Doug Stanhope: Saving Lives One Cigarette at a Time

Often bracketed as a caustic political comedian, we discover Doug Stanhope may have been plonked in the wrong pigeonhole

Feature by Ben Venables | 29 May 2018
  • Doug Stanhope

When Doug Stanhope was last in Scotland, unwinding in a hotel bar, a man ran by intent on jumping from Edinburgh's George IV Bridge.

"I just went out to smoke," Stanhope tells us, "there was a chick screaming, chasing after a guy, which is nothing odd in Scotland: screaming drunk people running down the street. But he was right at the bridge and he got up like he was going to jump. I just walked over and figured, well, I'm drunk and he's drunk, I can probably talk some sense into him."

With the help of others at the scene, Stanhope managed to dissuade the man until the authorities came: "Thank god I didn't quit smoking: cigarettes saved a life."

A lot has changed since Stanhope's last UK tour in 2015. But as he arrives back at Glasgow's O2 Academy, the two memoirs he's released within that time, both highly personal in different ways, remind us that we often peg Stanhope as a political comedian because he is outspoken, and speaks about anything, rather than from the reality of his routines.

Talking of a recent interview to another "lazy fucking journalist," he says: "Most of my answers were: I don't know." But the questioning continued: "What do you think about gun control? I don't have a strong opinion. What do you think about Trump? I don't really watch or care. I have my own fucking problems.

"Some of my stuff, occasionally, is socially relevant," he clarifies, "But I wouldn't call it political. When I get compared to Bill Hicks people show up thinking it's going to be a Bill Hicks show. And then they go: He's not like Bill Hicks... Bill Hicks died at 32. I didn't have a strong opinion until I was 38."

The first of his two recent books, Digging Up Mother, released in 2016, went well beyond describing his part easing his mother's suicide – which he talked about with brutal, if characteristic, candour in his special Beer Hall Putsch. Without Bonnie, Stanhope wouldn't have found stand-up. And the memoir's subtitle – A Love Story – accurately describes a moving relationship between mother and son, not to have the irony we might expect.

His latest book, This Is Not Fame, is more like a collection of love letters to booze, chronicling an ongoing romance: "Everyone tends to write a book or tell a story when it's too late," he says. "They have to wrap it up with: thank god those days are over... which I just celebrated. I've been drinking for 30-something years, most of my stories are going to be drunk stories."

‘Sometimes you have to be that guy that jumps into the pool naked, to break up the monotony for everyone else’ - Doug Stanhope

This Is Not Fame portrays someone whose actions are often more impish than stirring up controversy for the sake of it. In an early story, Stanhope jumps naked into a swimming pool. The motivation for which isn't to be the centre of attention, but of someone wanting to liven things up a bit: it's heavy drinking as a public service.

"Sometimes you have to be a utility player, you have to play a few positions. Sometimes you have to be the responsible one, which happens more and more the older you get. Sometimes you have to be that guy that jumps into the pool naked, to break up the monotony for everyone else."

Though perhaps the most illustrative story concerns the time Stanhope found himself in the middle of a protest against him: "That was one of my favourite shows... I was just getting named as the host of The Man Show, it hadn't aired but we'd started promoting it, and there was this socialist website, or forum, by students from a very liberal college. They planned a protest against The Man Show because it was 'demeaning to women'. Basically it was a Three Stooges show... Chimpanzees on tricycles, girls jumping on trampolines... The [students], ten or a dozen of them, came out and I went out early with a camera because I was all excited: I'd never been protested and haven't been since."

But rather than going out and riling the activists up, Stanhope found himself instead discussing and debating their different points of view – even if none of them recognised him as the comedian they were protesting against. A situation which then farcically extended to his own fanbase: "I took pictures until some guys [from my audience] came by and started giving the protesters shit. They shouted: 'if you don't like it don't go to the show' and then one started yelling at me, thinking I was one of the protesters, just because I was hanging out with them. It was just surreal."

Also in the book is a photo of Stanhope pulling his junk out in front of Louis CK. The picture's inclusion predates the unravelling of CK's masturbation stories coming out from the rumour mill into long overdue confirmation. Stanhope recently found himself explaining why, some years ago, he 'confessed' that he was the comedian masturbating in front of women. An action that naturally seems misjudged now.

But despite that he tells us: "I made a decision many, many years ago that I just play to myself and what I want to talk about, my audience doesn't get upset about anything. I try to push boundaries when I can and if I have a strong opinion beforehand, and if it is going to offend them, I'm gonna say it." His motives, as with the protest, seem to be of someone who wants to listen as much as he wants to talk. If he discusses CK and #metoo in his new show, it's likely to be controversial and provocative, but we suspect Stanhope would rather be in the conversation than thinking the first words that come into his head are the last words on a subject. 

With his tour reaching Glasgow but not Edinburgh, we finally discuss if Stanhope will ever come back to play the Edinburgh Fringe. But it seems unlikely given he's not a fan of festivals generally. "I don't like crowds and I don't like festivals. I think they capitalise on artists' desperation. They fuck them [over] on money while they get rich."

Although, when it comes to Edinburgh specifically, he offers a few backhanded compliments – if through the fog of a veteran's memory. "I remember the times I've had with Glenn Wool and Jim Jefferies, those guys just hammering it. It's like they talk about being in a war. I don't think I could take it then, back when I was in my 'fighting way'. You look back on those days like 'we survived that' – but I wouldn't want to do it again."

And a festival mentality wouldn't have given him the clarity of mind to intervene in Edinburgh, that time, three years ago, when he was needed most: "If I'd just finished the Fringe I would have let that guy jump."

Doug Stanhope, O2 Academy, Glasgow, 8 Jun, 7pm, from £39
This Is Not Fame is published by De Capo Press and out now