“Mother was going to kill herself. There was no need to be mawkishly sentimental.”
Thus the opening scene of comedian Doug Stanhope’s new memoir Digging Up Mother, a book that, though full of tender and even affectionate episodes amid much cynical surliness, is definitely light on Hallmark moments.
Stanhope’s mother, Bonnie, is dying from the outset, felled by chronic illness and the weight of bad living and now fading away from emphysema, “a horrific, suffocating way to die, drowning in your own fluids like being endlessly waterboarded.” Readers know from the start that her story will end badly—and yet there’s a laugh on every page, if sometimes rueful and sometimes, in the face of some grossness or another, a little embarrassed to boot. A sample: “Touching a dog’s dick is gross, and your mother touching a dog’s dick is far grosser and gross equals hilarious.” He adds, “I don’t remember the dog needing any counseling afterwards.”
Shock comedy? You bet. For the last quarter-century, Stanhope, working on the fringes once inhabited by the likes of Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks, has spun elaborate and off-putting paeans to bad living himself. Look him up online, and you’re sure to hit on references to going onstage under the influence—and not just of drink, but also of various illegal substances. Now nearing the half-century mark, he’s dialed back on some of his own bad behavior, but the rough edges are still very much in evidence.
Stanhope had long ago decided that he wanted to chronicle his life with his mother, who figured in numerous comedy bits over the years, surprising his audiences with just how dark he could get while still being funny. And there was plenty of darkness, especially toward the end, when, Stanhope writes, the roles of old were reversed: he was the caregiver and the grownup, she the dependent in need of care. It was no easy thing to pull off: “In my head,” he writes, “she was just a bad drunk who felt abandoned and didn’t have the patience to wait for me to sort shit out. If anything, I begrudged her for the timing.”
For all the tangles and troubles in their relationship, Stanhope writes, his mother was his staunchest defender. When a letter came from the school counselor saying that her son was “very much in need of professional help,” she stood by him. “A lot of parents will argue for their kid to get starting positions in sports or demand higher grades,” he recalls. “Not so many will defend you for having a morbid and profane sense of humor.” And even as she lay dying years later, he adds, she would recite old comedy bits of his. “Most were truly embarrassing, but she’d repeat them as though they were comedy classics.”
Stanhope had meanwhile been weaving moments from his childhood into his topical observations, and not long after his mother died, he worked up a treatment for a book that would draw from his act while telling her story at length. He wrote a treatment that circulated but got no response. “I was very happy about that,” he says, “because it meant that I didn’t have to write a book.”
But then came comedy specials, articles about him in places like Harper’s and the New York Times, and a bestselling album, Beer Hall Putsch, with a long segment called “Farewell, Mother” that opens, “My mother killed herself in 2008. Don’t worry, this is a fun story.” Suddenly, seven years later, publishers were interested in his morbid and profane tales, which meant that he did, in fact, have to get to work writing a book.
Not that Stanhope ever doubted that would happen, for he had been encouraging the process by tempting fate, knowing the weird logic of the universe. “I knew I was going to get a deal,” he says, “because I had quit smoking just a few weeks earlier, and the only thing I can’t do without smoking is write. The book’s done, but the cigarettes remain.”
On constant tour since the 1990s, Stanhope stayed off the road for most of the time he took to write the book. “Now I’ve gotta get a new act and get back out there,” he grumbles. But the bug, once it’s bitten, is hard to shake: Cigarette jammed between his fingers, he’s working on another book, the theme of which, he hints, will be familiar to listeners to his podcast. Count on its touching on suicide, drug abuse, political correctness, and sundry other in-your-face topics. And perhaps dog genitalia. Oh, and farts too, for, as he insists, “farts are the funniest things in life, and if you disagree, then you have no soul.”Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.