Years ago at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, Doug Stanhope appeared on a show called Confessing It. The lineup of comedians found laughs in everything from the mildly embarrassing to genuinely soul-searching. Then came Stanhope, who told a story about a former girlfriend using the morning-after pill. His graphic description walked a few in the room who ostensibly were there to hear people’s deep, dark secrets.
Stanhope’s secrets are usually a lot deeper and darker than most. And they are rarely secrets. He lives the kind of life that would have given Hunter S. Thompson a worthy muse for a series of books, and celebrates it all onstage. And, the important part sometimes forgotten by comics dealing with potentially shocking material: It’s funny. It may take a bit of a dark soul to appreciate it, but it is funny.
On Beer Hall Putsch, Stanhope manages to make a story about helping his 63-year-old mother commit suicide–and the illegal purchases on her credit card that followed–sound utterly joyful, even as he teases her in her final moments drifting into eternity. Her last words are priceless. It should be noted that his mother shared Stanhope’s sense of humor (she used to review porn on The Man Show), and her exit was her decision. Respecting that, her baby boy gave her one hell of a Viking funeral.
And those illegal purchases (now beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution) were Stanhope’s way of sticking it to the banks. His mother had no estate, so there was no one to go after for money except her 17-year-old cat. Much more damaging to the banks, he says, than the Occupy movement’s strategy of camping out in a park for month. If he had been in charge of that kind of momentum, he would have broken people into groups and clogged service desks with frivolous loan requests. “Yes, I need a billion dollars for an ant farm,” he suggests.
Not everything Stanhope says is quite that serious or groundbreaking, but most of it is fairly twisted. Stanhope spins a long, particularly cringe-worthy story before reaching a punchline illustrating the homoerotic qualities of professional football (a sport he very much enjoys). On a track called “Incentive-Based Eugenics,” he advocates a voluntary sterilization program with prizes: Give us your balls, meet Ted Nugent.
The scariest part is when Stanhope starts sounding like the only guy in the room making any sense. Instead of an endless stream of random charity tasks “for the cure,” he suggests everyone works on the easiest problem and move on, starting with world hunger on a planet overflowing with food. He’s also fond of casually telling people he’s gay, just in case it might provide courage for someone within earshot to overhear it in normal conversation.
Stanhope is smart, and he takes risks in his material guaranteed to alienate a good number of potential fans. Could he be funny without doing that? Sure. But we’d be missing out.