Baiting the Abyss

Doug Stanhope and the Confrontation of Comedy

Written by J.T. Ryder

“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor…and surviving.”
~Col. Kurtz
Apocalypse Now

Doug Stanhope 03            The willingness to say what needs to be said is anathematized by a collective society. Those that walk along the edge of the abyss are often met with a fearful awe while simultaneously being chided like a school child for taking such risks. Yet there are those like Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson and Lenny Bruce, among others, who live their lives apart from what may be considered the norm. Like those, Doug Stanhope is not afraid to point a glaring spotlight on the farcical delusions of a polite society. He thinks and speaks as he wishes, without the sense of superiority that most orators seem to suffer from. He would probably be the first one to admit his opinion was wrong if confronted with a logical argument…but at least he made you think long and hard enough to come up with that argument.

J.T.: What’s the feedback been from the Showtime Comedy Special that recently aired?
Stanhope: Oh, all I know is from e-mails. Good except for the ones who hated it.

J.T.: With your comedic style and everything, and the divisive nature of the country right now, do you find yourself getting aggravated with the people that get so easily offended?
Stanhope: Well, they rarely have any rational argument that they can back up logically, so it’s usually just hate. “You suck!” Well, what sucked? I mean, I can argue against myself better than most of these people. I find myself rewriting their hate mail. I mean, if you think I suck, here’s a legitimate reason why or here’s a flaw in my theories, you know?

J.T.: Didn’t you have to cut a bunch of material out for an HBO special before it aired?
Stanhope: No, no…that was Comedy Central. Yeah, that was just regular cable. See, that’s the censorship that no one ever sees. They think of censorship as Howard Stern said “fuck” on the air, or whatever. They don’t see pre-censored stuff. You know, religion jokes will lose a sponsor, we could get sued for this. Sponsors ruin as much as any censors in Standards and Practices. It’s not just language…they censor ideas. You can’t talk about drugs unless it’s in a negative way. I don’t have a negative viewpoint on that. I’m not saying that it can’t happen, but pretty much, they’ve all been pretty good. Yeah, the only bad trip I’ve ever had was on Ecstasy and that’s because it was bad Ecstasy.

J.T.: Bathtub Ecstasy?
Stanhope: Yeah…that’s one of the problems with the drug laws is that it creates shitty products. When they say ‘Someone died from Ecstasy!.’ No one died from actual MDMA. They bought something that was called Ecstasy now that it’s illegal, now that someone’s making it in a bathtub rather than over at Pfizer.

J.T. On Mike MacRae’s MySpace page, there’s and ‘Open Letter To Doug Stanhope’ , where he talks about all the open mic comedians stealing your style…well, just being confrontational to shock people without having any real substance behind it. Does it bother you that the up-and-comers are possibly giving you a bad name with what MacRae calls ‘The Stanhope Effect’?

Stanhope: (Laughing) I don’t really see it. I don’t hang around comedy much. Even when I’m on the road most of the time, I’m bringing my own guys (openers), so I don’t really see the local comics. Most of the time, I don’t care what they’re like…most comics suck. It’s just a mathematical reality that most people that try to do stand-up fail. I mean, it’s hard enough, spending that much time on the road, but if it ends up that you have to work with open mic guys, well… Like if you’re in Pittsburgh for a week and the club hates you and the waitresses just won’t talk to you and the audiences hate you, the only friend you’re going to have is the other comic. If you let the club pick him and he sucks, well, you’ve just lost your only friend. I’m pretty regular about bringing my own people on the road with me. I bring guys I like to watch. The last thing I want to do is bring a guy because he’ll make me look…crazier.

J.T.: I was talking to another comedian about something you brought up. Something he said about the power of words made me start thinking. Different governments throughout the ages have sanctioned every atrocity that a man can visit upon another man; slavery, rape, murder, genocide. Yet the spoken and written word has been the most disparaged act almost worldwide.

Stanhope: That’s the problem with censoring language. It limits my ability to communicate ideas to people who might not otherwise have any interest in those ideas. You know, if I have a room full of twenty-two year old kids in a bar, you throw in a few ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘fuckheads’ into a valid point about, I don’t know, government oppression or some other topic that they might not otherwise listen to. You can make points to people using that type of language to get ideas across. If you sound like C. Everett Koop and clean it up, they’ll just tune you out.

J.T.: Do you think your comedic/confrontational style has prevented people from taking the issues you bring up as seriously because you are a ‘comedian’?

Stanhope: Well, there’s always that, uh…there’s a book called, The Comedian As Confidence Man: Studies In Irony Fatigue. (Author: Will Kaufman) and it was talking about how comics who try to do social commentary that just hit that wall being set up with having that ‘I’m just kidding!’ mask, where I am not kidding. I’m trying to make it funny, but I’m not kidding. When hearing me as a comic, people are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s just kidding. It’s just a joke.’ Well, it’s not just a joke. I made a joke out of it, but I’m also serious. There’s always that, inherently in the business, you will not be taken seriously.

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