Words by Emily Doyle / Pics by Brian Hennigan
On Tuesday 12th June, comedian and author Doug Stanhope brings his one man stand up show to the O2 Academy Birmingham – for direct show information, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
Emily Doyle caught up with the American comic before he sets off for the UK, to talk about his new book, upcoming tour, and the joys of a rioting Wolverhampton crowd.
I’m calling across the Atlantic, not expecting international comic Doug Stanhope to pick up first time. And yet after a couple of rings, I’m greeted with a jubilant “Good evening!” It’s coming up to midday in Arizona, but it’s nearly 8pm here in Birmingham.
Stanhope has been touring his stand-up for a quarter of a century, gaining a reputation along the way. Chris Rock has called him, “the most dangerous comedian in the world.” British listeners will know his blunt social commentary from his turn as the ‘Voice of America’ on Charlie Brooker’s BBC show Newswipe. When asked how he ended up working with Brooker, Stanhope pauses before replying.
“…I don’t know. My manager sets up a lot of stuff just, tells me “Oh, we’re gonna do this thing.” The first one I did was Screenwipe where I had to shuffle down with a hangover to the theatre and sit in a chair – “Okay, here’s the topics, just riff on ‘em, and let ‘em edit out anything you might have said that was vaguely entertaining…” – but after that we set it up over here. It was always fun to do.”
Stanhope has released ten stand up albums and authored three books. The latest of these is This Is Not Fame – from What I Re-Memoir, a celebration of the chaos and excess of his comedy tours. His previous book, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story, was subject to a statute of limitations because of its descriptions of credit card fraud. I’m eager to know if the same is true of the new release.
“Oh, no, there’s nothing illegal,” confirms Stanhope, “There’s probably a lot of stuff I could get sued for. If I WAS famous, I’d probably get sued for that book, but no one would care.”
With the book, of course, comes the inevitable tour. And that means leaving America. I look out the window at Birmingham’s grey skyline and ask Stanhope if there’s any UK dates he’s especially looking forward to.
“What… over there? No!” he laughs, “I don’t look forward to the U.K. at all! You know what, we’re not doing it, but I’d be excited to go back to Wolverhampton just ‘cause the one time I played there – I mentioned it briefly in the book – was absolute chaos. It was one of those towns that everyone said was a piece of shit and we’d hate, and we knew we were gonna love it just ‘cause of all the warnings we get about it. And it became my favourite team and they just got promoted! The Wolverhampton Wolves!”
“I guess other people listen and don’t go there. So, it was just one of those crowds where they were really overly excited that anyone showed up, and they bum-rushed the van. There was a brawl outside after the show, unrelated to the show. But there was some, you know, violent ejections during the show, and fisticuffs outside afterwards but they (the venue) didn’t know what it was about, the rumble, so they secreted us out the back to the waiting van and then a bunch of fans, cool ones, were pounding on the side of the van and screaming like you’re the fucking Beatles. It was… fantastic. The only good part of that seven week tour.”
It seems fitting that Stanhope should feel at home in Wolverhampton, even in the middle of a riot he might have created. The self-proclaimed anarchist never shies away from the grittier side of life. His stand-up revels in the taboo and the touchy, tearing apart topics such as gun violence, prostitution, and his own mother’s suicide with nihilistic glee. Many of Stanhope’s American fans see him as a defender of free speech. I ask if he finds international audiences any more sensitive.
“The only problem I really run into over there is getting halfway through a bit and realising ‘Oh shit, the payoff to this is something they’re not going to get’ and I’m already into it. I should have prepared and I just realised the big fucking punchline makes no sense whatsoever over here. So, then you have to make the judgment call, do I just keep doing the next three or four minutes of this bit knowing it’s gonna die, or do I just abruptly end it?”
Stanhope pauses, “When you do that, you just go “Ah you’re not gonna like this bit, let me move on,” then people think you we’re about to say something really shocking and then they goad ya, “Do it, do the bit!””
One authority did see fit to draw the line, however: the BBC. In the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, Stanhope’s segment for Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe was deemed to offensive to air.
“We filmed some stuff over here; I forget what it was about. Some news story crushed the best bit that I had. I have an album titled ‘…before turning the gun on himself’. It was supposed to the title of the two previous albums I put out, and both of ‘em got shitcanned because there was a shooting right before they went out. So, I had two last minute title changes before I finally managed to self-publish and put that one out. It’s hard to time that title without there being gun violence.”
America is no stranger to the occasional public shooting spree. But, especially to the rest of the world right now, any mention of the US brings to mind one ominous, flatulent word: Trump. Stanhope has gone on record saying that he doesn’t talk about the American president in his stand-up. His UK tour is mere weeks before Trump’s visit though, so I can’t resist asking if he’ll get a mention.
“Yeah, unless something strikes me that I think might not have struck every other comedian, I’ll avoid it,” tells Stanhope. “It’s even destroyed twitter. My whole fucking twitter feed. All the comments are dour fucking really serious anti-Trump stuff. People are still really surprised when he gets caught in a lie? How many news stories are we missing because it’s all the fucking news?”
Stanhope becomes irate, and it’s easy to see why. He makes his living cracking wise about authority and institution; Trump beats commentators to the punchline with every move he makes.
“I’m trying to avoid the cliche of ‘the jokes write themselves’,” continues Stanhope, “but… I love that people are upset about it. They fucking created this. Reality TV, you know. Fawning over people that just talk shit from fucking Jersey shore. Why do I know who a fucking Kardashian is? I shouldn’t know that, you fucking brain-raped me into that. All these fucking zero-weight assholes. You celebrate them, and look at what you got. Good. Fucking sleep in it. I don’t have kids, I have no hope for the future. What do I give a shit about Trump?”
It’s a valid point, especially from a safe distance across the Atlantic. But whilst British audiences may be on board with Stanhope’s provocative material, that’s not the case everywhere the comedian performs. Earlier this year he completed a seven date tour of East Asia for Magners International Comedy Festival. In his podcast, Stanhope tells listeners of his “$12,000 boo boo”, which saw him almost cancelling his Bangkok show for fear of being locked up for treason. “You’ll hear about that onstage,” he confirms. “ You’ll hear about that for a while.”
At this point we are interrupted. Stanhope pauses to curse his girlfriend, Bingo, for calling while he’s in an interview. “Brain injury, she claims, but she was that dumb before the brain injury…”
A familiar voice to listeners of The Doug Stanhope Podcast, Amy ‘Bingo’ Bingaman has had her fair share of drama. Currently recovering from a life-threatening coma, which Stanhope lovingly documented by tweeting regular photos of her complete with tracheotomy and feeding tube, Bingo has been promoting her own book, Let Me Out: A Madhouse Diary – a journal of her experiences being institutionalised under the Wyoming Mental Health System.
Stanhope says it’s been a cathartic experience, both for her and for readers who’ve had similar experiences. “It’s in some cases made her a de facto spokesperson that she doesn’t wanna be – like, ‘Hey this is a diary, it’s not necessarily something I wanna be the face of’. A lot of people will email her looking for help.”
Bingo often gets a mention in Stanhope’s stand-up. In his latest album, No Place Like Home, he speaks candidly about his partner’s treatment under Arizona’s mental healthcare system. In order to access her mental healthcare, which consists of Skype sessions with a registered nurse, Bingo goes to a strip mall that’s home to a gun shop, a brewery, and her provider – Community Intervention Associates. Stanhope is quick to point out that for any patients suffering from paranoia, walking through a door marked ‘CIA’ to converse with a TV screen isn’t optimal. I ask if this is still the situation.
“No actually, that’s one of those things I secretly take credit for,” tells Stanhope, “after I released that they changed the name from CIA to CHA. I think I’m responsible for that. They had to have seen this, it’s a small town. They had to have heard about it. They changed the name, if nothing else. The mental healthcare hasn’t gotten any better but at least they didn’t make it so blatantly obvious they don’t care by calling it ‘CIA’.”
With a population of around five-thousand, Bisbee, Arizona is indeed a small place. But Stanhope is evidently fond of his hometown. “Oh, I love it here. There’s few enough people that there a sense of community, I like knowing my neighbours, I like not having to lock doors. You probably should here… I’ve got angry dogs.”
It’s from their Bisbee home, a compound of bungalows, trailers, and miscellaneous kitsch, that Stanhope and Bingo run their annual ‘eBay Yard Sale’. I ask him what they’ve put aside; keen to know if there’s anything good going.
“That’s what we’re doing today,” explains Stanhope. “As soon as I’m done with you we start cataloging all the stuff. We got a bunch of shit. A bunch of suits, just stuff that just fills up your crawl space, you know. I’ll never look at this again. People send me, like, watercolour paintings of me and you know, hey, that’s a good painting, I guess, but what? Am I gonna put paintings of myself on my own walls? Fuck. So you sell it to the fans.”
Historically, the clearouts have been mostly made up of eclectic clothing. A scroll through Stanhope’s eBay shows up such descriptions as ‘Plaid Jacket 40R Serious Polyester’, ‘Bingo’s Turquoise Blue Pimp Suit’, and ‘Old Timey Wool Swimming Trunks’. This time around he’s got something a little more personal on offer.
“I got a picture that was on my wall from the first time we went over to London with Johnny Depp. It’s me and Bingo and Johnny Depp and Amber Heard and Ron Wood from the Stones and his gal, and I don’t want fucking Amber Heard on my wall any more so I’m gonna sell that, with the explanation that… if you know the stories then you know why I wouldn’t want this on my wall. But I will sell it and I’ll give that money to a charity for actually abused women. ‘Cause that’s what she supposedly did with her divorce money – “I’m gonna give it all to charities for abused women” – well I’m gonna do the same with your picture.”
“She dropped the lawsuit,” continues Stanhope – referring to the deformation case Heard brought, and dropped, against the comic. “She had no lawsuit, she was just doing it to try to shut me up. It would’a been fucking hilarious if she went through with it. Sue me in my own small town? Gonna come down here and sue me for all I’ve got? Get that house? You know you can’t sell that house; you’ll have to be my neighbour. Houses don’t sell down here very well.”
The legal run in Stanhope had with Amber Heard has been well documented, as is his friendship with Johnny Depp, who wrote the foreword for Digging Up Mother. Ron Wood is a new one on me, though. I ask him who else shows up in the new book. He simply tells me that, “you can’t have a book called ‘This Is Not Fame’ without name dropping a lot,” before directing me to the index, handily included in the press release I received: Brand, Russell. Clapton, Eric. Manson, Marilyn….
“I texted him,” beings Stanhope at the mention of Marilyn Manson, who sits next to ‘The Man Show’ and ‘Marijuana’ in the index of This Is Not Fame. “He’s legendarily flaky so I texted him, I said ‘Hey, will you write a blurb for the back cover of my book?’ And he just typed back ‘yes’ and never got around to it, so I just put that. He’s a fun character; he’s one who lives up to his reputation. We’ve hung out a few times but I don’t have that kind of stamina. He’s hardcore.”
“I envy the people like that who can party that hard and still create that much. I mean, I can hang with you for awhile but I’m not doing shit the next day. I’m not writing a song or… he paints, he’s just wildly artistic. I party like that and I’m just on the couch for twenty four hours.” Stanhope pauses, “often I will go out on stage to his ‘Killing Strangers’ song… puts you in the mood.”
This is about all the comic will tell me about his upcoming tour; either he’s closely guarding some prime material, or he’s still to write it. Time will tell.
Our time today, however, has come to an end. It’s getting dark here in Birmingham, and Doug Stanhope clearly has a crawl space or two to empty out before the day is done in Bisbee. I wish him well, and try once more to find out what went on in Bangkok. He’s not telling. “Be at the show in Birmingham. This is such a long-ass story…”
Doug Stanhope performs at the O2 Academy Birmingham on Tuesday 12th June – as presented by Academy Events. For direct show information, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.academymusicgroup.com/o2academybirmingham/events/doug-stanhope
For more on Doug Stanhope, visit www.dougstanhope.com
For more from the O2 Academy Birmingham, including venue details and further event listings, visit www.academymusicgroup.com/o2academybirmingham