If You See Him Around, Buy The Man A Drink
Doug Stanhope is well-known for his irreverent and socially critical style of comedy. He is also visiting Iceland soon, specifically to perform at the Litla-Hraun prison on September 25. We got in touch with him to learn more about the man and how he got this idea.
So, I understand you’re going to do some stand-up at our prison. What was the inspiration for that?
Well, a friend of mine came over to my house and said, “You know where would be weird to go for Christmas? Iceland.” I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, and I know that the mayor [of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr] is a comedian that got elected, so I look him up online and found a website that was all in Icelandic but also what looked like his e-mail address. So I shot off an e-mail, and somehow we got to talking about prisons…
Somehow you got on the subject of prisons?
Yeah, he said he used to have a prison penpal in Arizona, where I live. And I said I used to have a death row penpal, so maybe that’s something I should do when I go over there. Because you know, visit your prisons—I don’t really want to do any touristy shit. I didn’t want to do a show, because shows always ruin vacations. But at a prison? I can do whatever old shit I want. In fact, I’m going to have to go back and re-learn old shit, just to have the fun of doing old shit in front of people who don’t know it’s old shit. And that was before I knew about his series [‘Night Shift’, ‘Day Shift’ and ‘Prison Shift’]. We watched all three and the [Georg Bjarnfreðarson] movie. I didn’t expect to like the series but it’s fucking brilliant. It seemed Icelandic comedy would be more pie-in-the face stuff.
AN EXCUSE TO USE THE WORD ‘FISTFUCK’ IN A PARAGRAPH HEADLINE
What made you decide to use socio-political commentary as a vehicle for comedy as opposed to, say, observational humour?
I think closer to the truth would be that I use socio-political commentary as an excuse to deliver fistfuck jokes. They think it’s the other way around. It’s a scam, really. It’s a cheap way to do dick jokes. Makes you look like you’re really bright.
I think you’re maybe being modest there. But in any event, usually when I see people take this tack for comedy, they tend to fall squarely in one political camp or another, but it doesn’t seem you’ve planted your flag on any side.
No, and it’s always disconcerting when you think someone is really, really bright, but you see that they are learning towards one branch or the other. That’s the whole point of this, you know, it’s all bullshit. I don’t want to use names, but these comics are still playing this game that’s so incredibly rigged. I don’t fall into any camp, and I think that in the UK, they assumed that I was part of the liberal camp, just because I was critical of George Bush. Doesn’t mean I’m for you just because I’m against that. I’m pretty much against most forms of government.
Are you worried about some of your material not being able to translate well to the audience?
Oddly, for a gig we’re doing for fun, with no money and no critics in the audience, yeah, I’m more worried about this than the gigs I should worry about [laughs]. It’s the truth. I go through all the material in my head, old and new, and I’m like “I don’t know if any of this shit’s gonna work.”
Why would it make you more nervous to perform in a closed setting, without critics there to write reviews of the show?
I mean, they’re putting them out. They didn’t necessarily want to see me. I don’t know if they even have a choice. They might be forced to sit through my show. Maybe as some sort of punishment for not doing their mess duties. Anyway, it always hurts to suck, and you’re not supposed to suck later in your career, because you’re playing to people who already like you. So if you go back and just eat a miserable dick, in a prison, doing it sober, too … I can’t remember the last sober show I did.
ONLY THREE BLOODY MARYS AT BREAKFAST, GUYS
Why are you going to be sober for this one then?
Well, it’s a prison. I’m sure they’re not going to have cocktails available. Although, a prison in Iceland, they might have rations of cocktails. “Only three Bloody Marys at breakfast, guys. You know the drill.”
You could load up before performing, too.
Yeah, I’m sure I’ll do that, too.
I wouldn’t be too worried about the crowd. Believe it or not, it’s not like a lot of comics or bands perform at the prison.
Oh, yeah, I’ve always wanted to play at a prison. I’ve just never had the opportunity. It’s not a big circuit over here. When I first started out I had a friend who did a show in a prison. And the amount of trouble it took—getting background checked and all that—it just wasn’t worth the trouble. It’s not like they have a guy in charge of booking. I can’t just call up a prison and be like, “Yeah, can I have the booking agent?”
The conventional wisdom has been that truly funny comedians are often angry, bitter, miserable people in their personal lives. Why do you think this is?
I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. It is for me, obviously. I envy the comics who can just go up there and say whatever’s on their minds. I feel some pressure, which is probably completely imaginary, to live up to expectations that probably aren’t there. I guess anyone who drinks to excess, or parties to excess, probably spends half their time miserable just to make up for it. And a lot of these great comics did that. But yeah, a lot of comics just go home, make their wives some lasagne, and have normal lives. But they’re pretty boring, too. I don’t hang out with them, so I’m just assuming they exist.
Why is comedy so hard?
It’s harder to do for a duration like this. Because there’s only so many things that strike me. I find myself trying to force myself to get angry or have an opinion about things. I just don’t give a fuck about writing Libya jokes. In this day and age, there’s one news story and one news story only on any given day. And it’s the most important thing in the world, until a tsunami comes. I mean, when I saw that opening day [for football season] was going to be on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was just like … oh, Jesus. We’re sitting here booing the TV, like ‘Showtime At The Apollo’ levels of booing.
Is there anything Iceland’s prisoners should be aware of regarding your material, or what you plan on bringing to them?
Tell them to stand behind me with a cup if I cough, because I’m going to be smuggling vodka. They’re so tight with the duty-free over there. One litre?
Yeah, and that’s actually an improvement over the previous law.
I know, I read that last July. It’s the only thing I’m caught up on about Iceland. I don’t know if a litre would stop my hands from shaking in the morning.