Shock Tactics: Doug Stanhope
Doug Stanhope was once memorably called "a poet of articulate disgust unleashing fireballs of comedy from the hell of his imagination". Other critics have been a lot more blunt, labelling him a misanthrope, a misogynist and a drunk.
One publication asked in 2006: "Is this America's most depraved man?" In the summer of that year, Stanhope made an infamous 10-minute appearance at Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival. At what has since been called Stanhopegate, he told the Kilkenny audience that it was little wonder that men here slept with children because, as a tabloid newspaper reported it, "Irish women are too ugly to rape. Comic booed after shocking festival jibe."
Stanhope is unrepentant. "The only thing I found shocking is that the tabloids are such easy bait," he says. "Some guy you've never heard of said something you won't like. It's ridiculous. I always have shows like that when I'm improperly booked because it's a niche genre of comedy.
"If one-in-10 people who go to a comedy club enjoy what I do, I can make a nice living from that, so long as I can cull them from the other nine people who will vocally hate me. If you want to put me on a mixed bill, problems will probably arise. They pulled me off mixed bills [at Kilkenny] and put on extra one-man shows. We sold them all out. I'd like to say I've a vivid memory of the week, but I don't."
It's no surprise that he can't recall the incident in detail. A few weeks after Kilkenny, Stanhope took an ecstasy tablet given to him by a member of the audience at an Edinburgh show being filmed for the BBC. "Oh, I've taken every drug while performing," he says nonchalantly. "I took it to sober up a bit. I don't remember much of the night, but I've seen some clips and I think I pulled it off."
He adds: "Mushrooms have never been a good idea. You go, "Well, this setting is different and I know all these people." No. It's always a fucking bad idea. Hallucinogens have never worked. Cocaine is the best. It can make your brain go faster than your tongue can keep up, but if there is a drug that's stage friendly that's it, aside from alcohol in the right doses, of course.
"I'm terrible at smoking pot, so the few times I've been onstage on pot were as horrifying as not being onstage on pot. I'm not a good smoker. I weird out and get paranoid. Ecstasy is not bad, but it makes you very happy, and when you're an angry act its counterintuitive: 'Everything sucks but I can't help smiling. We're all doomed, but, Jesus, this grin won't come off my face.'"
Stanhope hasn't mellowed. On September 11, 2008, he launched a campaign to raise money to pay for an abortion for Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol. "We set up a website and the funds went to Planned Parenthood," he explains. "I paid for at least one abortion myself." Does he have any qualms about this? "No, absolutely not," he answers. "If there's any major passion I have, it's over-population.
"Whatever unpopular or calloused point of view I have, I can always find someone who wants money for it. I'm bombarded by requests for money from pro-choice and atheist groups, as I'm also a loud atheist. It's not even a cause, it's a theory -- who are you kidding?"
Unsurprisingly, there was a heated reaction. "Oh yeah, I got email death threats," he shrugs. "I got one on MySpace. They should at least have changed their picture to something more intimidating, but it was some guy all goofy in a leprechaun's hat on St Patrick's Day. He might as well write his death threat on a children's birthday card with a big cuddly bear on it and a balloon in its hand.
"Half my estate is going to Planned Parenthood, so if any pro-life zealot wants to kill me, he's just going to pay for a giant abortion spree as soon as they get my money. Death threats are the third most popular thing on the internet after porn and gambling."
A few weeks ago, Stanhope performed yet another controversial routine at the comedy stage at Leeds Festival. "I was playing to 19-year-old kids who'd been sleeping in mud puddles and they're only in the comedy tent because they're trying to get out of the rain as they wait for their band to tune up," he says. "I opened up thrashing them about the Royal Family and it set the tone. Once you get that many people out of control, there's nothing to do except dance on it.
"I don't have an act built for these kinds of events. Every now and then my manager doesn't give a fuck. It's different when months beforehand you're talking about it in theory; when you're just answering a number you're manager is throwing out at you on the phone. Then you get there and go, 'I knew this was going to suck. I'd forgotten how much.' I don't need the money for people to throw fruit at me."
Doug hesitates when asked about his all-time worst gig. "There was one really bad one early on in my career at an air force base in Korea to an all-black audience following a Def Jam comedy act that they thought was supposed to be the headliner," he answers. "Then I came out with my mullet and the microphone didn't work. It lasted about six or seven or minutes until the promoter gave me the throat-slashing 'get off the stage' sign."
He adds: "I've had them shut down the sound and turn off the lights at other places. I was booked into Ohio University as part of a Comedy Central tour. For some reason, it was listed under family friendly events for parents' week, when all the parents come with the freshman students. 600 people or something walked out, but it's their fault. They fucked up the booking."
As the airwaves finally cool in the wake of the Tommy Tiernan-Electric Picnic controversy, I ask him whether he heard about the furore. "No. Did he die?" he asks at the mention of the Irish comedian's name. Eh, not quite. The old chestnut about freedom of expression and comedy reared its head again. "It's just cyclical," he says. "Looking at it after 20 years or so, you just know this kind of thing will happen again and again. It won't be a big deal anymore and then it'll happen again. I don't care. The tabloids get good fishing. You just go through your notebook and say, 'What fucked up thing can I say that they can bite on like a pitbull?'
"The Nazis get a lot of coverage. I don't think you can be called a proper politician until you get compared to Hitler. If they haven't put a Hitler moustache on your picture on a placard at a protest, then you haven't made it. Even Obama is getting it over healthcare, which is really stretching it. Anyway, you can print the headline, "Doug Stanhope challenges Tommy Tiernan to Jew-killing contest."
Doug Stanhope plays the Button Factory, Dublin (€21.50) tonight and the Radisson, Galway (€20/€22.50) tomorrow