hooker money and my life is still a
Back in the ‘70’s I was managing a used book store at Dupont Circle in Washington DC when Dustin Hoffman stopped in. He was in town shooting All the President’s Men.
We began to chat. He enjoyed the city blah, blah, blah when I asked him why he had played Lenny Bruce as such a sweet softy. After all stand up is a tough gig. Doesn’t it require a thick skin? There’s the nightly confrontation with drunken hecklers in some ‘toilet’ in the boonies. And if you’re really good or really bad, there’s the constant threat of physical harm.
Hoffman told me that he had spoken with dozens of people that knew Bruce and they all said he was a very vulnerable, sweet, generous, insecure guy. He also said he saw it in the performances, interviews and news footage that existed. Hoffman told me to look and listen harder. Even Bruce’s snitching to avoid jail time could be seen in this light.
Over the years I have come to the conclusion that Hoffman nailed Bruce in the movie. Bruce wasn’t one of those snarky, posturing cats I was used to hanging with who were occasionally funny, but in reality just mean.
Bruce was sensitive. Harrowingly sensitive. He cared what people thought of him. He even sought approval from the cops that arrested him and the DAs that prosecuted him as seen by his defense of the police at his Berkeley Concert where he balked at demonstrators calling them ‘Gestapo’. And he was truly bewildered by the mainstream public’s hostility toward him.
Over the years I’ve come to recognize that many stand-up comics, and virtually all of the great ones, share this vulnerability, this need to be liked, even loved. Some wear it on their sleeve wallowing in very funny self-ridicule like Louis C.K. Others walk it off like Chris Rock striding from one side of the stage to the other, grinning ear to ear and laughing at his own stuff casting insecure glances while he mulls the next segment of his set. Some like Dave Chapelle, sweet by nature but driven to expose the ignorance and hypocrisy of the world, just walk away when the sterility of the payoff comes into view.
And others like the legendary Joe Ancis, dubbed by the young comics that gathered at Hanson’s Deli in Brooklyn in the early forties and fifties ‘The Funniest Man in New York’, never muster the courage to take the stage at all. Ancis, who inspired such comics as Lenny Bruce, Buddy Hackett and Jack Roy aka Rodney Dangerfield, never took the stage himself, afraid of the bitter ridicule and potential for physical harm that a boozed up, unhip audience might inflict.
Not that this vulnerability is an essential part of the make-up of a great stand up. Dick Gregory, for whom the threats were all too real, is and was just plain courageous. Lewis Black, while not facing the bigotry that hounded Gregory, Paul Mooney and Richard Pryor or the constant harassment from the asshole local police and prosecutors that destroyed Lenny Bruce, also doesn’t outwardly express that vulnerable quality. In this regard Black reminds me of an enervated George Carlin or a less pedantic Mort Sahl with some hilarious onstage spasms added.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Mort Sahl. He’s the cut
rate Noam Chomsky of stand up.
But the late Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks conveyed that vulnerability. Pryor on stage often has a look of sheer terror mixed with doubt as though at any moment someone from the audience was going to stand up and do him bodily harm, his stuff was that good. Or perhaps it was in part Pryor’s penchant for harming himself that he projected onto the audience, the brilliance in madness thing that Jonathan Winters shared.
Hicks' fear, too, was justified given his uncompromising rage against US foreign policy and the first Iraq war and his open hostility to organized religion, especially Christianity. Hicks like any comic worked the ‘toilets’ of the heartland, the bars and honky-tonks full of patriotic, Jesus loving drunks and meth addicts.
In one of Hick’s most famous bits he is confronted
after one of his shows by a group of self-proclaimed
shit-faced Christians who object to some of his act.
“We’re Christians…What you think we ought to do with
you,” one of the alcohol soaked apostles asks. To
which Hicks replied “Forgive me?”
Lenny Bruce has his own biting parody of being on the road, his bit called ‘Lima Ohio’ which features a well-meaning Mid-Western Jewish couple, the Scheckners, that have Lenny over to dinner. Bruce woken early by Mr. Scheckner is asked, “My wife wants ta know what ya want to eat.” A groggy Bruce replies, “I’m not picky, man. A Chiclet. A Fig Newton.”
Now there’s Doug Stanhope, the most brutally brilliant yet vulnerable comic to come along since Bruce, Pryor and Hicks. His material can be grotesque. But not so deep down you realize that Stanhope’s bits are not solely a joke. They’ve got ‘the funny’ but they are not meant to be just that to either Stanhope or his audience. Stanhope is dead serious. And couldn’t be funnier.
This allows him some room for when the audience,
especially the female members, don’t find his bits
funny, when you can hear the "pussy like car doors
snapping shut from a distance” as he puts it. But
Stanhope is no Andrew Dice Clay. Listen to his bit
‘Sex and Shame’ all the way to the end to get what I’m
Stanhope’s ‘funny’ is driven by the generous application of Stanhope logic. And like all great comedy and comedians, his material has the ring of conviction which through inflection, gesture, etc. makes it sound like the truth, or at least a truth, but at the same time, exaggerated even grotesque. And therein lies the bright spanking newly minted Stanhope truth. Single handedly this gacking, spongy little unlikely comic has moved the materialist armoire of your cultural and political assumptions to the window and shoved the fucker down ten flights.
You want to hear Doug’s unique take on cops and US
troops? Go ahead.
Does Stanhope hate kids a much as he says? Ladies
I’d take him at his word.
What makes Stanhope stand out is that classic comic ability to create an odd (I want to say ‘fresh’ but the word attributed to Stanhope doesn’t compute) perspective that makes the listener reconsider all of his or her old assumptions, a quality pioneered by Bruce, Gregory and others in the fifties and possessed by all the great comics since. Women are going to be more resistant to Stanhope’s ‘assumptions’ than men. I won’t reprise the historical background that turned stand up comics toward serious social commentary because it is already well-documented. But for the gender thing, Stanhope’s self-awareness is acute.
I will cite more clips from the net to illustrate my text. Lenny Bruce hated it when a judge let the cops do his act in court rather than letting him speak for himself. I’d rather Stanhope speak for himself.
What would make a person as vulnerable as Stanhope
put himself repeatedly and of [un]sound mind in a
position for potential derision and failure if not
Describing Pryor’s stage fright, Nina Simone said she simply cradled him like a baby when he gigged with her in New York in 1963. The combination of seeking an audience’s approval, fear of failure and openly risking ridicule often in the form of hecklers much less bodily harm such as flying bottles is especially acute for the stand up comic.
“He [Pryor] shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn't bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time” Simone recalled. Pryor was probably feigning nerves to snuggle with Nina after the first couple of nights. I woulda.
But if you don’t have a warm beauty like Simone handy, drugs, cigarettes and booze are a ready substitute. The performance benefits of scag, fags and jags is common to Bruce, Pryor, Hicks and Stanhope. As Stanhope points out what your elders called ‘dirty habits’ are essential to ‘the funny’ he produces.
For a side splitting illustration check out
Stanhope’s bit called ‘Hard Work?’
Of course, the first and only rule is ‘you’ve got to be funny’, both in the sense of humorous, and to a lesser extent, in the sense of having a persona that stands out and compliments ‘the funny’. Stanhope certainly is the funniest around in the first sense of the word as well as the most incisive. In the second sense he’s brilliantly understated. He looks like the doughy, aging frat boy next door that pulls out the binoculars whenever your teenaged daughter strips to her skivvies. Last time I saw him at the Ottobar in Baltimore he was dressed like Rodney Dangerfield and Joe Ancis in the days when they sold aluminum siding in New Jersey.
His grasp of the irony and hypocrisy of the American
Dream is uncanny. But he can also make you laugh at
the most un-mainstream, unpromising, peculiar subject
matter such as his bit about fucking the two headed
And there’s an aberrant logic that runs through Stanhope’s bits. Some saw it as libertarian. But libertarianism isn’t aberrant. It’s doctrinaire. Stanhope’s aberrant logic means he must reject everything including libertarianism. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible but it’s hard to be doctrinaire and funny at the same time unless ‘the funny’ is unintentionally, syphilitic like Antonin Scalia’s legal briefs.
Like Bruce, Pryor and Hicks, Stanhope has what’s known as native intelligence defined as ‘Common sense; knowledge not gained through formal education.’ All four were/are dropouts and autodidacts. Pryor was raised in a brothel and Bruce spent his formative years in strip clubs.
This is highly important because with the autodidact, knowledge remains free and malleable, a requisite for the broad brush of the stand-up for which close analysis or scrutiny can scuttle ‘the funny’. And ‘the funny’ must always retain its own scrutiny within its own logic. Also, an upbringing like Pryor’s or Bruce’s is going to make you ’worldly’ especially if you posses acute powers of observation as they did. It’s also going to make you more humane, yes, and vulnerable even as you become more savvy and street smart about the world.
The stand-up doesn’t so much say the outrageous thing as assay it. The comic tests his material, not for its efficacy, but for its ‘funny’. If it also retains the ring of truth as it develops into a bit, all the better. That makes for great standup.
In comedy a little knowledge is NOT a dangerous thing. As Stanhope warns he’s probably wrong a good deal of the time because he only has a surface knowledge of the subjects he incorporates into his act. He does allow that he has ‘13’ or so ideas which have held up these last 26 years he’s been performing. He also has an acute and raw understanding of human nature.
His material sheds epiphanies the way an old memory about a brush with a ‘madeleine’ once gave Proust a boner. And a Stanhope infused insight sticks to you like pussy stink in your moustache. After many listenings some of his bits just get funnier revealing some different nuance at each play.
No wonder for much of his set Stanhope has that don’t fucking Freddie Kruger me look on his face as he jumps out at the audience, his voice rising, brandishing, along with his Dos Equis, a whole new way of looking at the world. After all, they do kill the messenger, Bruce being a prime example. And Freddy Krueger is a metaphor for America. With Stanhope umbrage by some of the audience amounts to self-defense seasoned. “You’re not stealing my soul, Stanhope, you fuckin’ degenerate”’ some of the audience seems to be saying. “We’ll kill you before we’ll admit you’re right.”
Stanhope appears to perform only when he’s totally shit faced. And when he gets rolling on stage, jabbing his bottle of beer at the audience and shouting his bits with that flushed, impish grin on his face like he’s finished off your last dram of jager, fucked your sister and set your house on fire and just doesn’t give a fuck except for the beat down he’s gonna get.
Then he talks about dying. And things really get
Stanhope is a master of stand-up technique. His
timing is impeccable. And his language
In Father Flotsky’s Triumph Lenny Bruce has a line delivered by the prison warden: “The bullets? Look in backa' my brown slacks.” The music of this line like most of Bruce’s work has always floored me. Aside from Bruce’s biting parody of the American prison system through a satiric take on Hollywood and the B movies, it’s the poetry, yes the poetry, of the ‘brown slacks’ line like the music of the language in so much of Bruce’s bits that raises it to a new level.
The stop after “bullets” punctuated by a question mark. Then the cascading rhythm of “Look in backa' my brown slacks,” with the line’s concision enhanced by the colloquial elision of the “the” before “back” followed by what Ezra Pound called the ‘luminous detail’, in this case “brown slacks”. Then there’s the internal rhyme, “back” and “slacks” which maintains the headlong downward rhythm by using the colloquial expression “Look in back” instead of say ‘look in the back pocket.’
Or Pryor’s killer bit called the ‘Mafia Club’ when
as young comic he gigged in a mobbed up club in
Youngstown, Ohio with its gravelly voiced wise guys
speaking a garbled faux Italian. Does it really get
any funnier than this bit?
A comic like Bruce, Pryor or Stanhope, a talented
cat that’s been doing stand up for years, hears ‘the
funny’ in his head. Stanhope finds just the right word
to jar the audience with its verbally nuanced
eccentricity, its ‘funny’, dropped perfectly into a
bits structure. And Stanhope’s timing is impeccable.
He maximizes the effect of every bit he does by the
silences, the now historic on stage cigarette breaks,
a sloppy cocksuck on his beer or just a plain
ass-to-earth beet red grin. He even has informative,
public service asides he uses as pauses in his
routines like at the beginning of the bit called “This
And it serves as an excellent segue into the bit itself. Luminous vocabulary? Consider, the little island of pause that is “last call” in the bit.
If you’re curious about what Stanhope is talking about in general in the “this generation sucks” bit look at an image of me online. Then look at the images of your MFA instructors.
But the language. Oh the beautiful, evocative
language and ideas of “Fuck Your God”:
Or: Religion in a Nutshell:
But for the beer and cigarette pause/prop effect
listen to his DVD “No Refunds”. You can start at 14:30
if you’re pressed for time or just an asshole. But
stick with it for a few more minutes because of
Stanhope’s take on creativity, drugs, alcohol and
Doug plays a lot of ‘toilets.’ It’s no small measure of his talent that he can find the least common denominator, a subject that an appreciable number of the audience can understand and raise the bar sometimes a little bit and occasionally a lot.
Such a bit that accomplishes the latter is called “Nationalism” or “Saving the French ” which also includes Stanhope’s take on immigration. Talk about a complex idea presented in the language of the common man. “Verdun” juxtaposed to “sports bloopers.” Luminous detail!
“[N]o mud stains on the knees garroting Krauts in
the trenches at Verdun.” Not to mention the
incomparable incarnation through words, ‘word made
flesh’, of Doug’s imaginary buddy for the bit,
Or check out Jesus Never Made You Laugh:
Once again the language is brilliantly evocative “Tell that story about the one time you kick fucked a girl with cerebral palsy and see who draws a crowd.” Once again the idiomatic expression “draws a crowd” seasons ‘the funny’ just right as does “even your make believe slap-stick Jesus” which follows along with a thousand other rhythms, gestures, pauses, voice modulations, brilliant vocab choices and verbal nuances.
Stanhope’s a rare talent. There’s no doubt he feels he’s been short-changed by the entertainment industry. But he has also made it perfectly clear that he finds that industry as it exists today intolerable. (For a masterful bit about the fatuous flatulence of show biz culture and its audiences catch Lenny Bruce’s ‘The Palladium’ with his ‘Dean of Satire’, Frank Dell, on the album simply called ‘Lenny Bruce’ or ‘Lenny Bruce Togetherness’; Fantasy 7007.)
Stanhope has tried a number of dead ends, the Man Show, Girls Gone Wild, Fox’s ‘Invasion of the Hidden Cameras’, and Alex Jones and to one degree or another has disavowed all of them. He knows puerile when he sees it. At least up close.
The numerous shock jock radio shows he appears function as advance PR and little more. Adolescent boys don’t know what ‘Verdun’ is and only the ones willing to learn will stick with Stanhope. His association with Howard Stern is reminiscent of Bruce’s association with Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, or even Steve Allen or the short lived Lenny Bruce Show. How else are people going to get to know you when your venues barely top 200 or 300 hundred seats and there’s virtually no TV exposure. You don’t do it for their health. And Hefner and Allen were genuinely concerned about the First Amendment, in Hefner’s case out of self-interest, the capitalist’s mantra.
Stanhope’s not always successful with his material such as his ‘bridge to nowhere’ knock on art. That and a bunch of rough, new material left the audience lukewarm at a recent show at Baltimore’s Ottobar. To his credit it appears he’s dropped most of those bits.
Stanhope’s portrayal of his fictional doppelganger, Eddie Mack, on Louie C.K.’s TV show is nothing but poignant even if Stanhope would hate the characterization. The character might contain more than a grain of Stanhope. Stanhope sure as shit plays it that way.
Richard Pryor had a stormy but successful career in mainstream entertainment especially Hollywood. But it’s hard to imagine Stanhope having such ‘success’. Like his character Eddie Mack says, he’s “burned all his bridges.” And he did it for the purity --- if you will permit me Doug --- for the purity of his art. Or at least that’s what Eddie/Doug needs to hear come out of his mouth as he goes off to play a sports bar in Maine for $200.00.
It might be pointed out that at the height of his popular ‘success’ Pryor, according to his daughter Rain, “poured high-proof rum over his body and set himself on fire in a bout of drug-induced psychosis” while free-basing cocaine.
If you’ve listened to Stanhope’s "burnt
bridges/I don’t want to live past ‘the funny’" bits, it all sounds familiar. But
I would not presume to know how much of Stanhope’s
struggles are mimicked in his portrayal of Eddie Mack
on Louie, or in my own experience of just an old man,
myself again, watching a rare comic genius like
Stanhope do his thing while giving off sparks of
self-destruction while claiming to engorge silos of
contraband and near contraband like Bruce, Hicks and
Pryor. After all, heroin was Bruce’s dénouement.
Stanhope jokes he’s saving smack for his curtain call.*
We apologize for the preceding paragraph. Sometimes Mr. Parcelli writes like Henry James on Rainbow Tic Tacs.]
Bruce, Hicks, Pryor were not fighters . They were lovers. Stanhope, too, is a lover. Right back at you, Doug.
Bruce died at 40. Hicks at 33. And Pryor at a much scarred and debilitated 65. It’s a melancholy proposition. Like the lifespan of a boxer or interior lineman in the NFL . Or a jihadist. Toll taken. The gods exact their pound of flesh.
Let’s hope Stanhope is the exception because, man, I crave his unexpected ‘funny’. If that sounds selfish, Doug, then fuck you . Fuck you with Voltaire’s Angry Glove.
the author - performance videos - and latest book
"Stand-up tragedy at its best!"
Additional work by Carlo Parcelli in FlashPoint includes:
The Canaanite Gospel:
A Meditation on Empire: The Easter Sequence
and several installments of
"Deconstructing the Demiurge"
"Crimes of Passion"
"Work in Regress"
"Onionrings: Adding machines_Crisco"
"Collateral Damage, or The Death of Classics in America"
"How Dead Industrialists Dance, or Swing Time"
"Tale of the Tribe"
"Millennium Mathematics: The Centos"
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower
Eschatology of Reason: The North Tower
Eschatology of Reason: De Rerum Natura
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower (revised
De Rerum Natura: Hearing Voices
Eschatology of Reason: Shaping the Noise
a selection from:
Eschatology of Reason:
"The Gilded Index of Far-Reaching Ruin"
a poem in five parts
I. A Brief Course in Secular Eschatology
The poet comments on his
"Is Everyday Language Sufficient to Embody Everyday Experience?"
Schneidercentric Poetry World of
Dan Schneider: Cosmoetica vs. Planet Earth