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Stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope laughs in the face of self-destruction

Stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope laughs in the face of self-destruction
Comedian Doug Stanhope, front, and his girlfriend, Amy “Bingo” Bingaman, walk through the Plaza hotel in Las Vegas. (Isaac Brekken / Los Angeles Times)

Your eyes take time to adjust when you step into Frankie's Tiki Room at 3 p.m. Windowless, with scant lighting, the place resembles an urban cave with a scattering of wood-carved odes to pagan gods. You can just barely discern the pair of disheveled drinkers making out at the bar, elbows flailing like two enraptured trolls.

The joint is precisely the kind of dive-bar comedian Doug Stanhope prefers — no, demands — for his midday booze binges and chain-smoking sessions.

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Surrounded by a few cronies, he stands in the gloom, nursing two packs of Marlboros and a tumbler of vodka adorned with a splash of juice. He switches to a Three Rum Scum, a kitschy concoction advertised as "a brisk inbreeding of three different rums," before moving on to a series of Miller Lites, downed from the bottle.

For this Deadbeat Hero (the title of one of his CDs), it's his sole nod to anything resembling a healthy lifestyle while he's on the road, making his comedy, telling crazy stories onstage and on his mostly weekly podcast of his totally wack life. About a Japanese sex performer called the Banana Lady and how he was once robbed by a transvestite hooker. He calls it "comedy that leaves a stain."

For years, the ninth-grade dropout from Worcester, Mass., has been the funniest, most outrageous, most self-destructive stand-up comic you've barely heard of; performing before loyal fans who scour cyberspace for his next gig, as though searching for that private party that promises unlimited booze, drugs and a near-lethal dose of Stanhope; straight up, no chaser.

When a longtime friend at his table tells Stanhope he's now doing less running and more drinking, the comic, cigarette dangling from his lips, launches into an anthem of depravity: "Welcome back," he croons in a hoarse growl. "Your dreams were your ticket out."

At 47, he looks like a banged-up former frat boy, party wrinkles lining his baby face, dressed in his thrift-store stage get-up. His epic tours, captured live on disc with names like "Take the Edge Off," "Burning the Bridge to Nowhere" and "Before Turning the Gun on Himself," have won him a reputation as a comedian's comedian.

Stanhope prefers intimate settings where he can wander a small stage, cocktail in hand, seething with articulate anger, spewing forth his no-apologies, stream-of-consciousness diatribes on eating disorders, death, Jagermeister, the mental cruelty of bad relationships, suicide manifestoes and a closeted homoerotic lust for National Football League players in their tight stretch pants.

Then there are Stanhope's dark places — the death and suicide that dominate his material. Fans contemplating suicide have reached out to him, and some have followed through. Many more have praised his candor. "I'm a comic: I'm not out to save people's lives. But I find darkness inherently interesting," he says. "I deal with a lot of things in a 24-hour period."

Big-name fans

His pointed observations have drawn celebrity fans Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, who texted Stanhope that he influenced her to deal with suicide in her act. In 2011, on CK's show "Louie," Stanhope portrayed a down-and-out comedian who decides to kill himself. In a subsequent interview, CK talked of his respect for Stanhope's work — and his fear for the comedian's future.

"He doesn't take real good care of himself," he told NPR's Terry Gross in a much-discussed "Fresh Air" interview. "He medicates himself in different ways and I've always been scared for him. I've always been afraid that he's going to let himself go and die."

In a 2005 cyber exchange with CK, Stanhope riffed on his unhealthy ways.

"Oftentimes on the road I will take very long walks when I wake up and don't know where I am and need to get back to my hotel," he wrote. "Terror can at times be a great replacement for the sauna to help you sweat out toxins … Dry heaves help keep the abs tight."

Stanhope got his comedy start here, working as a telephone salesman, a skinny little dude with a mullet haircut, selling worthless products by the sheer audacity of his pitch.

Since then, he has stayed close with old cohorts, including comedian Matt Becker and Bridey Watterson, whom Stanhope once talked into quitting her waitress job to briefly join them on the road.

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"He was a scoundrel with a heart of gold, harsh but lovable," she recalls. "He didn't take anything seriously."

Stanhope left the boiler room gig in 1990 for a stand-up career of not taking anything seriously. So this one-night Las Vegas performance is a bit of a homecoming.

But he isn't doing the Strip; not a chance.

Instead, he books the Plaza, a down-on-its-luck downtown casino, for his sold-out show. Stanhope and Becker used to play poker here back in the day, and he said he once watched a cockroach crawl across the gambling felt. He likes the fact that the place hasn't changed, even if the toilet in his top-floor suite keeps backing up.

He likes the fact that it's near the Greyhound bus station, as he writes on his website, "providing 24-hour entertainment of stumble-bums and rashy shoeless outcasts of all sorts meandering through trying to turn their last quarter into a Willy Wonka golden ticket."

"With my audience," he adds, "they'll have a hard time telling the difference."

Along with his reputation for a road-rash style of partying, Stanhope is known as a rare funnyman who doesn't take himself — or his fans — too seriously. In fact, he refers to them as middle-row seat dwellers on a Southwest flight. School shooters without bullets.

"I don't know exactly why I appeal to so many wrecked, scared, miserable, ugly, angry or otherwise ill-suited for life as we know it. But I'm not unhappy that you're here," he once wrote on his website. "Every time there's somebody like the Aurora theater shooters, I check my mailing list and Facebook to see if they were a fan."

At the Plaza show, Stanhope pauses repeatedly to admit he's off his game. The place is too big; the crowd not raucous enough. He's already lost a thousand bucks at the tables. He just isn't feeling it.

The fans cheer anyway.

"It's his brutal honesty," says car mechanic Michael Buckmaster. "He just keeps hating on the audience." Adds waiter Tony Depauw: "He's so cerebral, but he talks from humankind's lowest vantage point." Depauw watches Stanhope's act, saying out loud, "Oh my God. No way, no way."

Small-town life

These days, Stanhope and longtime girlfriend Amy "Bingo" Bingaman hide out in tiny Bisbee, a town of 5,500 in Arizona's Mule Mountains, far from the traffic and hipsterism of L.A. and New York. The couple lives in a small bungalow, dubbed the Funhouse on his podcast, where neighbors often hang out — including Jake LaMotta, boxing's "Raging Bull."

Stanhope met Bingaman during a gig in Portland in 2000. She was an around-the-clock caretaker for a man with severe cerebral palsy whom she brought to the show.

Stanhope thought he was a heckler. Then he spotted Bingaman, and the rest was comic history. She now takes notes during Stanhope's performances in case he says something new and funny while drunk and can't remember it the next day.

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Still, he's slowed down over the years. "The bar is always 22, but you get older," he says. "I'm not Hunter S. Thompson. I'm not doing rails off the bar." Even so, he avoids doctors, afraid of the damage they might uncover.

Off the road, Stanhope admits to something surprising — a healthy lifestyle. Bingaman has him juicing and eating sensibly. And there is a possibility that this comic could one day hang up his party habit.

Johnny Depp has contacted Stanhope about a comedy project the actor refers to as "television that gets us arrested." Stanhope is jazzed at a chance to leave behind the bodily wreckage from a life in cheap motels and corner bars. Meanwhile, as he works out a few show scenarios — most of them filmed at dive bars — he's preparing for an upcoming tour in Australia, not exactly a nation of teetotalers.

At the Tiki Room, Stanhope realizes his old boiler room office sits right across the street from the bar. He rushes outside to gaze into his past: "Oh, man, this is giving me goose bumps."

Soon, a very buzzed Bingaman — her hair a bright turquoise — decides to head to the hotel, dressed in a white choir robe that makes her look like some high priestess of alcohol.

Stanhope grills her, making sure she knows the room number, then lets her go, knowing hotel security will save the day.

"With that outfit and that hair, they'll figure it out."

Follow me on Twitter: @jglionna

Stanhope's podcast and tour dates can be accessed through his website http://www.dougstanhope.com.

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