When I reach Doug Stanhope by phone, he's in the middle of doing his taxes, and he's not happy about it.
"I had no idea how seriously violent this makes me until I had to try to put on 'happy interview face' and I can't do it," he says. "Fucking someone needs to die."
Anyone else and this would unnerve me. This would qualify as a bad start. I may not be the reason he has to do taxes, but I am, after all, the reason he has to put on "happy interview face." Anyone else and I would assume I'm about to get one or two sentence answers to all my questions, and will be left with no other recourse but to stretch the article with general bio information to meet word count.
But this is Doug Stanhope, and this is exactly how I expect to find him. This is his terrain. This is where he's at his verbal best, raging against whatever new annoyance comes his way while pointing out its absurdity, laughing at it to keep going. Not to mention professionally making others laugh at it, for around two decades now.
Taxes are one annoyance. Having to do an interview in the middle of trying to do your taxes is perhaps yet another. And, oh yeah, he's just quit smoking. This was prompted by the dual wake-up calls of having recently coughed himself into a hernia, and not being able to get through an episode of his podcast without having to "lean off mic and hack up fucking gunk" a half-dozen times.
Stanhope's discomfort also extends to his art form. He may use that disease to create some of the best standup going, but, unlike his fans, he doesn't necessarily enjoy his time on stage.
"I don't get that thrill anymore of, 'Hey, I just want to see people smiling.' I could give a shit less," he admits. "I always feel like I'm about to fall or fail, or I am failing. Or I'm not current enough. You're just trying to keep up with yourself."
It's this honesty, directness and openness that has won him a dedicated, although admittedly niche, audience. It's what makes up his particular charm. It's also why he's benefited from finally becoming, if not a household name, a name well-known in the house of any comedy nerd worth his salt. It's allowed him to no longer have to do multi-night runs at comedy clubs, where he would play mostly to the masses, which is not his best audience. Stanhope will be the first to admit he's an acquired taste.
"Before I had an audience - or I just had a small audience - I was still playing to mostly people in comedy clubs that were going to see comedy; not a guy, just comedy," he says. "So every night I'd have a handful of people who knew who I was and were into it, and then you'd have bachelorette parties and regular couples who just wandered in off the street, and they're going to fucking hate me.
"And that's when I decided, hey, why don't I just play one night in a rock and roll club and get all those people, the handfuls of people that would be at eight shows at the comedy club all in one show, (and) they know what they're getting into?"
This approach also prevents fans from coming to multiple shows, which he calls "silent heckling." They've already heard the material, ruining the element of surprise that standup thrives on, which would throw him off his game. He hated that even more than the bachelorette parties.
Still, even as Stanhope continues to find a bigger audience and set things up in a way that better suits his work, he doesn't fully accept the extent to which he's been embraced, and his favorite part of the job is traveling.
"I've always liked flying on planes," he says. "I never get sick of living in hotels."
When I point out that this is the opposite of what most comedians say, claiming they live for the stage and simply deal with the rest of it, he laughs.
"I don't even get sick of comedy the right way," he admits. "I hate the applause. I feel like I didn't earn it."
He may not feel like he's earned it, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They'll be in attendance Saturday night, giving him the attention and accolades he deserves ... whether he likes it or not.
(Doug Stanhope's Last Gasp Tour will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at The Chop Shop, 399 E. 35th St. Admission is $25. For detail, go here.)
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