Just stay sober. Play it safe. You can’t drink tonight. Keep it to a beer an hour. It’s a Saturday night to myself without a kid and I’ve got to stay sober. I make the drive into the city and I am so paranoid about being late that I’m two hours early. I take a seat at the bar. I see the show signs plastering the walls DOUG STANHOPE. He’s pictured looking hung-over from life with a cigarette hanging from his mouth . He’s the reason I’m here. I’ve come all this way into downtown Chicago in a bar surrounded thirty something’s with beards to see one man perform. Comedy is a lot like writing or acting or music. A lot of untalented people trying to be talented when there is only so much talent to go around. Doug’s been doing it for decades and mostly under the radar. He never really fit in to the usual career trek of comedians. He was never meant sitcoms or late night talk shows. He’s given his life road playing gigs wherever they’ll have him, happy to have his bar tab picked up by the venue. Like music and writing and comedy and acting, alcoholism has its untalented. Stanhope is tops on his own death pool watch.
At the bar a couple of younger guys take seats next to me and ask me what I’m here for. I say Stanhope and they smile because in the sea of beards and bad band following patrons we have found kindred spirits. We play name drop and they have good taste. They offer me a shot but I decline.
I have to stay sober tonight.
We talk about Stanhope and recite our favorite bits. We keep it short because no one can do the man justice. Stanhope is a different kind of comedian. He doesn’t talk about airplane food and he doesn’t have a puppet for a punchline. There are no catch phrases that can be printed on t-shirts or caps and sold at Walmart. What Stanhope does and what brings the people back is his brutal honesty and total lack of fear. He will go anywhere. He doesn’t rely on offending just to offend, though he will smirk if he’s gotten a groan from ticket payers. Whatever the subject, Stanhope puts it through the iron maiden that is his brain and what comes out is his bloody honest view point. He has never been afraid of race, abortion, politics, religion, drugs or whatever should not be talked about. My new friends and I are here because what the man will say will be blunt and honest and true. In a day when one wrong tweet will kill a career, our man stands unafraid at the gallows of public opinion.
The time passes and I nurse my beer. Its thirty minutes until show time so my friends and I head out to wait for the other doors to open. We walk outside and share a few smokes with a drunk guy who claims to be a comedian. I think the funniest thing the guy’s ever done is try to be a comedian. We laugh and his friend holds him up. My new friends say they’ll be right back. I nod and watch them walk around the block and think nothing of it. my nerves are rising. This is my first Stanhope show. I feel like a blind beggar waiting for Jesus.
It takes balls to be a comedian. To stand in front of the court of public opinion masochistically hoping they will share in your thought process and laugh. It’s another thing to do so and make a mark on the face of comedy. Stanhope is the favorite comedian of comedians. He appeared on Louie as a man hell bent on letting himself die. His performance drew the praise of Robin Williams who sent an email to Louis C.K. in something to line that it was his favorite episode. Williams said something like a true portrayal of a man who wanted to leave this world. Stanhope not holding back sometime later said he was glad he could inspire Williams. If you know Stanhope that means he was touched. To him no subject is unfunny when run through the gauntlet of his mind. He is himself honest and unafraid after all the years.
My friends return. We wait for the doors to open. The one of Asian persuasion is telling me about something that happened to him at someplace but all I am aware of is the white under his nose. I look more intently and it’s a small pebble of white powder. My friends are full of energy. I nod at him and gesture with my hand wiping my nose and nod again. He looks at me and I point to my nose. He registers.
Oh shit. Thanks man.
I don’t like cocaine. I’ve never touched the stuff. I dated a girl once that did once and it disgusts me. Here among these animals in this crowd I am not surprised. I’m sober and without my kid. I don’t judge the guy but I’m jealous. Not of his cocaine but of his ability to be so un-sober. The doors open. We sit through an opening act. He’s a local school teacher. Pretty funny. Teachers could make great comedians if not for offended parents. I see him later at tell him he did well.
Stanhope takes the stage forty-five minutes late but we’re all ok with that. One minute in a drunk man insists that Stanhope is rehashing material. Hecklers are like drunk women to single guys; great material. Stanhope tears the guy a new one but refuses to have him kicked out. The man is booed and hollered at but Stanhope says leave him. I want him to suffer. I thought I paid for an hour. I got three. I hang out with my friends but that gets old because I’m old. I walk the merch counter and see Stanhope’s girlfriend. I introduce myself and she is nice. Stanhope doesn’t disappoint. He lays in to everyone and everything. Form ISIS to vodka he has an opinion. He spews material like he ejaculated on your high school sweetheart’s prom dress. Hour three and I am tired. I look at the merch counter and see bibles. I ask what they are for. Stanhope’s girlfriend Bingo tells me they stole them out of hotel rooms across the country. As a former ministry student I ponder and purchase. She tells me I get first in line to meet the man.
After three hours he walks behind the counter. I can’t process what I’m seeing but it’s him. The man without fear. He sings my bible. Bingo takes our picture with my phone. He tells me he’s on Adderall and the three hour set is explained. I say thank you because I mean it. For whatever reason and whatever daddy/mommy issue he has chosen to be a comedian. One worth seeing. A man with a point. A point right to the jugular.
I don’t see my friends again. I just want to get home. I want a drink. Those lucky bastards unthinking and unfeeling about tomorrow and what the day may bring. I come home and pass out smiling because I’ve met a legend. You could call a lot people legends. That’s bullshit. Legends start because only a few knew them and told their story. They didn’t tickle eras. They broke rules. That is Stanhope. Just a few weeks later I find out Stanhope retired from touring. I saw him that one time. He walked away because, as he would say, he was out of shit. I wish more people did that. We wouldn’t waste so much of our time.