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FEAR AND LOATHING OFF THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

FROM THE WILD DESERT TO A VEGAS STAGE WITH DISILLUSIONED PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (AND COMEDIAN) DOUG STANHOPE

Julie Seabaugh

Gay Cousin Eric is bespectacled, a nutrition educator and not gay, but they call him that to mask his being a Jew. Bingo, formerly known as Oddjob, is a sinewy slip of an artist who shaves her head and is seldom seen without Ichabod, a pointy-eared puppy who is, in fact, gay, was originally found in a crawl space and currently resembles a white sea-sponge thanks to his recent haircut, performed with scissors at close range. Father Luke isn’t around anymore, but he’s well-known for surviving the rollover of Johnny Meatsticks’ ragtop VW Rabbit a few years back. There are also Costa Rica Kevin, Pringles, Pink Fuzzy Bunny, Banjo Randy, Hack Oddity, Lulu Monkey and around 60 more, all drinking, drugging and debauching out here in a secret location somewhere between the 200-feet-below-sea-level basins and 5,000-foot-high peaks of Death Valley. And presiding over all of it is Doug Stanhope: stand-up comedian, resident of Bisbee, Arizona, and, until about three weeks ago, pursuer of the Libertarian party nomination for president of the United States of America.

Bingo and Ichabod

He books this invite-only extended weekend six months in advance so his comedian buddies can properly pencil it in. And then forget. And be reminded again and still put off making arrangements. These comedian buddies don’t have publicists and secretaries and money managers to take care of such things. Though Stanhope’s tight with the likes of Joe Rogan, Dave Attell and Tom Rhodes, it’s the Norm Wilkersons, Andy Andrists, Brendon Walshes, James Inmans, Brett Ericksons and Mat Beckers of the comedy world (though Becker is now more of an Alaskan bar owner), not to mention the UK contingent (Glenn Wool, Dave Bishop, Matt Kirshen, et al), who venture with him into the desert to recede from public view, break free from the pressures of the real world and pretty much party ’til they pass out.

Andy Andrist

It’s called a “resort,” this place (which we’ve agreed not to name), but well-off types expecting avocado baths and seaweed infusions would be sorely disappointed. Instead, there are 15 bare-bones rooms from which no number of ceiling fans and cracked windows can rid the dust-and-urine aroma. There’s a bunk-bed-filled cottage—the Poor House—for those of lesser means (though he won’t admit it, Stanhope covers these on his own tab). Down by Room 1 there’s a Shell station gallingly advertising $4.39 per gallon, and across the two-lane blacktop lies the campground. There’s a restaurant, a miniscule bar, a wraparound porch, a “Road Runner Crossing” sign, a flag pole and a waterfall about three miles down the way, but otherwise there’s a lot of nothing, no homes, no nearby town.

Or everything one could ask for, depending on who is doing the answering. No TVs, no cell-phone signals, fleeting Internet access, dry lips, filthy fingernails, permanently blackened feet, late-afternoon awakenings to the sounds of deep-lung hacking and what may well be a gaggle of geese getting tuned. The sounds emanate from the makeshift stage, covered in Astroturf and located on the Poor House’s raised foundation. Lawn chairs sit below, as does the filthy kiddie pool Inman keeps getting pushed into. A black-and-white Bill Cosby poster rests on the Poor House windowsill, overhead Christmas lights reflecting off its framed surface.

Philadelphia’s Beaver Avenue kicks off the evening’s entertainment with such synth-rock ditties as “F--k the Valet” and “It’s Not Like I Shot Your Dog.” Wool, the reigning King of the Party, who arbitrarily elevated fun levels in a manner above and beyond those around him last year, gives a few extemporaneous thoughts, as do comics Paul Provenza and Lynn Shawcroft (a former King of the Party herself). And then The Mattoid emerges. The Mattoid, aka the folkish, earnestly gothic rocker Ville Kiviniemi: originally from Helsinki, now spooking Nashville and consistently the source of great intrigue. He covers Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” sing of fellatio, suicide and Satan and invite everyone to ascend the stairs. “Drink your drinks and eat your eats! It’s party time!” he orders through his thick accent. “Laugh your laughs and heat your heats! It’s party time!”

“It’s because there’s a lot of characters out here, that’s the only way this works,” is how Stanhope’s affable Scottish “global chief executive/spiritual advisor,” Brian Hennigan, puts it. “Doug doesn’t always have to be the focus.”

Crammed on the tiny stage, the audience—Stanhope, in a lime-green shirt and ancient pink blazer, among them—bounces as one, Miller Lites aloft. “Howl your howls and suck your sucks! It’s party time! Crap your craps and f--k your f--ks! It’s party time! Party time!”

*****

August 28, 1990, The Escape Lounge II. It was a Tuesday, he remembers.

Hailing from Worcester, Massachusetts, an 18-year-old Stanhope took a $450 LA-bound train west to be an actor. He slept two weeks in a rental car, then, six months later, retreated to Massachusetts. He moved to Vegas the first time seeking “Women. Money. Danger,” and calling the Fun City Motel home. While cohabiting with a girlfriend, he “married some crazy woman as a drunken goof.” “We were breaking up but we were still living together,” he says with a laugh. “I came home drunk one night: ‘I got married! I’m sooorry! What, are you mad?’ So then I was with this other girl, and ... it’s a long story. I was 20 and she was like 31 or 32, so I have like a 52-year-old wife right now, still married to her on paper somewhere. That’s hideous to think of.”

A huge industry in Nevada at the time, telemarketing boasted numerous phone rooms and opportunities for making great (if questionable) bank, especially for a kid with no responsibilities or bills to speak of. “I was way funnier as a telemarketer than I ever will be as a comic,” Stanhope insists. “They used to call me the Customer Abuse Department. The new guys, if someone would give them shit on the phone, they’d bring the lead over to me, I’d pin it up on the wall and just f--k with them all day.

“The first phone room I ever walked in, they had an ad in the Hollywood Reporter when I moved there: ‘Make thousands in your part time’ or whatever. I show up and the boss has a big water bong on his desk with this highway-salvage, mismatched furniture ...” He left town, eventually heading Boise, Idaho, because the name sounded funny. After a wife-and-best-friend shitstorm, he left Boise immediately after arrival, moving into a mountain cabin near Garden Valley, Idaho, population 400. Six months passed, then “Evel Knievel’s brother or uncle or something,” who ran a telemarketing place in Eugene, Oregon, employed him for two days. But the comparatively stable pull of Vegas remained strong. “I said, ‘F--k it,’ came back to Vegas, went back to the phone room, started going to the Escape Lounge II for open-mic night, asking big, fat Ron Putnam [the show’s producer] if he’d put me up next week if I wrote some jokes. And every week I showed up and didn’t have any jokes, but I watched again and asked if I could go up next week if I had some jokes ... after about the fifth time I actually wrote some jokes, a bunch of jack-off material.”

“He was sporting a mullet and a black Family Billiards satin jacket,” recalls Putnam. “Great timing; the writing was just unbelievable. Talking to him afterward, I found out he had read books about writing comedy. But to be able to really read it and understand it was completely amazing.

“[He performed] relationship stuff, the differences about being from back east, and he still had quite the Boston accent. Some crowd work. Did his sex jokes, girls giving him diseases, ‘everything from syphilis to sea monkeys.’”

Stanhope performed six shows his first week as a stand-up comedian.

From there, the official bio goes like this: Doug has built a wide-ranging television resume of dubious achievement. He hosted The Man Show on Comedy Central as well as the ubiquitous pseudo-porn for the sexually crippled Girls Gone Wild, both solely and shamelessly for financial gain. He has appeared on The Howard Stern Show, Comedy Central Presents, Premium Blend, NBC’s Late Friday, Spy TV, BBC’s Floor Show Live while on ecstasy, and wrote, produced and starred in Fox’s Invasion of the Hidden Cameras, and has even popped up on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren and The Jerry Springer Show. But none of it compares to seeing him live.

*****

Like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they’ve got the trunkloads of party favors. Like Robin Hood and his Merry Man-boys, they’ve got their seclusion, their camaraderie and their outwardly radiating good will (on Stanhope’s MySpace page, he lists “Stealing from the rich and giving to the stupid” at the top of his general interests). And like Burning Man, they’ve got their desert, their community and their costumes. Come nightfall, girls and boys emerge in ball gowns and tutus, respectively. There are scary clowns, disco balls, life jackets, blackface characters, band uniforms, prosthetic appendages, Abe Lincolns, togas and dominatrices.

A “Stanhope in ’08” baseball jersey makes the rounds. Duct tape is a prominent accessory—even the molested blow-up doll sports lengths of tape about the eyes, mouth and wrists.

The melting-pot-of-booze bucket

The hot-spot rooms are well established: 1 has the patio, 4 has the goth girls, 10 the melting-pot-of-booze bucket, 14 the costumes. A liberal open-door policy remains in effect, though every key seems to work in every door nevertheless.

A junker of a green convertible, which Stanhope purchased “as a drunken goof” to park next to Rogan’s high-end ride on the Comedy Central lot when the two hosted the fifth and final season of The Man Show, cruises the small loop. The thing wasn’t even originally a convertible, but a little mechanical ingenuity worked wonders. It made it out in Year 2 of the party, and Meatsticks would have been the proud new title-holder, on account of his totaled Rabbit and all, but then it wouldn’t start again and was left behind. When they returned the next year, damned if the resort owners hadn’t gotten the car running again; at night it now rests on a slight incline facing the stage.

Though the annual come-together is a monetary boon to the owners, diligent efforts are made to counter all the noise-and-trash inconveniences through strict self-policing. “It’s a little bit more clean-up than normal, but for the most part it’s very smooth,” says general manager Ben Cassell. “They’re good to my staff and they’re fairly respectful. We choose to close down just to give them a little more privacy. Overall it’s a pretty beneficial arrangement.”

Once, when a Hollywood-scum specimen hung around with a headful of money-making schemes, the exceedingly charming Mr. Hinty was nominated to tell him to go the f--k away. This go-’round, Gay Cousin Eric gets a little drunk, a little belligerent and a little banished from the restaurant after vehemently demanding ice. He’s put to work the next morning in an orange construction vest, picking up cigarette butts around the grounds as penance.

There have been sandstorms and super-secret Aristocrats advance screenings and Deer Hunter-style Russian roulettes with piss-filled squirt guns. Before the weekend concludes there will be Raven Fishing: a bread-baited mousetrap cast upward by a fishing pole and held aloft by balloons. There have been bad trips—this year one poor bastard convinces himself everyone is plotting his demise; he has to be locked in his room. Another fellow rips portions of both his upper and lower lip off in a freak whippit-cartridge incident.

As for Stanhope, he loves his cigarettes (though they leave him chronically fatigued) and alcohol (although it’s shot his memory all to hell), but his drug use is very recreational, maybe a bump before the odd late show and some hallucinogens here and there. He describes mushrooms as the “exercise” of narcotics: “‘Oh, it takes so much time, I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ve got to get in shape, I don’t have the time for a mushroom trip right now.’ But I like to go out of my head like that. I never want to get good at doing mushrooms. I always want it to be like you’re 17 years old and giggling at ridiculousness.” Take the other night, when he found himself alone in the dark at the Shell station, dressed in a Muslim prayer robe, “laying on the ground laughing my balls off.”

There have been near-and-dear casualties out there in the Real World, comics Mitch Hedberg and Brett Clawson among them. But as of the gathering’s fifth year, Death Valley has yet to make good on its name.

*****

He’s produced three CDs (four if you count 1998’s The Great White Stanhope, which he doesn’t), two DVDs, a book (Fun with Pedophiles: The Best of Baiting), told the infamous “Aristocrats” joke to a borrowed infant in the 2005 documentary, posted his vasectomy video online, had to flee venues for fear of angry audience members, lost a boxing match to Tonya Harding, been protested by groups deeming The Man Show degrading to women and carved the words “Not Funny” into the underside of his forearm.

2002 saw him named one of the Top Ten Comics to Watch by both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and awarded the Strathmore Press Award at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival (voted on by members of the festival media across all genres, including music, theater and dance). Speaking of festivals, he’s done ’em. All of them. National, international, probably a few on other planets. Not that he, you know, cares. In July 2005 he wrote on his blog of Just For Laughs, “Now I am in Montreal at the big ole Comedy festival, pretending to want bigger things.” One year later he warranted ink at Ireland’s Kilkenny fest for a 10-minute set about child molestation that resulted in boos, walkouts and Stanhope deciding to leave the stage early. Though his remaining, shorter sets were subsequently pulled, he was given two hour-long shows of his own; an additional show was added by demand.

He’s not dirty for the sake of dirty. Stanhope is mature in the way of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks—for the sake of calling out irrationality, hypocrisy and conformity.

Drug laws are a vast topic, as are his own physical shortcomings and sexual misadventures. Pornography and pedophiles, a regular treasure trove. No bits about Republicans versus Democrats, but there’s religion and patriotism and school shootings, and, best/worst of all, there’s fetus-slayin’: “We didn’t have an abortion because we weren’t ready to take care of a child, we’re irresponsible or because we’re not financially capable. The reason we had it is I really wanted to see what it feels like to kill a baby.”

Says Putnam of Stanhope’s narratives, “He never panders to the audience, to comedy clubs or TV people; he does what he wants to do. Period. He doesn’t write jokes he thinks will go over with the masses; he writes jokes that amuse him. He’s never happy doing the same old shit all the time.”

Stanhope decamped to Phoenix from Vegas in the spring of ’91, then worked the road a spell, finally landing in LA for a decade. Come 2005, he held a garage sale, hightailed it to Bisbee and coined the catch-all moniker “The Unbookables” for the Wilkersons, Andrists, Walshes, Inmans, Ericksons and others whose material, lack of business sense and resistance to the Man appeal more to his own sensibilities than sitcom casting agents’. Stanhope has taken them across the country and to Europe.

“To generalize, they’re far more intelligent,” he says of British audiences. “Entertainment in this country’s been pounded into mediocrity in every form: music, television, it’s all such shit. We had that whole Kinison era, those Rodney Dangerfield specials, Kinison and Dice and Hicks and Dom Irrera. Yeah, there was shit in there, but there were great comics in the late ’80s, and where are those guys now? There’s a Dave Attell that’s great, but he’s not getting what he should get. HBO’s still putting out Robert Klein specials! Is there progress at all, anywhere? Any level?”

Stanhope filmed an hourlong Showtime special, No Refunds, March 13 at New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club. It’ll air in the next few months, but frankly, as he puts it, “There’s no significance; it’s just television, something I did. Tell me the last three things you watched on Showtime. After I watched it, I’m like, ‘Ugh, I look like shit, I hate myself.’”

He likes to write, but it’s hard to find topics he hasn’t already mined: “Once you’ve done the meaty subjects—abortion and war and terrorism and 9/11, child molestation and rape victims, ‘Don’t you hate when the dry cleaner f--ks up a spot on your coat?’ is never going to be good. It’s kind of like ecstasy f--king. It makes that same old missionary-with-your-wife kind of stuff irrelevant.”

*****

“Who’s the next King of the Party now?” Inman demands this morning after downing a plastic cup of Andrist’s urine. “There’s been a turn in the campaign!” He retches, then rationalizes: “In the military they tell you, if you’re in the desert and you don’t have any water, you can drink your urine!”

“Yeah, but drinking the other guy’s urine is gay!” comes the reply.

Now, the final night falls; Stanhope, in baby-blue blazer and plaid pants, confirms Inman’s pee-swilling was not in vain, and Wool relinquishes his satiny pink crown to 2007’s King of the Party. But King Inman’s reign will not be a lengthy one. As morning approaches, a mutiny breaks out near the green convertible, gathers steam over in the campground and grows to a shouting mob as it corners the porch. Provenza pounds on doors, warning, “The British are coming!” Back on the stage, impassioned speeches are made for and against the Monarch in Question. Press conferences are held. The transport of urine over state lines is declared a felony. Plots are hatched to tie the issue up in court straight through next year. Though Wool is remade King, Inman quickly reclaims the throne following another display of excretory imbibery.

But then the question arises: Who amongst them has ingested the most excrement? Who—at the close of this four-day stretch, in one of the least-habitable regions in America, in which there exists a temporary republic of pure freedom—most deserves this honor?

As the rising sun sets the mountaintops aglow, Ichabod the dog is crowned 2007’s King of the Party.

*****

Back in 2004, even as he was publicly supporting Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik, Stanhope weighed running himself in ’08 versus defecting to Costa Rica. Last July he made it official:

As earlier stated, I will be running for the Presidency of the United States of America in 2008. An unexpected outpouring of support from factions of the Libertarian Party has solidified my decision to run for the nomination as the Libertarian candidate.

 I am as serious about this campaign as I am the material I present on stage.

Don’t let the comedy divert from the message.

I’d rather die laughing in the fight than suffer the lesser of two forms of forced sodomy.

We used to have fun, didn’t we?

Stanhope in ’08

Drunk with Power.

Not just serious, but dead serious. He waded through the paperwork, campaigned at shows and on the Internet, made T-shirts, spoke to high-school government classes and inspired a complete stranger to tattoo “Stanhope in ’08” upon her left scapula. Bingo, Hennigan, Putnam, Penn Jillette and Death Valley party mastermind Greg Chaille all convened at Tommy Rocker’s (the same venue where he exchanged faux-wedding vows with an ex in 2002 as “a drunken goof”) on March 25 for a Vegas summit.

Then it all got to be a little much.

As he posted online May 3:

Stanhope in ’08 has Quit in ’07!

We’re done, at least so far as being a candidate.

For all of our false optimism, forced enthusiasm and the tireless effort of a small team of close friends, we couldn’t get past the wall of bureaucracy.

The Federal Elections Commission strictly prohibited campaigning at paid gigs—i.e., the way he makes his living. He would read the required literature, and it just wouldn’t stick. Most of the process was dull and tedious, and just as he quit school after ninth grade due to general disinterest, he viewed a lot of the hoop-jumping as highly unnecessary. As far as political groups went, the Libertarian party came closest to getting him to believe in one, and running the campaign as a straight goof, which was rapidly losing its fun factor anyway, risked making the entire organization look bad.

Stanhope just doesn’t see himself as the best man for the job. He’s not a paperwork guy, not a detail-oriented guy, and though he more than holds his own when a two-drink minimum debater questions, say, a sodomy gag, he professes he doesn’t know his shit when it comes to politics. But he’s still got hope.

“I could have had a lot of fun yelling about the shit I’m passionate about, but it was way too much risk and not enough payoff,” he figures. “There’s still other ways we can get involved. Now it’s a matter of regrouping and making sure it’s fun for us. Because at the end of the day, if I’m not enjoying my life, it’s pointless. I’m not one of those people that hopes for a better world for our children. I’m in this for me, baby.”

*****

Death Valley survivors limp toward Vegas the following afternoon for Stanhope’s gig at Tommy Rocker’s. He’s $1,700 richer courtesy of a royal flush on one of the bar’s video-poker machines, but the lack of sleep and a raging hangover means a full headlining set is out of the question. Thus, a dozen or so Unbookables and UK contingents do time, Andrist doesn’t regain consciousness until the middle of the show, Shawcroft remains mysteriously at large and Stanhope ribs all parties between sets as host.

At one point, he goes off on a free-form rant about people buying into government-perpetuated fear: “The reason people buy into fear so easily is it’s easier to think that everyone’s trying to do everything bad to you, and all this shit on the cable news is really going to affect you, it’s easier to believe that than accept the reality that probably nothing of any circumstance or significance will ever happen to you in your entire life. You’ll never be held hostage, and you’re never going to hit the Mega-Bucks machine. Nothing’s going to happen. You’ll maybe fall in love, he’ll break your heart, you’ll settle for less and marry another guy because he’s stable, and then you’ll have a biopsy, you’ll get a clot in your leg, they’ll remove it just in time and you’ll milk that story for three decades, at every Thanksgiving: ‘I had my brush with death! You want to see the scar?’ That’s it!” The Tommy Rocker’s crowd, mesmerized, goes wild.

Rocker, a five-time Death Valley veteran himself, says, “He’s just a brilliant comic. He has synapses like no other brain has. They connect in ways that remind me of Lenny Bruce. He just keeps going, and he finds his own channel.”

Everyone’s planes take off at oddly early hours come morning, and the herd quickly thins. Party time is over.

Stanhope is back at Rocker’s 24 hours later, still wearing yesterday’s red-checkered shirt and grandpa-plaid pants. “I just wandered off to a roulette wheel for 10 hours,” he shrugs, throwing back a Jager Bomb.

“I’m f--king 40 years old; everybody starts fearing death on some level,” he muses. “But boredom is my biggest fear, a lack of desire. If there’s anything in my life I’m proud of, it’s that I have the most entertaining, interesting friends in the world. It makes it very hard to deal with regular people. Just trying to talk to any Joe Schmoe at the bar; it’s not like you think you’re better than them, it’s just you’re used to a better caliber of entertainment in your conversation.”

A few days later, he receives word that longtime fan Clark Adams killed himself the night after the Tommy Rocker’s performance. Not that it pushes him over the edge; more apparently, it provided a high note upon which to take his leave. In Adams’ MySpace “Heroes” box, he’d included Doug Stanhope under the heading, “People I Admire that I’ve Had the Honor of Meeting.”

There’s a bit on 2002’s Die Laughing: “Life is like animal porn. It’s not for everybody. ... Life is like a movie, if you’ve sat through more than half of it and it’s sucked every second so far, chances are it’s not gonna get great right at the very end and make it all worthwhile. No one should blame you for walking out early.”

And there’s a new entry in Adams’ Comments box from one Doug Stanhope:

I don’t believe in Heaven but I have a strong faith that there is MySpace in the afterlife and we will all be checking our comments.

May your eternity be free of Macy’s gift-card spam.

Run amok, dear sir.

life is like animal porn ...

Even if he’s not the best man for the job of deregulating their lives, Stanhope clearly empathizes with those regular people he speaks for, if not always with. He may be solely in it for him, baby, but whether he’s flitting from Vegas to Bisbee or Edinburgh to the Oval Office, he’s pushing the physical and mental and comedic boundaries for all those Joe Schmoes out there who can’t. No drunken goof about it.

Thumbnail photographs by Julie Seabauhh

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