hit with people and what left people scratching their heads?
DS: Shit, I would have to go back and watch it to have any kind of accurate answer. But I wasn’t really trying to play to the crowd; I was just trying [cram in] like, “What do I need to get on a DVD now? What’s ready to put out?” Except for an occasional variation of phrase, like I know they won’t get that phrase. Hopefully they laugh, but either way this is going on a DVD.
AVC: So you’re okay if there’s some parts on the DVD where you hear one or two people laughing?
DS: Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s not for them. Kind of the “burning the bridge” reference.
AVC: You’ve gone away from talking issues and politics and things like that, focusing more on getting older and living your life. When did that start?
DS: I don’t even know that I’ve made a change. I desperately want to, but when you start to get to your core topics that you’re really passionate about, there’s only so many. And there’s only so many ways you can rephrase them and repackage them and resell them. You start going, “Oh shit, I need new material.” Now I’m trying to find second-string things I hate. I’m sitting around trying to write Libya jokes. I don’t give a fuck about Libya. I’m watching the news, and I just really have to do more with my life. Any time you have to rely on CNN or The New York Times or USA Today, it’s only because I’m not doing enough in my personal life. I’d much rather talk about doing weird shit in Iceland, but I just don’t do enough of it, which is why I’m sitting here in Iceland staring at mushrooms in my freezer wondering when I’m going to do them. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s an incident you talk about where you said something about your road adventures to the audience and someone took a video of it, and it got back to your girlfriend. Does that happen a lot?
DS: No, it hasn’t happened where I get into any trouble. But you get to an age where you do have fucked up stories. All my friends, if we have a good story about being up all night on ecstasy and titty dancers, back 20 years ago when all your friends were your party buddies. Now all those same friends have professional jobs and shit, so now I’m a stickler for honesty and detail, but if I say that that happened and then Culver people are going to know the guy that I’m talking about ’cause he’s a firefighter, [I’ll] change it to Modesto. It gets so confusing, where you never had to worry about that before. You could just say whatever you wanted. Comedy clubs were like AA meetings. You could go to one on the other side of the country, no one knows who the fuck you’re talking about, and there was no evidence.
AVC: So, in other words, you’re trying to avoid talking about this stuff altogether now?
DS: I assume you’re talking about people filming shows. I could give you endless reasons; I could do an entire DVD on why that’s awful for comedy. First of all, whenever someone has a camera on you, it immediately takes it out of your headspace. You’re making change at 7-Eleven and someone sticks a camera in your face, you’re completely distracted from your train of thought. And obviously the whole bootlegging angle: You can’t decide when I put out my new DVD. It’s material that’s not ready. I’ve always used the Carlin “Seven Dirty Words” as an example: If you were trying to work that material out today but by the time you got four dirty words tight and the other three you were still playing with, audiences would be bored with it because people would fuckin’ steal it by the time you tried to work it out.
AVC: Is what’s happened to comedians in the past, like what happened to Michael Richards, a factor? When a comedian confronts someone at a comedy club, that gets on YouTube.
DS: Well that’s the upside. [Laughs.] You get to see those people die horribly. And you can manipulate that, you can create Michael Richards situations and come out and issue an apology and the national news, and I’m not pointing any fingers. We’ve done that with that Kilkenny, Ireland show where I was on a mixed bill and people weren’t necessarily there to see me, and I was talking about some national scandal where a pedophile had gotten released on a technicality and the whole country is up in arms and literally protesting in the streets. And I made some comments about—it was an extended bit—about how ugly their women are, regardless of the age. It went on, and it had some clever lines in it, but immediately people were violently booing me and my manager took that, made a couple of calls, and instead of an anonymous, bad set that no one would have ever heard about, I left the country on the front page of a tabloid. “American Comic Booed; Says Irish Women Are Too Ugly To Rape.” Which is priceless. It still is on my Wikipedia page. It identifies some festival that no one has ever heard on a 15-minute set that would have gone completely unnoticed; I get front-page tabloid press.
AVC: Is that a good thing for you?
DS: No, but when you see the Tracy Morgan thing and days latter you see Katt Williams, I wonder, are they doing the same thing? Katt Williams, who I don’t know at all, but I think he has been out of comedy for a while, but now he’s getting back in. It just seems like kind of copycat on a genuine—the Tracy Morgan thing I’m sure he just had to apologize because he’s got network money behind him now. I’m sure there were some furrowed brows at whatever network he’s on. But it really sickens me when comedians apologize, even Michael Richards. He should apologize for being a shitty comic. [Laughs.] He’s sitting with Paul Mooney and Reverend Al on either side of him giving some woeful—you’d expect that from some shithead politician, but when comics do it, it’s like a dagger in your gut.
AVC: When you’ve been confronted with those situations, like the Ireland thing, have people asked you to apologize at this point? Or do they know your act well enough?
DS: I’ve never been in a position where anyone cared. I’m not a celebrity by any means. I’ve had bits that would be far more offensive to the masses. Some screw-up other guys are apologizing [for bits] I have on DVDs. I’ve said worse than that on a DVD, but no one cares, and they’ve expected it. Like Howard Stern could never say anything that someone would demand an apology [for] because he says that shit all the time.
AVC: When you roll into a town, what do you look to do?
DS: Generally when I’m on the road, I’ve got my face in a notebook when I land, and then usually just hang out wherever I play afterwards. I usually have an early flight out the next day. This [Iceland trip] is just strictly vacation, just for kicks. I don’t hang out like I used to. I just don’t have the—the hangovers hurt way too bad. I’m not closing down bars anymore. I drink heavily on stage and then I drink a little bit after, but then I usually hit the hotel, ’cause there’s really nothing that last call has promised me anymore. There’s nothing there. I’d much rather wake up in time for the free breakfast at the hotel. Some places I still—like in Portland, I have a lot of weird friends and a lot of weird stuff to do. Like last time, we ended up at a swinger’s club, because it was a weird thing to do and I knew the chick that ran it, and we were given a guided tour of this middle-aged orgy. It was hilarious. But there’s not a lot of opportunities to see something you haven’t seen before.
AVC: Can you think of anything you haven’t?
DS: I need new interests, that’s what I need. I realize how fucking boring I am.
AVC: Is it middle age that’s doing it to you? Is it getting older?
DS: It’s just, “I’ve got a place for you to go,” and like, “Yeah that doesn’t sound fun.” Iceland is the first place I’ve felt excited about in years.
AVC: You’re not even excited about having sex anymore if your Oslo album is any indication.
DS: Yeah, I really have no sex drive. I think I’ve changed so much that you don’t even realize, ’cause that’s really the motivation of most of the things you do in your early or middle years. If you trace any pattern of motivation, there’s usually pussy at the end of if it. “Yeah, I want a middle [slot at the comedy club] so I have more time on stage so more chicks see me so more chicks want to meet me after the show. I want to make more money to get this so I look better and then…” You don’t do sit-ups because you like your own abs.
AVC: You live in Arizona now, right?
DS: Yeah. Six years now.
AVC: What made you decide to move out to that—Louis C.K. called it a trailer. Is it that?
DS: [Laughs.] It’s a small house. I don’t know where he got “trailer.” We do have a little vintage Shasta trailer. A lot of the stuff we filmed for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe we filmed at a vintage trailer park that’s down the street. All there’s beautiful ’50s Airstreams that are done up to the nines with old records and old record players. We filmed a lot there, so I don’t know if that’s where he got trailer park. But no, we have a small house.
AVC: What made you guys decide to settle there?
DS: I knew I had to get the fuck out of L.A., and my lease was expiring and it wasn’t going to get renewed. I was with another girl that I often refer to as my wife at the time. I didn’t know where to go, and all the places I wanted to go she didn’t want to go. I was going to go to Reno because I thought it was funny, and she didn’t see the humor in Reno. And Portland and Austin, but Austin is so—I don’t like traffic. So Bisbee [Arizona] is someplace we found on the road, some old mining town where hippies took over when the mine went bust in the ’70s. We hung out there just for fun when we were driving in and out of L.A. But it was impulse-bought. I looked at the rest of my money and what house I could afford with it and looked through the windows, didn’t even look in the insides, and bought it.
AVC: How has that affected your career and your routine and how you conduct yourself?
DS: It’s definitely softened on some level. I love being a regular guy; comedy never comes up in a conversation except for, “Where are you going to?” No one there is saying, “Hey, how’d you get started? Can you give me advice?” Comedy is just not part of everyday life there, which I love, because there’s enough of that on the road. I love going to the supermarket and knowing all the checkers by name and being able to say hello. People come to visit thinking it’s going to be some Hunter S. Thompson compound, [but] it’s really mellow. I wear pajamas most of the time, like The Big Lebowski. That’s my life there. We have football parties every weekend. Except for this Iceland trip, I will be there for every football game. We have our own little group of a handful of people who like football in the artist community. We barbecue, and it’s a fucking blast.
AVC: One of the things Louie mentioned when he talked to The A.V. Club was your appearance on Louie and how he helped get you through it. One of the things he mentioned was that you might have a fear of success. Do you agree with him on that?
DS: No. I don’t have any desire. That whole world is so gross to me. The whole acting and Hollywood [thing], it’s just work to me. Stand-up comedy ruins you so badly for doing television. I don’t really need to be known anymore than I am. The slight sliver of fame I do have is hard to deal with. If I was actually well-known—I don’t even know what to say to people who are at my show when I walk into the venue, much less having waitresses in diners asking for my autograph. But yeah, I had a lot of fun doing Louie, and I don’t think I would have if it weren’t Louie doing all the directing and being there the whole time. If it was some suck-bag fucking Hollywood director [who is] passive aggressive, [saying] “Hey, let’s try it like this. No, no, that was real good.” It feels foreign to me. So to say that I’m afraid of success, yeah, I’d be afraid of what he considers success. If I could use an analogy: I can’t ski, and I’m sure it would be fun on some level to slide down a hill on skis, but take all the other parts of it, you have to learn how to ski when you’re already uncoordinated and naturally inept at anything athletic and be out in the cold and fall down a lot and look like an asshole and freeze your balls off and pay a lot of money and pay your dues just to be able to go down on skis. It would not be worth the trade. I ‘m sure there would be benefits to it, but I’m not sure they’re worth the effort.
AVC: If another comedian you admired asked you to do a part, would you do it?
DS: I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. Only because it was Louie would I audition; that’s just the grossest thing in the world. I’m sure I’d consider doing cameos here and there, but I wouldn’t want to do anything other than stand-up for the majority of my career.
AVC: Did you know guys like Eddie, the character you played?
DS: Oh yeah. When you started doing triple-gigs, living out of your car, you meet a million guys like that who’ve been doing it for 20 years, living paycheck to paycheck. And you still looked up to them for some reason. But when you’re a young guy, you can’t believe you’re getting paid to do comedy, but you’re working with these wretched alcoholic train wrecks.
AVC: Guess those guys would even look at your career and think that you’re selling out, as different as your career has been from most.
DS: I think a lot of people think that character isn’t really that far off from me, which in some ways it isn’t. Obviously I’m doing better professionally, but I think a lot of people think I basically live out of my car doing all these horrible gigs. [Laughs.] A lot of the places I play don’t have “Theater” in the name, like Bean Shop in Flint, some wretched rock and roll bar that seems like I should be living out of the trunk of an Oldsmobile. I don’t want to fight that reputation.
AVC: Why don’t you want to fight that reputation?
DS: It’s kind of romantic. I kind of like the character of Eddie.
AVC: Obviously you’re not looking to kill yourself, but yet you have mentioned that you get angry to the point where you want to kill other people?
DS: I don’t want to be angry anymore. I can’t blame it solely on my career, but always looking for the hateful slant on whatever’s going on in the world or in your life. I have a DVD that we just filmed in Salt Lake coming out in Christmas. I don’t mind the bombast, I’ve always loved the vulgarity, but it’s got to be more solution-orientated than just pointing out all the fucking problems in the world and having dick to say abut how to change it. It’s really frustrating. And then you go, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” I’d rather being doing fist-fuck jokes, ’cause people laugh, and not drag them down with me. Or trying to find more solutions and have a—I hate to use the word “positive”—but having something so my act’s not so hopeless. Or so I’m not so hopeless that I wind up like an Eddie.
AVC: What kind of stuff are we going to see in the Salt Lake DVD that’s along those lines?
DS: I’m saying it won’t be in that CD. That CD was the best of what I’ve been doing since I put out the last one. And it’s pretty funny. Funnier than that fucking Oslo DVD, that’s for sure. From now on, I really want to start. I have something in mind. I don’t have any meat on the bones, but have something to look forward to.
AVC: Just as far as an act that’ll address what you’re talking about?
DS: Yeah, and trying to keep that material for that next piece with a theme. I’m seeing some kind of light where I’m going to fucking quit comedy if I can’t find a new angle. There’s only so many ways you can say the shit I’ve been saying. I want to by Anonymous’ favorite comic. That’s my goal. They’re protesters who actually do something, where everyone else is out with a sign or throwing bricks through shop windows in London to grab a Playstation. That’s just how I feel as a comic, it’s just empty slogans on a fucking sign that go nowhere, where Anonymous actually goes and fucks with the system. I want to have an act that offers you some solutions and things you can do to change the world, even if it’s just a little bit. Even if it’s just to fuck up a website.
AVC: Which types of venues have the best crowds for you and which ones are the biggest pain in the ass?
DS: At this point, my crowd will show up wherever I go, if it’s a VFW hall or an Improv. I’m playing more comedy clubs, because now it’s my asses in the seats as opposed to people who show up. If I’m playing an Improv now, it’s a special event, it’s one-night-only. It’s not going to be a bunch of people for bachelorette parties that got free tickets from a telemarketing promotion. The people who come are from such a wide spectrum. We have libertarians that are in their 40s and 50s. I found surgeons in my fan base that gave me free surgery. I also have a lot of school-shooters, mop-top kids with the Misfits T-shirts. And the serious drunks who bellow out old bits and tailgate the shows and are drinking at 3:30 in the afternoon for a 9 o’clock show. You just look at them when you get on stage and you just know that you’re going to have to throw them out and try to be as gentle about it as possible, because I do promote that on a certain level. They say, “You’re a stupid fucking drunk,” and I say, “No, I’m just better at it then you. Why don’t you go lay out in your car.” After a show, if you read Facebook comments, they will say, “Hey, great show! Sorry about those assholes,” and there’s always different types of assholes. “Sorry about those two cunts in front of me that didn’t smile the whole time,” and those two cunts are saying, “Sorry about those drunken assholes behind us, we love it but we wanted them thrown out.” I have a whole lot of different people that tend to hate each other but like me.
AVC: But you don’t seem like one of those guys that gets thrown off too much by hecklers or people being a pain in an ass.
DS: No. Sometimes I’m so off myself that it’s a great jumping-off place or a reason to place blame. “I’m not even going to finish that bit now, you fucked it up.” Well, sometimes I couldn’t remember how that thing ended anyway, but I’m going to blame you. It’s not like I have some performance laid out like, “Okay, now we’re going to get into act two.” I’m kind of all over the place anyway.
AVC: Yeah, but a lot of comedians are that precise.
DS: Yeah, and my audience would throw them completely. I’m sure I’ve bread that type of audience because I’m so chaotic and hit-or-miss.
AVC: Is this the type of career that you envisioned for yourself when you first started doing this?
DS: I never really thought of it as a career. It was always just an amazing amount of luck. “Holy shit, I’m going to get to play a string of Red Lion lounges in Montana and Wyoming?” It was fantastic. I don’t think I ever thought of it in terms of career until five years in and I won that San Francisco thing, and I get like 10 grand, so I had some money I could move to L.A. with. I got a really small HBO development deal with a failed comedy festival. So I had some money and I moved to L.A., and I don’t think that I considered my act until shortly after that. I was saying stuff that I thought was funny because I thought it would get a laugh. No sense of, “This is what I want to do with my career.” I’m naturally a vulgar person and was at an age where I didn’t really have much else to talk about other than fucking and drugs and whatnot. I wasn’t trying to find a voice. Again, I’ve never really thought past the moment.
AVC: Now that you look back on it, was that the way you liked it?
DS: Yeah, I had an absolute fucking blast in this life. Another unbelievable, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m doing this,” and living in the moment and going too far with it on many occasions, and riding into the next moment and going, “What the fuck have I [been doing] for the last three years?” Then seven years, then 13 years. I have that feeling if I just sat back in a hot bathtub for 30 days, take it all in, I’d be fucking terrified.
AVC: Is there anything you haven’t done at this point you’d like to do as a comedian or otherwise?
DS: People always take this the wrong way, but what I really want to do is quit. [Laughs.] Even if I come back. Once you’re so locked into doing something, just the idea of quitting [is attractive]. It was always the best thing to do with a job, was throwing an apron in the boss’ face and saying, “You know what? Fuck you, I quit. Send my last paycheck to my dad’s house,” and just walking out in the parking lot with that feeling of “I can do anything with my life.” Saying, “I quit,” and not having to worry about notebooks and news shit and what we’re going to do about the cover art. I really want to quit. But I think if I took a year off, and I’d disappear off the face of the earth, the way attention spans roll now. I don’t like that feeling, like I need anybody.
AVC: So even if it was only a year, you feel like it would be a bad idea?
DS: Yeah, but I could come back. I could come back like a character with goofy hair. [Laughs.] I don’t know, whatever. Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting against yourself, like, “I have to do more, faster,” and you’re losing everything that made it fun. That’s one thing I’d like to do. But other than that, I’ve done pretty much everything in the spectrum. Obviously I’d love to write a book, but I don’t know if my attention span would ever come around. But, again, there’s drugs for that. Why am I always focusing on the negative when there’s drugs? All different kinds of cocktails and whatever drugs you need to get the project done. So yeah, I’d like to write a book. I don’t know what it would be about. My idea was to do my own autobiography through other people’s memories, ’cause a lot of the shit I can’t remember what the fuck we did.