Doug Stanhope doesn’t want to be talking to me. He definitely doesn’t want to be at the South by Southwest festival. He doesn’t even really want to be awake.
Yet here he is, still crusty-eyed from the night before, in flannel pajama pants and a bright orange Under Armour hoodie, emerging into the brightly-lit bar of this downtown Austin hotel at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday.
The night before was a rough one for Stanhope, who was talked into taping his newest stand-up special, premiering June 22 on Seeso, during SXSW at the famous Esther’s Follies theater on the city’s bustling 6th Street. One of his opening comedians had a flight out of town around 5 a.m., so he made the regrettable choice of staying up all night and was running on barely any sleep.
Instead of taking the traditional headliner slot, Stanhope served as a host of sorts, bringing up three of his fellow comedian friends one at a time — Glenn Wool, Brendon Walsh, and Morgan Murphy. Each got much bigger laughs than he did with their more polished material. Murphy even surprised herself by winning over the Texas venue with a joke about how America should make it as hard for men to purchase a gun as it is for women to get an abortion.
Dressed in his signature multi-patterned jacket and tie combo, Stanhope spent much of the previous night’s show complaining about an audience full of lanyard-wearing conference attendees who could afford to shell out for the all-access platinum badges around their necks. Work-in-progress jokes about Black Lives Matter and Indian gang-rape drew audible groans. Someone even heckled, “You suck!”
Just as he was warming up during the second show of the night, which didn’t start until after midnight, Stanhope says he could feel the audience fading fast. “Last night would have been great if it were actual fans who were drinking,” he says. “None of my fucking fans are here, you’re all fucking industry tools. All of my fans got locked out because they didn’t have $1,700 for a platinum fucking pass. So it was really a stupid fucking idea.”
Over the hour or so that we talk, Stanhope repeatedly moves our conversation outside to smoke, at one point retrieving and relighting the not-quite-finished cigarette butt he left in a sidewalk planter before starting a fresh one.
“I don’t think the fuzz will give you a hard time,” the bartender says as he delivers our drinks to the street in front of the bar. “The fuzz, I love it,” Stanhope replies, laughing, as he clinks his coffee with Bailey’s and Jameson against my Bloody Mary. “Cheers!”
When he heard he was going to be interviewed by someone from The Daily Beast, Stanhope says he searched his email to make sure this website wasn’t “one of those leeches” that hounds him for comment when he gets “sued by an unnamed person.” Apparently, we passed that test.
Stanhope is referring to the defamation suit he faced from actress Amber Heard after he accused her of “blackmailing” his friend and her ex-husband Johnny Depp last year. As part of her $7 million divorce settlement with Depp, Heard agreed to drop the lawsuit, with no money exchanging hands between her and Stanhope.
“Oh yeah, she dropped it,” Stanhope says, seeming relieved that the whole ordeal was behind him. He’s still friends with Depp, who served as a producer on his last stand-up special, No Place Like Home and wrote the foreword for Stanhope’s first book, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story.
The actor got in touch with him out of the blue a few years back, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in the comic. “He told me I had to be his friend or something. What am I going to say, no?” Stanhope jokes. “No, he’s a fucking great guy. He’s everything you’d want Johnny Depp to be.”
Stanhope started his comedy career in Las Vegas in 1990, but stayed there for just six months before moving south to Phoenix. He lived out of his car for three years and then headed to Los Angeles in 1995, right as the city’s comedy boom was dying. “I fucking hated it so much,” he says of L.A. “The ‘90s was a fucking barren wasteland for comedy.”
When he lived in West Hollywood, he would occasionally do sets at the Improv or the Comedy Store, but once he moved out to Playa del Rey, he more or less stopped working in the city altogether.
“I’m not going to drive and not drink and I’m not going to drink and drive,” he remembers thinking. In 2005, he moved once again to the small town of Bisbee, Arizona, and hasn’t looked back. He still spends a good chunk of the year touring comedy clubs around the country, but stays as far away from the “Hollywood bullshit” as he can.
Besides his friendship with Depp, Stanhope’s biggest moment in the pop culture spotlight came in 2011 when he appeared as the suicidal comedian Eddie Mack in a season two episode of Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie. The dark and disturbingly convincing performance as a man on the edge of ending it all was heralded by fans and critics and seemed like it could be a break-out moment for Stanhope’s career.
“It led to absolutely zero offers for any more acting work,” he says now. Not that he was looking for those types of jobs anyway. “I wanted to be able to turn stuff down. But nothing.”
“I only did it because Louis asked me,” he adds. “I tried to beg out of it. I said, I suck at acting. He had to talk me into trying.”
Stanhope auditioned for the role via Skype and C.K. promised to get back to him in a few days. But weeks later, he hadn’t heard a thing. “That fucking asshole talked me into doing this,” Stanhope remembers thinking. “I’ve been walking around my yard, memorizing all the dialogue to the point where I just annoyed the fuck out of my wife. I got this fucking thing so down and he talked me into doing it and now he’s not calling me back?”
Stanhope had planned to go on The Howard Stern Show and slip the dialogue C.K. wrote into the interview. “And that way, when he hires someone else to play this guy, it’s going to look like he stole that entire episode from my Howard Stern appearance,” he says, chuckling. Right before his radio appearance, C.K. called to tell him that he got the part. Of course, Stanhope was disappointed. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I liked my idea better.’”
Once he was actually on location with C.K., however, Stanhope was surprised by how much he enjoyed shooting the episode. “It was nice because it was Louis. And comics talk on a different level,” he says. “Louis will just tell you, ‘That sucked, don’t do that fucking thing, you’re doing a weird thing with your eye.’ I respond to that. When a Hollywood guy says, ‘That was great,’ you’re going, OK, how did I fuck up, because he’s not telling me and he’s pandering to me. So then all your inner self-doubt is amplified and you’re thinking, fuck this, I don’t want to do this. So it was great, I wouldn’t do it with anyone else but Louis.”
After the episode aired, C.K. forwarded Stanhope a bunch of emails he got from comedian friends praising his performance on the show, including one from Robin Williams, who called the show “the most powerful dialogue I have ever seen on the subject of suicide.” Three years later, Williams would go on to take his own life.
“That’s nice! Pat on the back!” Stanhope joked, darkly, in his previous special after recounting the story for his audience. “Made me think perhaps even the lowly-rated Doug Stanhope might have influenced the great Robin Williams in the last days of his career. Maybe I am reaching people.”
Stanhope insists that playing a suicidal comedian was not a reflection on his reality, but instead represented an “amalgamation” of people who Louis C.K. had surpassed in his career. “That character was exactly what I would be like if I had started 25 years ago and not progressed at all,” Stanhope says. “I was living out of my car, exactly like that, drinking, fucking off.”“The fact that he’s forwarding those things to me, I think he thinks I’m probably way more hateful of myself than I am,” he says of C.K. now. “He thinks he’s saving my life sometimes.”Perhaps that’s why Stanhope did his part to try and “save” C.K. in 2012. After Gawker posted an article that asked the question, “Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?” — presumed by many to be about C.K. — Stanhope boldly posted the link to his Facebook page, along with the note, “Gawker put this story out about me without using my name, as if I’d care.”
When I bring up the incident with Stanhope, he at first claims to not know what I’m talking about, saying, “That sounds vaguely familiar.” But when I refresh his memory a bit, he says, “I assume it was about me. Yeah, I jerked off in front of a couple of chicks.”This is the type of self-deprecating joke that Stanhope makes freely and without fear of backlash, perhaps because his level of celebrity remains several tiers below that of his more famous friends. Later this year, he will publish a new book of road stories, called This Is Not Fame, about being an “infamous” comedian. “My fan base is very niche market. It’s like death metal,” he explains. “People who are into it are wicked into it. And most everyone else has no idea you exist.”
Quoting a line from his last stand-up special, he adds, “I’m only famous within a hundred yards of my gig for 30 minutes after the show, otherwise I’m completely unknown.” A stranger is more likely to come up to him to bum a cigarette, as happened during our interview, than to tell him they love his comedy.
He likes to describe his unique fan base as “school shooters who didn’t have bullets,” but says they are also “doctors and lawyers and people who just hate society, hate the bullshit, hate the veneer of what other people think is real.” He says he’s “more of an outlet than a comic.”
The story that sets the tone in his new book takes place back in the ‘90s, when he was “really nobody.” A comedian friend of his met a prostitute at a bar in Los Angeles and she offered to take him up to her room for a $200 “dance.” When the friend told her he was a comic, she asked him, “Oh, do you know Doug Stanhope?”
“She didn’t know me by my body of work any more than I ever found out if she could dance,” he says, nailing the deadpan punchline.
When I suggest that he has a bit of a self-deprecating streak, Stanhope corrects me. More like “self-immolating,” he says. “I’ve just been a drunk for my whole life and I enjoy it. It doesn’t come from a place of sadness; I just like it. It hurts at this hour, but so does being a football player or a skateboarder.”
At one point during our conversation, Stanhope gets pulled away for a few minutes to reluctantly shoot some promos for the Seeso social media team. I wander over to a nearby table where his friend Morgan Murphy, similarly pajama-clad and disheveled after their late night in Austin, is nursing a mimosa.
After nearly an hour of listening to Stanhope shit all over himself, I want to know from Murphy what she admires about him.
“That’s what he does, he’s very hard on himself,” Murphy tells me. “What makes him great is that he is hard on himself. There are comedians who think they’re smarter and funnier than they are, and there’s nothing more off-putting. But there’s something so refreshing about somebody who thinks they’re less funny and less smart than they actually are.”
She pulls out her phone to show me the identical photos of them lying in her hotel room bed, watching The Bachelor finale one night and Rachel Maddow’s big Trump tax return reveal the next. That’s how little interest she and Stanhope had in exploring the goings-on at SXSW.
The Austin taping marked Stanhope’s first real stand-up set in more than six months. On stage, he said he took time off to focus on writing his second book, but the real reason is much darker.
“My wife had an accident and was in a coma and was in the hospital for a month,” he tells me. “She had a seizure and fell on the cement and smashed her fucking skull, traumatic brain injury” Physically, Amy “Bingo” Bingaman, as she is known, is better now, but it “knocked the sense of humor out of her,” he adds. “She’s very timid and tentative.”
Even for a comic like Stanhope, who has been performing for 27 years, taking that much time off from stand-up can have a devastating effect on his act. He compares it to an athlete who needs to constantly stay in shape. “I was more worried about my delivery, I don’t give a shit what they respond with,” he says of the smattering of boos he received from the SXSW crowd following some of his darker material. “I sensed apathy.”
The last time he did stand-up was just before the presidential election last October. At that time, he was telling crowds he just wanted the campaign to be over so everyone would finally stop talking about Donald Trump. “It was obvious that he wasn’t going to win,” he remembers thinking.
“I fucking hate politics. I don’t want to talk about Trump or Hillary. And that’s all that was on,” Stanhope continues. “At one point, an alligator ate a baby out of its dad’s hands at Disneyworld. And I only saw that story because I happened to be up at two in the morning. And then the next day it was back to election shit. How many alligator-baby stories are we missing? Because that’s funny stuff you can work with.”
Stanhope has described his own politics as being both libertarian and anarchist. “I voted for Gary Johnson because he follows me on Twitter,” he jokes. “And that’s the problem with democracy: If Trump liked one of your tweets, you’d think, ‘Huh, maybe Trump’s not so bad.’”
“It wasn’t so much a protest vote as an I don’t give a fuck who the president is vote,” he adds. And that hasn’t changed since Trump took office. “I’ve never once had a president affect my life directly that I can put a finger on,” he says. “I’m 50, and with this lifestyle, my life expectancy probably isn’t that big. I don’t have kids that I have to worry about their future.”
Stanhope describes the president of the United States as a “distraction and a scapegoat” for people’s real problems. “Your life sucks, you made bad choices, you’re in a job you hate. You have a wife that you knocked up when you were 17. You want to believe you’re destined to be together, but you know you settled,” he says. “Then you look at the TV and say, ‘This administration is ruining everything!’ If your life was perfect, you wouldn’t fucking care. I shouldn’t even know who the president is.”
Stanhope thinks part of the reason why Trump won is that he is “funnier” than Hillary Clinton, but he also believes Trump has made it harder to do the type of comedy he has been doing for nearly three decades. Right after Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape leaked, material that used to kill suddenly wasn’t working, he says, perhaps because he was starting to sound a little “Trumpian.”
“He’s taken a lot of the fun out of sexism and racism,” Stanhope laments.
At 49 years old, Stanhope seems stuck between two generations. He’s not part of the lionized club of comedians who came up in the 1980s and found fame and fortune in sitcoms and movies, nor is he a member of the slightly younger alt-comedy movement that has found its voice through podcasts and niche cable series.
Stanhope briefly “flirted” with the idea of doing a sitcom after getting a development deal in the mid-’90s, but the project never got off the ground. An old, grizzled writer who had worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show helped him produce a pilot script that he now describes as a “piece of shit.” He’s thankful now that it never got picked up.
“I can’t think of how many projects I’m proud of just because nobody saw them, because I didn’t have the balls to say, ‘That’s not funny, I don’t want to do this,’” he says. Even following the success of more unconventional comedian-driven shows like Louie and more recently, Pete Holmes’ Crashing, Stanhope says he has no interest in creating a series of his own.
“Doing a show is more work than your dad bitched about when he had to do it with a shovel,” he remarks, imagining “16-hour days of fighting with fucking writers.” With stand-up, he at least knows he has “complete control” over the finished product. “You live and die on your own terms,” he says, “and it’s over in an hour.”