The morbid title of Doug Stanhope’s latest is enough to drive away anyone who might be offended by the actual material – and enough to attract the stereotypically sullen, nihilist, bitterly alcoholic curmudgeons who have supported Stanhope’s career thus far. What else to expect from a man who’s spent a good chunk of his time celebrating drugs and railing against buttoned-down idiocy?
That’s obviously a bit reductive. But shock and filth are less valuable commodities than they used to be, especially in comedy, so it’s reassuring that Stanhope’s virulently anti-bullshit stances have remained transgressive with each new album, even as the ravages of partying have continued to turn his voice to asthmatic gravel.
He opens with a self-effacing bit about how shitty he looks in the mirror these days, which inevitably leads to introspection and a comment on the late Mitch Hedberg. “Drugs killed him, but they didn’t ruin his life by any stretch,” he says earnestly. That’s certainly debatable, but Stanhope at least turns it funny, noting how Hedberg’s family started a charity golf tournament to support a rehab facility in his honor – which he says is akin to the family of a guy who died during the Olympics holding a charity pie-eating contest to keep kids away from sports.
Stanhope spits furiously about “the cottage-industry fraud” that is rehab and reserves particular scorn for Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab and Loveline fame: “Just hearing his name, bile comes out of me.” When Stanhope recites his grievances against Pinsky, the bottomless apoplexy is almost comforting. Passion makes him more articulate and able to walk the ever-thinning line between entertainment and angry screed. The name of the bit? “Dr. Drew Is to Medicine What David Blaine Is to Science.” Spot on, vicious and hilarious. All nine minutes of it.
Track names read like punk-rock song titles, and everything implied is eventually laid out. In fact, “My Piss Stinks” includes an improbably detailed discussion of the consistency of his feces.
The Salt Lake City crowd, for the most part, is adoring but sedate. And since Stanhope seems to take special pleasure in performing in risky environments, there’s palpable tension when he asks offended audience members to leave.
Some comics carefully weigh the specific over the relatable, but Stanhope goes all in, using particular cities, brand names and animals to make his points (yes, he has clearly mastered the use of nouns). He celebrates drunkenness, but uses his salty intelligence and vocabulary to pull it off. If you’re not already on his shaky, pro-Charlie Sheen wavelength, it comes off as the rant of a college freshman using the old “It’s a free country!” cry to justify any number of despicable behaviors.
That said, Stanhope’s effectiveness lies in both his grasp of the big picture and his willingness to spit out facts in service of a joke. “The average cost in this country of raising a single child to the age of 17 is now $227,000,” he quotes, taking down the hypocrisy of people who bitch about the economy while continuing to squeeze out kids. He’s also That Guy who defends liberal use of the words “faggot” and “nigger” by attempting to strip them of societal context and apply his own.
The rest of the set doesn’t so much evolve as bob up and down on a sea of anger. Is he saying “faggot” slightly less? That means he’s (relatively) calm. One gets the sense that about half the audience doesn’t fully comprehend what he’s talking about, instead sitting back and drunkenly clapping at his curse words and hoarse volume, cheering and wooing every time he talks in an exaggerated “black” voice. The tongue-twisting bit “Keynesian Economic Theory as Applied to Private Sector Independent Contracting” is delivered in the voice of a black prostitute who veers from talking about her “shit pussy” to Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman. It’s followed, appropriately, by a bit called “Giant Black Cock,” in which Stanhope asks the audience to volunteer one for an impromptu after-show photo.
An hour long with 12 distinct tracks, Before Turning the Gun on Himself… feels overall economical, especially after last year’s somewhat bloated Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere. The first three-quarters of Before are mostly bite-sized, self-contained jokes, whereas the last are each about 12 minutes. Bottom-heavy, to be sure.
What’s both frustrating and fascinating about Stanhope is the paradox of his persona: the intelligent, lowbrow artist who hates intellectuals and artists. Yet one doesn’t get the sense that he hates himself. He just hates people who talk without thinking.
But as he usually does, Stanhope effectively insulates himself from any criticisms by acknowledging them. His closing bit is even called “Remember When I Used to Give a Shit?” Of course he still does. He’s just realized that it doesn’t make everything that infuriates him go away.