“I’m getting fat, enjoying my couch way too much. Everyone that I yell about in my act, I’m becoming, or have always been.” Doug Stanhope is ruminating on why he no longer likes long-haul touring. He’s currently driving home, a new television on the backseat that he says is for his mother who has just six months to live. It’s early afternoon and he’s crossing the Mexican border. “I’m a soft in the middle, doughy, fat American who loves having too many channels of High-Definition,” laughs the 41 year old, spewing out the words animatedly. “It’s kind of always been that way – when I say ‘you people’ in my act, I’m half the time talking about myself. My act is a public berating of myself.” But if the uninitiated think this public berating is a way of releasing his inner demons on an unsuspecting audience, think again – that’s not the way Doug (who’s often compared to Bill Hicks) does things. “I think getting it out is misinterpreted – that sounds like it’s being released, when it’s not,” he says. “It’s just a public humiliation of myself, but it’s not getting it off my chest at all. It’s still on my chest, like a rash.” It sounds like it’s the type of rash that he relishes to itch.
Doug Stanhope has been a comedian for more than 18 years. Since 1990, he’s taken on a variety of comedy-based roles such as TV presenter (in Comedy Central’s testosterone-fuelled ‘The Man Show, ‘Girls Gone Wild’ and Fox’s ‘Invasion of the Hidden Cameras’), written a book on baiting internet paedophiles (‘Fun with Paedophiles: The Best of Baiting’), and become leader of the Unbookables, a comedy troupe who are so offensive that they literally have never booked a gig yet. (“So far we haven’t done anything – that’s sort of the point, because they’re all very unprofessional and self-destructive and self-sabotaging – one day we’ll do something,” he says with a perceptible shrug.)
After so long in the industry, how does he approach writing material? Like everything in Doug’s life, it’s done in his own inimitable way. “I desperately go like a drug addict, trying to find anything new to talk about,” he laughs. “You know, ‘I hope the cab driver hits that guy on the cross walk so I have something to talk about tonight’. “ He laughs again, the laugh of a man unconcerned about doing things the traditional route. “I take notes, cryptic notes if the inspiration strikes and I’m nowhere near the stage and I’m off the road, but usually yeah, I cram for the exam,” he elaborates.
Just like that naughty student who held back on studying until the night before the exam, this approach leads to Stanhope (metaphorically) spilling the contents of his brain on the page just hours before he goes on stage: “The day of the show I’ll be sitting in front of a long yellow legal pad trying to remember what I wanted to talk about and what’s new and what did I talk about last time because I don’t want to repeat myself…it’s the horror of the afternoon of the beginning of the tour.”
On stage, it never feels as though Stanhope is searching for something to say – he’s a quick-fire, quick-witted comedian, who looks like he thinks on his feet. “Some of it is intentional, but a lot of it is just trying to remember – it sounds like I’m just coming up with it because I’m trying to remember what I just wrote down earlier to say!” he guffaws.
As someone who is opinionated about contentious topics, Stanhope attracts his fair share of disgruntled and disgusted audience members. Some get up and walk out of his shows; some are so moved that they send bile-filled missives to his myspace account. But like anyone who trades in thorny topics, Stanhope has a ‘so what’ attitude that’s been hardened by years on the circuit. “Getting hate mail does nothing but amuse me for a moment and then I move on,” he says. “It’s not like the old days where you’d dwell on that.”
But does he worry about offending people? Surely talking about bringing your girlfriend for an abortion, or tracking paedophiles over the internet is not going to go down smoothly with the entire audience. “I never worry about offending people, but I always worry about boring people,” he deadpans.
Stanhope’s last Irish show, at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival in 2006, attracted the sort of bad press that can make or break a comedian. A typically distasteful joke about Irish people’s lack of luck in the looks department did not please the audience – or the press. The following day, he was featured in the Irish Daily Star, under the (misinterpreted) headline: “Irish women are too ugly to be raped: Comic booed after shocking festival jibe.” “That was a bad booking,” is Stanhope’s explanation. “They put me in a Dara O’Briain show. That’s why I went poorly. A bunch of people went to see Dara O Briain and I was put in as support. It’s a Jay Leno audience – and I purposely did that material, just basically challenging…I’d done it the night before and…it was walking on eggshells with that audience. Like, ‘Just don’t do that tomorrow night!’, and I was like ‘Watch, I can make it work!’ …it didn’t happen. But sometimes, you just have to make it exciting for yourself.”
Last year, Stanhope decided to make things even more interesting for himself – by running for President of the United States. Despite being a serious project, it didn’t quite turn out the way he had planned. He explains: “It was something different, and something I could sink my teeth into creatively – and it turned into such a boondoggle of red tape and really scary paperwork.” He sighs. “If you screw up just a little in the reporting of your finances, you can get six-figure fines. I screw up way too much to be able to afford [that].” He also discovered that anytime he talked about the campaign onstage, the proceeds would be considered campaign contributions. “It turned into something where I could have been f**ked a thousand different ways…and I’m not that passionate about this country,” he says dryly. But it hasn’t left him with a sour taste in his mouth – instead, he’s left with mountains of ‘Stanhope 08’ merchandise to shift.
So if the presidency is beyond his grasp, what lies in the future for Douglas Gene Stanhope? “My long term goal is to lay there, drink beer and become even more corpulent, but unfortunately people like [my manager] Brian Hennigan will always have something in the pipeline,” says Doug, as he pulls into his house in the small town of Brisbee, Arizona. “He’s the reason I haven’t grown into the couch like one of those stories you read about the morbidly obese, where the fabric becomes part of their skin.”