The fundamental difference between comedy and music is that everyone has made someone laugh. Whether you think you're funny or not, you've told a joke, you've taken a shot to the nuts, or you've made someone so uncomfortable they reacted with laughter just to break the tension. You may have picked up a guitar at a party or beat the hell out of a steering wheel when you just had to drum along, but that moment didn't make you a musician -- and, in the same way, being funny doesn't make you a comedian.
But more often than not, comedy gets grouped in with music, simply because there's nowhere else to put it. When I raise this point in an interview with comedian Doug Stanhope, he agrees. "It's funny you say that, because comedy is what gets all the people who really have no discernible talent but want to make the parlay 50 -- the fame and that -- a reality." As a comic who's been labeled "un-bookable" as often as "brilliant," there's none better to manifest such a notion.
Stanhope is nearing 50. He's been a comedian for more than 25 years, and he's the first to point out that his career is waning. "Anyone my age is on their way down, statistically," he says. He then rattles off a few names that may still be relevant, and challenged me to name just one more. On the spot, I blurt out "Bill Cosby," immediately realizing the error in my thinking as the sound of laughter comes through the speaker. "Bill Cosby is not relevant!" Stanhope laughs. "All of a sudden he goes out and tours now, and people show up because it's cute that an old man can make words. He hasn't been relevant since fucking maybe the early '80s." Stanhope is right: If a comedian isn't simply overlooked by that age, they're either not funny or ignored. But that's not all bad.
"The only good thing about aging is you honestly don't give a fuck," Stanhope explains. "You used to pretend not to give a fuck, but did. Now you don't. People still show up at my shows. It's like Pearl Jam: You don't know a song they have done in the last twenty years, but they get a dedicated audience. They show up."
Stanhope's comedy defies categorization. One could label him as political, satirical, insult, blue or even black. "I do not know if that is someone kidding, or if someone means 'black comedy' as in 'very dark comedy.' Or if someone is being funny and saying that I am a Def Jam act," he jokes.
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On Wednesday, April 23, 2720 Cherokee will exchange its normally music-centered programming for a night with one of the most undervalued forerunners of standup comedy. But that's not because there's nowhere else to put him. Doug Stanhope has sold out every show in St. Louis for the last five years. He's more than up to the challenge of a new venue.
But there will be no greatest hits at the Stanhope show. There will be no guarantees and absolutely no holding back. Lines are drawn in comedy because some venues rely on repeat customers, or because you can only bleep and blur so much explicit content before a set on a late-night basic-cable program sounds more like a severe-weather alert. It didn't take Stanhope long to disregard such limitations.
"In the very early days I thought there were boundaries you couldn't cross, just because I didn't really know anything about standup comedy," he says. "I was not thinking about developing deals or television projects. I just said, 'Hey, I made it. I got laid.' Then I started growing out of that, and started getting angry at all the bullshit [I had] been ignoring."
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