Comedian Doug Stanhope has always embraced the darkness within, but it’s been a pretty sunny year for him with the release of a new album, Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere, another one already recorded in Salt Lake City, a much-lauded appearance on FX's Louie, and a cross-country tour going on right now. In part one of this interview, we poked his brain on the limits of comedy, how to blow things up with the power of your mind, and which suicides are funny.
Maxim: You just got back from performing a prison show in Norway. How was that?
Doug Stanhope: I wouldn’t release a recording of it but it was a blast. It’s really hard to call it prison. I didn’t want to do a show because that always fucks up vacations, but a prison…
I got it out of the way and then just hung out. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous country. The mayor of Reykjavik ran a joke campaign and won accidentally. He’s got a documentary coming out and it's brilliant. He was doing this to make a point rather than actually striving to win, then getting poll numbers and going, “Oh fuck, we might actually win this.” Now he’s getting the same shit any other mayor would get.
Maxim: They’ve been calling you over to Fox News lately.
DS: Yeah, I did Red Eye which I kind of wanted to trash and he ended up being a really nice guy. I don’t know why they call me but they fly me out first class so I figured I would jack up some miles.
Maxim: They’re trying to find libertarianism wherever they can to bridge that Tea Party gap.
DS: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that so much of the libertarian views have been co-opted by the Tea Party and tarnished.
Maxim: The criticism some level at libertarianism is that it’s espoused by rational people and only works if people are rational.
DS: Yeah that’s definitely the problem. You have to be somewhat of an idealist and have faith in humankind. I kind of backed off of it. I know a lot of this shit won’t work with the fucking monkeys that we live with. So much of it wouldn’t work in the interim that it would have to be an all-or-nothing transition, but it wouldn’t work half way.
Maxim: It seems at this point in your career you’re starting to balance the cynicism that you’ve had with the belief that there could be a solution. Is that just things in your own life or just an observation on what’s going on in the world?
DS: Yeah, I started to take myself and the world too seriously. You’re not going to change anything by yelling at 200 drunk people a night. You can be a catalyst for change and get real worked up but you can only occupy Wall Street so long before you’ve got to go pay the rent.
Maxim: You were saying in your “Strong Target” bit that it’s not enough to just point out goofy annoyances. You have to ask, “And then what?” That’s where you own comedy seems to be veering now.
DS: Yeah that’s a book, it’s not strictly comedy, called The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, and it goes through all of these humorists from Ben Franklin up to Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and Mark Twain…all these guys hit a wall where you have to have that mask of you know, “I’m just kidding” to be a humorist or a comedian. But you’re not kidding. But when you stop kidding you’re no longer a comic.
Maxim: And then everyone’s just yelling at you to get off the stage.
DS: Yeah and a lot of people kind of turned on Carlin, which is when I first started liking him ever: “Oh, he’s just like an angry old man now.” Oh? Good, I’ll check that out.
Maxim: But no matter how bitter he got he always had sincerity and that’s what people pick up in your act as well. You might change what you’re saying later in the same act but there’s still this notion. The way I describe your act to my friends is to say "He’s an absurdist trying to show us that we’re all absurdist as long as we’re alive."
DS: Wow, that makes me sound like I put more thought into it than I do. [laughs] I like that.
I don’t ever want to become Bill Maher where I have to find some strong opinion on something just because it’s in the news. That’s the guy that comes off like you have to be angry every week about new topics and snotty about something. That’s what I’m trying to avoid.
Maxim: You’re very good at illustrating things that people debate about and then saying, "Hey it doesn’t matter but it’s okay that it doesn’t matter."
DS: Yeah, I like to earn my apathy. Learn what I’m talking about so I can then say "Yeah, fuck it. Who cares?" People who go through life with no idea what’s going on around them and don’t care...I feel like they’re a different kind of idiot than I am. Again, there’s only so much you can give a fuck about.
Maxim: I think the best example for that is the Austin show with Alex Jones where you’re saying "Once you see signs of the conspiracies around you, then what?" Like what do you do? Is that still the way you feel? Because you’ve run for President, raised money for women’s charities...How do you decide when something worth fighting for?
DS: I usually just see what’s fucked up around me and try to deal with that. Individuals you know. I help friends out. Problems that you see that are part of your life or part of your social circle. He doesn’t have health care and he just got in a motorcycle wreck. Okay let’s do a benefit for him. If you look at all the problems we have in the world, you’re going to be aware of them because we have the internet. So I try to focus on problems I can actually see that I wouldn’t need the news to know about.
Maxim: You’ve alluded to an interest in conspiracy theories.
DS: Yeah, I love conspiracy theories. I used to just live on it. You know its all hype and garbage but you’re still really paranoid afterwards. It’s fun entertainment. Some of it may be true. Unlike watching a horror movie where you get freaked out and you know there’s no guy in a hockey mask in your closet. And it happens on every social level.
If you can’t figure out the conspiracy in religion, I’m not really sure I trust you in the coming police state. [laughs]
Maxim: Were you ever religious as a kid?
DS: I never really thought about it much. I wasn’t from a religious family. My mother was AA which is a cult in itself, but as far as organized religions go, my dad went to church but he wouldn't make us go. He didn’t really go for church; he went to make pancakes for senior breakfast. He was part of the community and he was just a nice guy.
Maxim: It seems like you’ve gotten more spiritual mileage out of drugs than any particular ideology.
DS: Oh definitely. Without question. To the point where I rarely do hallucinogens but I feel like I should. I look at hallucinogens like the exercise of drugs. It’s a gym membership that I have but I'm not using. I know I’d be doing a lot more on stage and in my life if hallucinogens weren’t the opposite way of alcohol where you wind up going, “Why don’t I do these all the time?” but the beginning is awful. You have to eat the fucking things and nothing makes me more fucking sick than thinking about trying to chew down mushrooms. And there’s the nausea and wobbly legs waiting for the fun. Someone gave me peyote almost a year ago and I’ve just been waiting for the right time.
Maxim: What would be the weirdest drug you’ve ever done?
DS: DMT, which I wouldn’t do again unless there was some necessity for it. I thought I could make things blow up with my mind afterwards. I remember, while we were doing The Man Show, going out back to smoke and there was a giant electric generator that I would not make eye contact with on the off chance it really could explode from me looking at it.
The absolute clarity of thought. I think it was Huxley whose theory was something to the effect that the brain is not the source of knowledge, it’s the filter of knowledge. We have ultimate knowledge available to us and your brain filters it down to what you can handle selling shoes at the mall. If you know the meaning of life it’s really hard to punch in at PayLess Shoes and start shining up people’s feet. And DMT opens that filter up way too much.
Maxim: You once said magic was a lot of effort into making your audience feel stupid, but at the same time magic has a lot in common with comedy in terms of you’re keeping this object to their attention, playing keep-away with it. You’re kind of making it appear where they don’t expect it to appear to get a reaction.
DS: Yeah it’s exactly like that. That’s why I fucking hate doing comedy now. Because I can’t write enough to cover—I get bored so quickly saying the same things, which was one of [Mitch] Hedberg’s problems too. It feels duplicitous after awhile where you, I think his quote was, “I’m not a stand up comedian, I’m a stand up sentence-sayer.” It was funny the first time I said it, now I’m just repeating it.
So yeah it does feel fraudulent. Especially when you have a delivery like mine that sounds like it’s off the top of your head. There’s nothing that kills you more than when someone stays around for the second show thinking this is all a stream-of-conscience.
Maxim: What would you do if you quit?
DS: Comedy hospice has been an idea. [laughs] People that want to be constantly laughing while they’re dying. People that have a sense of humor about it.
Maxim: Aren’t they usually on a ton of morphine?
DS: That depends. I don’t know. I don’t really look into it but when my mother was dying we made a party. I still haven’t been able to make bits out of it but it will be in a book. Yeah she was, ah…she knew she was dying and wasn’t going to wait for it, drowning in her own fluids with emphysema…so yeah, once she no longer wanted to be sitting around like that, we made a nice time of it.
Maxim: That’s something that within your act you’ve spoken about.
DS: Yeah, I’ve had a few fan suicides now. I just got another letter this summer from some kid that was facing 20 charges of child porn on his computer, 23 years old looking at 8 years in prison and he killed himself. He wrote me a letter saying thanks for making him laugh. I get some really fucking strange people.
Maxim: Wow. That’s uh…
DS: We had a big Fourth of July party and on occasions like that I always put my address up to tell people to steal stuff from work and send it to me. So we got this package that had a book in it that he thought I would like. My friend was reading his letter aloud and we were laughing at him because the whole first paragraph was all fanboy. Then the second paragraph started “by the time you read this I’ll be dead.”
Maxim: Oh geez.
DS: Then we looked it up and he wasn’t bluffing. That was his P.S. - "By the way, it was a painless helium suicide." I was like, "There can’t be jokes about this guy. I already have a helium suicide. If you’re going to kill yourself find a different way because I already...
Maxim: You’re everybody’s last stop, huh?
DS: Yeah. That’s how comedy hospice came into play.
Maxim: You might be the right guy for it.
Check back here tomorrow for part two, including Doug's thoughts on Dane Cook, and how O.J. Simpson almost joined The Man Show.