“I have no fear of death. Except I hate waiting for it.” While comedian Doug Stanhope is far from a one-liner comedian, this little gem from one of his stand-up comedy specials is about as succinct and indicative of his personality as any you’ll find. Bold and brazen, morbid and morose, simultaneously self-loathing and arrogant (because they’re essentially the same thing), aggressive but ultimately kind-hearted and thoughtful, Stanhope is one of the most distinct and brilliant comedians of the past three decades.
If, as Elia Kazan once mused, acting is 75% casting, then filmmaker Greg Glienna had a true stroke of genius in casting Stanhope as his lead in the new film, The Road Dog. Stanhope bleeds through the screen in a funny, truthful, and melancholic performance as Jimmy, an old-school stand-up comic who meets his son, David (Des Mulrooney), for the first time. The young man wants to be a comedian as well, albeit one of a very different generation, and his eagerness and optimism is a stark contrast to Jimmy’s antisocial way of life. But David has a car and his mom’s credit card, so Jimmy takes him along on his tour through the snowy Midwest.
Glienna and Stanhope are an immensely clever pairing. The former spent time as a stand-up as well, but is possibly known best for co-writing and directing the original Meet the Parents in 1992. That film is supposedly worlds away from the bright and poppy Ben Stiller remake, and The Road Dog has a similarly lo-fi, gritty, loose vibe as Glienna’s earlier film. These are some of the best adjectives to describe Stanhope’s art and disposition as well, and the two men come together here to make an uncompromising, raw, indie character study.
Glienna and Stanhope spoke with MovieWeb about The Road Dog, alcoholism, stand-up comedy, self-sabotage, and much more. You can watch our full video interview above, and check out The Road Dog when it’s released Oct. 6 on demand and digital platforms.
Doug Stanhope: “Award-Winning Movie Star”
MovieWeb: Greg, how did the film come about, and how did Doug get involved?
Greg Glienna: Okay, I wrote this with a guy named Tony Boswell. And we’re both veterans of the stand-up comedy scene, and we witnessed firsthand the kind of slump, or whatever you call it.
Doug Stanhope: The dog days.
Greg Glienna: Dog days. Thank you, exactly. So we decided to write a script about it, and we wrote it in I think 2018, and just shopped it around for a while. But Jimmy is based on a lot of comedians that we knew and worked with, and we used a lot of urban legend kind of things. And so basically most of what’s in the script is true, it really happened.
Greg Glienna: So anyway, we got a go ahead to do the movie, and we were looking for the perfect actor to play Jimmy, and I think we found him. We saw Doug’s brilliant performance on Louie, that he should have won an Emmy for, and so we cast him, and we made the movie on a budget in Chicago in February.
And I gotta say, he’s like a director’s dream. Everything he did was good. You know, everything he did was real.
Doug Stanhope: Thank you! It took a lot to get me to go to Chicago in February for any reason in the world. But when I read the script, I went, “Alright, this isn’t acting, this is just being me for a month.”
Greg Glienna: Oh, it’s acting.
Doug Stanhope: I was very happy I did it. I thought, “Well, if I do this, I can say technically, I was a movie star. Even if it goes nowhere, I starred in a movie, so that makes me a movie star on my resume.” And then I won an award. So now I’m an ‘award-winning movie star,’ and no one can take that away. I just put that on my business card along with any other spurious [thing].
Greg Glienna: You know the only people who would try to take that away from you would be yourself, you realize that.
Doug Stanhope: I know, but when anyone — especially when people win awards, and then they go, “Oh, this goes out to all the people who said I’d never make it and I’d never amount to nothing.” Nobody actually said that to you. That was just a voice in your own head saying it over and over again. Yeah, that goes out to your own ego.
Greg Glienna: I’m still hoping for the Independent Spirit Awards for Doug.
“It’s Not a Hallmark Movie”
MovieWeb: The Road Dog is an uncompromising, authentic look at life on the road, stand-up, and this specific alcoholic, Jimmy. As a stand-up, did it feel that way to you?
Doug Stanhope: As I was reading it, I was just terrified that it was gonna go the same way as that country music movie where the guy’s a big booze-bag — Greg, help me out.
Greg Glienna: With Jeff Bridges? Something “heart.” [Crazy Heart]
Doug Stanhope: Yeah, and it starts out great, like every triple gig you ever did, and the guy’s just a lonesome boozer going in the toilet. But then he meets the girl and sobers up, and it has the proper ending where he gets to go back and open for his old opener who’s a big star now. And I go [to The Road Dog script], “Please don’t end all soft and heartwarming like that.” And this doesn’t. I won’t tell you how it ends, no spoilers, but it ain’t that.
Greg Glienna: It’s not a Hallmark movie.
Doug Stanhope: Anytime I had a question about anything where I was unsure, which is pretty much all the time because I’m not an actor by trade, what he said off the top — the answer I got for everything — he goes, “You’re great. Everything you do is great. I don’t have to give you any notes. You’re great.”
Greg Glienna: Was I wrong? [He was not.] That’s good acting to me, you know?
Alcohol, or Where Doug Ends and Jimmy Begins
Greg Glienna: We tried to be real to the alcoholic experience. I mean, there’s a thing that’s called the pink cloud syndrome. And that’s where you stop drinking, and then for about a week everything is rosy, and then with the first kind of setback it all falls apart. And we used that.
Doug Stanhope: I have stopped drinking for a week, more than once, and that’s true about that first week.
And then you go back to drinking, and that’s why it’s good to stop every now and then and enjoy the other side of the week.
Doug Stanhope: The only thing that wasn’t true to my person versus the character is, they made me change my clothes here and again, which I go, “Jimmy wouldn’t change his clothes, I don’t change my clothes for two weeks at a time on the road.”
Greg Glienna: Right. Wardrobe was completely unnecessary. You pretty much wear the same thing the whole movie.
MovieWeb: How much of this character was familiar to you, Doug? Have you ever sort of taken a younger comic under your wing on the road?
Doug Stanhope: I haven’t done it as much as I know a lot of comics did it to me in the early days. Whereas [in The Road Dog], I’m basically using my own son for a ride. And there have been times where you go, “Okay, I have to use the local opener, because he did all this promotion, or I do need a ride to the next city, so I am going to allow this.” But I know guys who just made their living off of, “Who’s the local chump that will drive me?”
Doug Stanhope: But I know, as I bullied a lot of guys when I first became a headliner, in the fun way of bullying. I don’t know if you remember Captain Rowdy. He like gave me my start, because he was a triple-X rated hardcore comedian, so I was allowed all the freedom and free rein to do whatever kind of material I wanted in front of that audience. But at the same time, he beat me up pretty good, literally, physically, but in a funny way, because I’m a natural little brother. That’s how I grew up, as a little brother that would be a smartass, and then take a beating for it. So I passed that down I’m sure, when I get to be a headliner. I only remember one kid that got actually offended by it. But it wasn’t it wasn’t anything ‘Me Too.’ It was just general dick-ism.
MovieWeb: And you’ve had that kind of ‘on the road’ experience, too, Greg?
Greg Glienna: Only about 1000 times, I would say. I spent my early 20s doing that, traveling all over the Midwest and driving with other comics. So yeah, I relate to David [Jimmy’s son] more than anything.
Doug Stanhope: Greg, Tony is many, many decades sober now, but he was a boozer, too. Were you ever an alcoholic type of folk?
Greg Glienna: No, no, never.
Doug Stanhope: So you lived the same experience, you just remember it more than Tony.
MovieWeb: Are there any more connections between you and your character, Jimmy?
Doug Stanhope: I fantasized a lot about finding out that I had a kid that was a legal age. I actually did the ancestry thing, hoping that I had a kid, and I did the math. I mapped out, “Okay, this is when I had my vasectomy. So if I did have a kid out there, he’d be of legal age where I didn’t have to have any financial responsibility.” But it’d be really funny and probably great material. And I thought, when I started doing this movie, after I read the script, if I did have a kid who immediately told me that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, I think I would shrivel a bit. I’d go, “Alright, this isn’t as funny anymore.”
My mother tried to do stand-up briefly, and it was the most horrifying thing to watch. I’d rather walk in on her in a gangbang.
MovieWeb: On that topic really quick, you share an incredible story about your mother in the comedy special Beer Hall Putsch, where you talk about drinking together during her assisted suicide. It’s extremely heavy and poignant but hilarious. What do you say to people who might be offended, who don’t get the joke, or lash out?
Doug Stanhope: You know, it’s weird — and I’m sure it’s by design, but not in the front of my mind — is that I’ve lived the majority of my adult life never ever encountering those people or having those conversations, because the only people I would ever run into that would find that would be people I don’t really talk to. I’m sure there’s a waitress in Des Moines that would have been offended if I told her about it, but I just ask for my pudding and my check. So yeah, I don’t interact. I have a great social life, and [to me] those people don’t exist except in the news, and I don’t watch it.
Stand-Up Comedy and Film Critic Fluff
MovieWeb: Jimmy is in pretty bad shape in the film. Do you think The Road Dog makes any value judgments on his decisions, or is it neutral as a character study?
Greg Glienna: I think it’s a character study. And I think if you read that into the movie, then you read it in the movie, but I don’t think we judge him. I think we’re just saying, “This is this guy, and this is how he deals with life and performing.”
Doug Stanhope: Yeah, don’t ask me those questions. Those questions are for critics who are making up their own bullsh*t fluff anyway […] I don’t know all that garbage.
Critics are like people that have wine tasting where, as they go around, they just add their own fruitiness or woodiness, and it just f*cking tastes like wine, come on. It tastes like wine.
Greg Glienna: When I was in film school, I had a friend who would just goof around, like, “I think the shadows represent prison bars, and his life is a prison.” And the teacher would be like, “Oh, yeah, okay.” But he was just doing what you just did.
MovieWeb: What surprised you about leading a feature film, Doug, or what was the main difference between acting as a stand-up and being one?
Doug Stanhope: I felt a lot of times like the cheerleader, because there were, as there are on pretty much every independent film of a certain budget, there’s a lot of last minute catastrophes. “Oh my god, we’ll never get this done, where are we going to shoot today, isn’t going to snow? Will we be able to get our actors home before the blizzard?” And so I just tried to keep a stoic, funny upper lip. And remember my lines. That was pretty much all I had to do.
Doug Stanhope: It’s beautiful acting like this. The stresses are so much different than stand-up. I get a million things that stress me about stand-up, like, “Wait, did I do this bit the last time I was here, and someone’s gonna go, ‘I heard that last time?’ Have I written enough new stuff? Does this segue work?” Here [with acting], all I have to do is remember what I’m supposed to say and when I’m supposed to say it, and keep an ear out when I’m outside smoking. I gotta keep an ear out for when they’re ready for me, so I’m not late. That was pretty much it.
MovieWeb: What was the challenge of bringing stand-up into the cinematic medium, Greg?
Greg Glienna: I don’t think it’s ever been done, to my mind, I mean maybe it has and I haven’t seen it, but successfully? Like I remember, I used to work with Jeff Garlin back in the ’80s in Chicago, and he saw the movie Punchline and I asked him, “How is it?” He said, “The comedians have lockers.”
And I think I wanted to make a movie that was authentic to the stand-up experience, that stand-ups won’t be watching it going, “No, that’s ridiculous.” But the hard part is, a lot of it is not funny off-stage, and people just think of comedians as funny, funny. It’s not always.
Doug Stanhope: The difficult part, I would think, in other stand-up movies is, “Okay, and he has a killer act now.” It’s so hard to write that killer set, a screenwriter couldn’t do it that easily, to even mimic one. So when I was having to do my stand-up roles — and they gave me free rein to put whatever I want in there — I don’t have that many bits that are short enough to just cram that in, because most of my bits are several minutes long.
Greg Glienna: But I really didn’t want it to be ‘a stand-up movie,’ I wanted a story, and that was kind of in the background.
The result is a unique glimpse into the life of a road comic, an alcoholic, a loner, and it has one of the best performances of the year. From Freestyle Digital Media, The Road Dog releases Oct. 6 on demand on cable, satellite, and all digital platforms.