Interview with Comedian Doug Stanhope
With the release of his latest comedy album, Oslo: Burning The Bridge To Nowhere, Doug Stanhope has pushed the boundaries of stand-up comedy by not only recording the album in a country where English is a second language (Norway) but also recording it in an abandoned sewing machine factory that served as Nazi bunker during World War II.
Over the years, Stanhope’s live performances have become the stuff of legend, riffing belligerent genius off the top of his head while handling the nonstop clamoring of his rowdy audiences, all while inebriated in some shape or form. From his days as the co-host of Comedy Central’s The Man Show, Stanhope has maintained a constant presence in the world of comedy with his nonstop touring schedule and through the 3 DVD’s and 8 albums he’s released since 1998.
SanDiego.com recently had a chance to catch up with Stanhope as he prepared for his sold out performance at The La Jolla Comedy Store’s 35th Anniversary on May 29, and talked about his early months as a young open micer in Las Vegas, and why his favorite place to visit in San Diego is O.B.’s Dog Beach.
Was the first time you did stand-up in Las Vegas?
Doug Stanhope: August 28, 1990. It was a Tuesday I think, at the Escape Lounge 2 where the drinks are always free. I was doing fraud telemarketing and the boss of the place had like, a cover band, and that was right around when Dice was at his apex, and I used to quote Dice all the time around the office, and he said, “Hey do you want to open for my band?” And I said, “Well that’s not my material.” And he goes, “I don’t care.” But even then I knew it was wrong, but just knowing that if I could write my own material I could get gigs just by being funny. I remember that being a catalyst to actually sit down and write my own shit. That open mic I stalked for probably 6 weeks; just hanging out, trying to get the balls up to do it. Then I finally did it.
Is that memory of your first time ingrained in your mind or is it distant now?
DS: I remember a lot of it. I drank a pitcher of beer; I was lit up for sure. Yeah I still have my first notebook, with my set written out including, “Hi my name’s Doug Stanhope.” I wrote it out verbatim.
Being that you were in Las Vegas, what was your process from evolving from an open micer to a paid performer?
DS: There’s really no connection between the open mic scene and working at the clubs, they don’t touch locals at all. If I knew better it was probably the worst place in the world to start comedy. It’s the hardest place to grow, but it’s actually a great place to start because if you’re going to go suck on open mics where no one is going to see you and no one’s going to hold it against you. I had to move, I moved within 6 months. Back then in 1990, it was still at the end of the comedy boom, and I remember I think my second week I did 6 open mics. There were that many open mics around even in a town that doesn’t really have a local scene. So stage time was easy to find. Then after about 6 months I moved to Phoenix and got a job as a house emcee, so I was working every night. It was in a shitty failing comedy club inside a Days Inn Hotel. So that was my pay, I got a free hotel room. I’d work the cook for free scraps in the kitchen and help him out.
How long would you say it took you to develop and discover your voice?
DS: Initially I’d probably say about 6 or 7 years before I started to get kind of a voice. If there’s something that stands out, I did a one-man show, an experimental thing; there was this HBO work space and it was around 96’-97’ when everyone was doing a one-man show. So I booked the space to put on a one-man show without having one, but knowing that if I had a deadline, I would write a one-man show. So I just ended up fleshing out road stories in stage-friendly formats, like the transvestite hooker story; I mean the show was a piece of shit. I started cramming for it about 3 days before. It was all clunky and a piece of shit but it definitely put me in a new direction. After that anything I put into my act was true. I stopped saying stuff just because it was funny, if I didn’t mean it or if it didn’t happen. I don’t know why I loathe the expression “finding your voice” but I guess there’s no other way to phrase it, but yeah that’s when I really started going down a different path. Either true stuff or stuff that I thought was funny rather than stuff that will elicit a laugh.
Why don’t you like the whole “finding your voice” analogy?
DS: It’s something that rings gamey and new-agey, “Finding yourself; your inner child.” It has a gay sound to it, and I mean that in a non-sexual way. There’s no other expression, I should come up with one.
How often will do you crowd work, or is that something you steer away from?
DS: I try to steer away from my set list. I’ll have some beats in my head, or here’s a basic outline of stuff that I’m doing, but anything I can do that’s not prepared; I mean I don’t wanna walk out and go, “Where are you from? What do you do? And how about you? And this guy’s looking at me like this!” But I like to be in the moment. My crowds tend to give you things you have to comment on. My crowd is a bunch of fucking animals. I get really bored really quickly with things I said last night, or that I said the night before. So anything new that I can come up with or work on or be in the moment just keeps me more involved. Anytime anything chaotic happens in a show or even just a comic trashing a heckler, it’s tough to get them back, because that’s what they want now. People enjoy something spontaneous that you didn’t expect occurring as much as you do.
Would say that you do a lot of writing onstage?
DS: The drunker I am the more often that happens.
Do you record your sets?
DS: No. I should. I would be a way better comedian if I did, or I’d quit. Because I hate listening to myself, I hate the sound of my own voice. Not of a fan of my act. So I’d either be way better from putting the time and effort into it or I’d just retire or kill myself.
You just released an album with Roadrunner Records a notorious metal label.
DS: Yeah that’s what they say.
Are you a fan of heavy metal?
DS: I don’t really listen to music, hardly at all, almost never; annoys me. I get satellite radio in the car so I got a 100 mile drive to the airport when I go on the road each way. So I listen to Stern mostly and if it’s something I’ve heard then I’ll listen to CNN or NPR. But that’s only in the car when I’ll listen to radio at all. If I’m high I’ll put my iPod on.
What’s in your iPod?
DS: I couldn’t put my iPod on at a party and have it last more than 3 random shuffle songs before someone would go, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I have the theme to Welcome Back Kotter, some assorted Warren Zevon and Counting Crows, and then just random songs. I don’t really know artists much. I just know songs I like, I don’t follow artists. I think I’ve learned more new music in the last 5 years from TV commercials than anywhere else. I found somewhere Zevon doing a cover of Stevie Winwood’s “Back in The High Life” which is a really shit song from Winwood, but fucking Warren Zevon just fucking destroys it. It’s great.
When you perform in San Diego are there any specific places you like to visit?
DS: That Winston’s, that’s why I love playing there. It has that whole one-nighter triple gig kind of feel to it, like it feels fun again and it’s got that dog beach right there. So we’ve driven the dogs out from Arizona just to watch them run around in the surf, it’s fucking great. It’s just hundreds of dogs everywhere, off leash and running in the waves. Is that Ocean Beach?
DS: That whole area is fucking great. I’m sure we’ll bring the dogs down again sometime this year.
Does Doug Stanhope have a message for the children?
DS: It’s not whether you win or lose its whether you wake up with a good story.
Doug Stanhope’s new album Oslo: Burning The Bridge To Nowhere is out now.