Digging up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope – a seriously good memoir
For an unapologetic catalogue of coke binges, foul pranks and grubby sex, the cult comic’s memoir of a cracked but loving relationship with his mother is starkly moving
Few artists, if any, have mixed a cocktail of real-life squalor and defiance and booze and despair as gleefully as Stanhope. Which makes his latest project, the book Digging up Mother: A Love Story, a departure for him
Digging up Mother: A Love Story
De Capo Press/CreateSpace
Sometimes angry, often obscene, always bleak, the humour of American stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope is not for everyone.
Try this one for size: in one of his most notorious “bits”, Stanhope describes himself happily pouring drinks for his mother while she methodically swallows morphine pills to kill herself.
Thirty of the pills would be easily enough to finish off the sick and emaciated old lady, but she insists on taking all of the 90 that she has hoarded from her hospice care.
“Mother!”, Stanhope protests. “Those pills were my inheritance!”
Her death is followed by a miracle which shakes Stanhope’s life-long atheism: even though his mother is gone, for weeks thereafter expensive gifts continue to arrive for him in the mail, paid for with the dead woman’s credit card.
Like so much of Stanhope’s repertoire, this joke is all the more funny for being true: he really did sit with his mother, Bonnie, while she ended a life blighted by depression and terminal illness. As for the tag-on joke about the credit card, he had to wait several years before he could tell it, to make sure it was covered by the statute of limitations for fraud in that state.
Few artists, if any, have mixed a cocktail of real-life squalor and defiance and booze and despair as gleefully as Stanhope. Which makes his latest project, the book Digging up Mother: A Love Story, a departure for him. The scabrous honesty is still there, the willingness to seek out unpleasant truths and then drunkenly befriend them, but the jokes – although present – are no longer the point of the exercise.
This is, at heart, a serious memoir, which uses Stanhope’s cracked but loving relationship with his mother to frame his journey from white-trash drop-out, through low-grade fraudster and failed actor, to his present eminence as comedian’s comedian. For an unapologetic catalogue of coke binges, foul pranks and grubby sexual encounters, this book is at times starkly moving.
An alcoholic with mother issues of her own, Bonnie divorced Stanhope’s father (“He wasn’t cold and unemotional. He was warm and unemotional.”) when the boy was only seven. Having no one to babysit, she would bring young Doug and his older brother to her AA meetings in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Sitting at the back of to room, they would listen to the recovering alcoholics give graphic accounts of “bottoming-out” – of drunken debacles, sordid humiliations, squalid sexual encounters. Some of the worst – and funniest – stories came from their mother. This made a lasting impression on Stanhope, both as a comic and an unrepentant heavy drinker.
“As a kid, I’d see people kill in an AA meeting and they knew it. They romanticized their lowest points, and they did it by design. The asterisk at the end about being grateful to the program for never having to revisit those times rang hollow. That isn’t to say those people should not have quit drinking. Mother certainly sucked at it. But it’s worked for me this far.”
Bounced back and forth between his divorced parents, Stanhope bonded with his mother over a shared love of fart gags and British comedy. Later, as he carved out a career as a comic and she worked through a series of low-rent Florida jobs, she would send him ironic gift packages containing obesity porn, cassette recordings of her own farts, the garish thrift-store salesman suits that became his visual trade-mark.
“There was something weird between us. We got along like best friends. We wrote to each other like lovers.”
Eventually, their parallel lives tilted in opposing directions. While Stanhope clawed out an unstable stability for himself on the road, building a proxy family life in his open-house LA apartment and the green rooms of comedy clubs, his aging mother declined into hoarding, cats, lottery tickets and depression. Installing herself in her son’s apartment, she tried to live through him vicariously, attempting stand-up herself with little success.
Finally, her years of chain-smoking left her with incurable emphysema. On tour in Britain, Stanhope would telephone his mother live from the stage each night to ask her if she was still alive. She would gamely reply with the squawking voice of the old man on the plague cart in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!” The audiences didn’t get it. They thought it was a joke.
Having rejected the usual career path from stand-up to TV sit-com, Stanhope has in recent years become something of a cult figure at home and abroad – viewers of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe programme on BBC television will recognise him as the show’s in-house “embittered American alcoholic and shambles”, and he played sell-out shows in Ireland last October.
Yet despite this success, Stanhope is still celebrated by peers as the last of the semi-mythical road comics, those latter-day knight errants who wandered the back-roads of the great American interior, living in beat-up cars, surviving from one gig to the next. It is a badge which Stanhope himself wears with pride: the quixotic life of the wandering road comic – the casual but deep camaraderie, fleeting friendships and transient hook-ups – is one of the few things he seems to almost idealise.
Which makes his last words for his mother all the more poignant:
“Mother quit living like it was a shitty day job. She just decided one day she’d had enough and that was that. Hit the bar for a drink and a smoke, a few good laughs about the old days, and we’ll see you out there somewhere. And in the morning she was gone.”
Ed O’Loughlin’s novels are Not Untrue and Not Unkind; Toploader; and Minds of Winter (riverrun, August 2016)