BISBEE — Comedian Doug Stanhope hands his neighbor Evelyn Schock a cocktail and a lit cigarette before she can take a seat on the couch between him and Bisbee City Councilman Gene Connors.
She takes a long drag, then a sip.
Now they can curse.
Everyone on the comedian’s back porch that Tuesday night in mid-July — the mayor, a neighborhood handyman, a noted author, a nationally feted painter and the neighbor who Stanhope calls his stalker — knows the rule: no one curses in front of Schock unless she’s smoking and drinking.
Around the country among his legions of what he calls “sketchy fans,” he is the comedian with the acerbic tongue lashing out at humanity’s pitfalls and political high jinks.
Here in Bisbee he is neighbor Doug.
Stanhope has brought a new kind of fame to the quirky town that was once the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. Since moving to Bisbee in 2005, Stanhope, 47, has been photographed for national magazines in front of vintage travel trailers at the Shady Dell trailer court and in the backyard of one of his three homes in the Warren District. He films his “Voice of America” segments for BBC personality Charlie Brooker’s sardonic show “Newswipe” in his living room. On stage, in guest appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and in interviews, he talks about living in Bisbee with his longtime girlfriend, Amy “Bingo” Bingaman.
So for about 24 hours in mid-July, we tagged along with Stanhope to discover what he sees in this town of 5,500 that he lovingly calls home.
Stanhope’s neighborhood is a five-minute walk to the historic Warren Ballpark, but just after noon we climb into his white Suburban, which looks just like a Bisbee police vehicle, and drive. There’s an Express Stop convenience store across the street and Stanhope needs smokes. Derrick Barger, a lanky, carefree man who walks with a slight limp from a car accident, is going in as Stanhope is coming out. He introduces Derrick by his first name; he’s bad with last names even with people who, like Barger, are constant fixtures at his homes.
A maintenance worker has the gate open. We walk over and he lets us in.
“I hate baseball. It’s really boring,” Stanhope confides, as he and Barger stroll on the pitcher’s mound and point out their regular seats at the far end of the empty, aged bleachers. They sit away from families and kids; things can get loud and obnoxious among his collection of drinking buddies.
But Stanhope — the cynical stand-up comic who peppers every conversation with f-bombs — says he loves Bisbee baseball, the small-town, no-stakes version played by the Bisbee Blue and others in the independent Pecos League.
“Here, it’s different. You’re heckling. You know all the guys. You’re drinking. And it’s 6 bucks,” he says.
He had a couple of the Blue players staying in his rental house, which abuts the Van Dyke Street house. They left earlier that morning. When we get back to the house, he sees a mop and bucket outside the back door. That’s a good sign, he tells his tour manager Greg Chaille, who is staying with Stanhope until they hit the road this weekend for a string of dates around the country. The kids didn’t leave him a mess to clean up.
It is the same house where Derrick Ross of the indie Americana rock duo Nowhere Man and A Whiskey Girl killed himself in October hours after his wife, Amy, died at a Tucson hospital. A blood infection brought on by ongoing dialysis had weakened her heart.
Stanhope leads us to the back bedroom.
“This is the suicide room,” he says matter of factly, showing off a tidy, small room adorned with a large painting of Bingo by noted artist Gretchen Baer. Baer, best known for her art cars and the Hillary Clinton car she created to promote Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, has lived in Bisbee since 1989. She is a fixture at Stanhope’s homes both on the walls and in person. Bingo is her muse and a regular subject of her vibrant, flamboyant paintings.
“I’m pretty good with death,” Stanhope says nonchalantly.
Last year, Stanhope started talking openly in his shows and in interviews about his mother’s 2008 suicide at his Bisbee home. She had followed him to Arizona from California when her emphysema became unbearable.
“We had a pretty good, dark sense of humor together,” Stanhope says. “We had a little party, watched ‘Bad Santa’ together, her favorite movie. It took her awhile to gulp down that many (morphine) pills with White Russians. We goofed on her, roasted her.”
The next morning, “We woke up to the paramedics coming in. She was in the living room on a hospital bed. We were on that L-shaped couch and they came in and they saw Bingo all wrapped up in an old blanket with the two feet (showing) and they immediately went to her, ignoring the giant hospital bed with the corpse in it, and started to pick her up,” he says laughing at the flashback. “Bingo goes, ‘No, no. Her. Her.’”
Stanhope gives us a tour of the Van Dyke Street property. There are three buildings painted bright desert colors on the sprawling lot: the main house with the party porch, a small guest house and the Fun House, where Stanhope hosts football parties on Sundays and records his podcasts. It’s an open invitation and dozens of people come, including “Raging Bull” boxing legend and part-time Bisbee resident Jake LaMotta. Bisbee is far from a football town.
“It’s an arty town. It’s a gay, arts town, so I’m the only sports bar,” Stanhope says, showing off the room’s three large flat screen TVs and a half-dozen recliners. Two shelves on the wall sport helmets from every NFL team including his newfound favorite, the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’m a Cardinals fan now because nobody is,” he says. “Everybody who lives here came from Chicago, or Wisconsin and they still root for their own teams. I say f*** you. Pay some homage, you live here now.”
Just before 5, we head out with tour manager Chaille behind the wheel of Stanhope’s Suburban. Every time we pull up behind another car Stanhope imagines the driver being nervous that a cop is behind them. We pass through the borough of Bakerville, a rough area just on the edge of Warren that Stanhope calls “Tweakerville.”
“We’ve gotten pretty lucky in our neighborhood. We had some tweakers move in across the street. Really sketchy,” he says. “I called a friend of mine who knew a cop and he went over and talked to them. They were out by the end of the month. I don’t know what he said but it worked.”
Stanhope admits he’s done his share of drugs. After a night of dropping acid, he and Bingo met his neighbor, Schock, when they offered her $50 to get them a pizza. But he says he rarely does drugs these days.
“If I only drank as often as I do drugs you would say he doesn’t really drink,” Stanhope says. “I can do blow medicinally. It’s a great pre-show drug if you’re hanging from a long drag from the night before. I can do a bump and have a great set and be fine doing that. Hallucinogens are just so hard to do any more. You have to be in some kind of shape mentally and physically. It’s an eight-hour commitment, f***ing with your brain. The older you get the more baggage you have to sort through. It’s not just giggling any more.”
Chaille pulls the Suburban in front of Safeway. This is the one place in Bisbee where everyone is equal, Stanhope says, pushing a cart through the wood-floor liquor aisle. The doctor, the bartender, the waitress and garbage collector shed their labels when they walk through the front door and grab a cart.
“Safeway is where you meet everyone. It’s the only thing that binds people together,” he says as he grabs a couple bottles of liquor and some beer then wheels the cart to the juice aisle.
Bingaman needs Spicy V8. Some of it will go into her vodka cocktails; the rest will be dinner. Her latest food kick is microwaving V8 and eating it as a soup, Stanhope says.
Before he checks out, Stanhope buys Bingaman nicotine gum. She decided a few months ago to quit smoking, so she chews the gum incessantly. Every once in awhile, she admits, she sneaks a puff off Stanhope’s smokes.
It’s almost 6 when we pull into a hole in the wall diner attached to a bar. The parking lot is empty. It’s only been open two weeks, our waitress tells us as we sit at a table. We are the only people in the restaurant; the bar next door is just as empty.
The diner is open from 7 in the morning until 8 at night, but the menu has only breakfast and lunch. Stanhope orders breakfast — eggs and bacon —while Chaille opts for a grilled cheese. The waitress seems anxious as she asks if we need anything else.
“Here, I just need a hug,” Stanhope says, then rises and gives the woman a big squeeze.
“Those ones are always on the menu and they’re free,” she says.
Stanhope sits down and starts plotting a prank. What if we told her we were from “Kitchen Impossible” and we were the advance crew, he whispers, unable to finish the thought when everyone at the table starts laughing.
Stanhope’s neighbor Debora Leon is outside with her boyfriend when we pull up to the house.
“That’s my stalker,” Stanhope says as we climb out of the Suburban.
“Hey, I’m having a little cocktail gathering on the porch. Come on over,” he says.
By 8, nearly everyone but Schock, who is working late, has arrived. Leon strolls in and gets a hug from Stanhope, who reintroduces her as his stalker.
“I am not a stalker,” she insists. “I didn’t move to Bisbee; I left my situation in LA. ... I just happened to meet a guy and move across the street.”
Stanhope comes up behind her and proclaims her “the worst stalker in the world” because she doesn’t hang around his house or follow him around town.
“I’m the (most) polite stalker in the world,” she counters.
Once Schock arrives and has had her cocktail and cigarette and everyone is free to curse, the conversation turns to Bisbee’s small-town politics. They drink and smoke and gossip about which of the two leading candidates has the best chance of winning the mayor’s race; Mayor Adriana Badal, sitting next to Stanhope and nursing a glass of wine, says she is at the tail-end of her one and only term. She has no plans to run again.
The conversation turns to the critics of Badal’s signature achievements: a ban on plastic grocery bags and a town law allowing same-sex civil unions. Stanhope drops a few choice f-bombs that he would love to hurl at the naysayers.
Then he turns to Schock:
“You should run for mayor,” he proposes, and Baer the artist and Alex O’Meara, who’s written a couple of books and was once a journalist, chime in with “You should, you should.”
Schock laughs then drags off the bummed cigarette. She sips her vodka and orange juice.
“We’ll see,” she says, in a statement that sounds more like a topic-changer than serious consideration.
Stanhope settles into the couch as a monsoon storm rains down and chills the night air. O’Meara launches into a discussion of faith and Catholicism. Stanhope and Baer challenge him while Badal, who grew up in Bisbee, argues both sides of the issue. In the corner, Barger takes drags off a single-hit metal cigarette that he dips into a bag of tobacco every few moments. When he gets tired of dipping and dragging, he steals a smoke from one of Stanhope’s Marlboro Lights packs on the table.
The debate continues and the rain blows harder and Stanhope smiles.
“This is my Bisbee,” he says.
Just before 10 the next morning, Stanhope is still curled beneath a blanket on the couch. His head has the mild morning-after-drunk throb. He drinks a glass of water then slips on yesterday’s shorts and takes us to the original Bisbee Breakfast Club on Erie Street in Lowell, a gritty one-street enclave with small shops in the shadow of the Lavender open pit mine.
He appreciates the slow pace, knowing it’s about to end for a while.
Stanhope has a trio of gigs in New York this weekend before his fall tour begins. He’ll be all over the country doing comedy clubs and theaters before heading off to Australia in November.
He admits he feels rusty.
“If I’ve taken six weeks off, I feel like I’m going back to open mic. So I’ll do five nights just to get back the rhythm. Then I tell them, ‘Sorry, you’re a f***ing focus group now,’”he says.
One of those focus groups was in Tucson Wednesday, when he played a last-minute show at Club Congress.
Stanhope confesses that if he had to live and work in Bisbee full time, he would likely go crazy. But the town has become the perfect escape from the disorderly life of a standup comedian.
“It’s comfortable. It’s really easy,” he says poking at a plate of bacon and eggs. “People know that I’m a comedian but they have no earthly idea what I do. … I’m only famous within 100 feet of my show on the night I do the show.”