In a bit from his 2004 DVD, Deadbeat Hero, Doug Stanhope describes his mother as a chain-smoking, hateful woman. “She’s like me without jokes,” he says. It’s essential to the premise, a suicide-bombing scenario involving Mother and a Subway sandwich shop. “…but she loves me,” he adds with a smile more demonic than devious. As he writes in his memoir, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story, “If you didn’t do exactly what Mother would do, you were an asshole. Unless you were me.”
That irrational, unconditional love is the crux of this book. Bonnie Kirk truly was Doug’s biggest fan. She helped shape his life’s work in ways not even he knows. It was her porn stash, her love of comedy, her wanton approach to life and work, and her abject disdain of other people’s opinions of all-of-the-above that, as well as her DNA, that helped make Doug the beer-drinking, barnstorming, bookability-burning, standup juggernaut that he still is 25 years on. I’ve known Doug since sometime in 2003, when, after we’d exchanged a few emails, he wrote, “Why don’t you come up and drink with me?” So I did. Many times.
The day I first met Mother, Doug described her to me as “a horrible racist,” adding “And when I say that, I mean she’s really bad at it.” We got along nicely though, and for a few years, we were friends. She would send me burned CDs with clips of Doug on shows and channels I didn’t have access to. We’d meet for weekends at Doug’s house in Playa del Rey when he was in town between long jaunts on the road. On at least one of those weekend trips, Doug told me he didn’t know I was coming until Bonnie told him. I would assure him we’d discussed it, but who knows? Maybe Bonnie and I made plans without him.
The book, as it states right on the cover, is a love story and a memoir. If you want to know what he’s done since his last DVD or since the last time you saw him live, check YouTube. Most of this book happens before that was even possible. Many a buried back-story is unearthed here: Doug’s earliest days as a road comic, when he actually lived on the road – in his car. His stint as an innovative, master cold-calling telemarketer. One-nighters, hell gigs, middling, featuring, telling jokes to the elderly on a tour bus, and “making it” in all of its elusive meanings. Many days and nights of performances, beverages, and substances. There’s quite a lot of the latter, and Mother is there for every phase, step, and bump along the way.
The book also covers the annual desert party in Death Valley, in a place called Panamint Springs, a party and place he describes in the book as “the ground zero of nowhere,” where dozens of comedians would converge for a few days. I went once. One comes away from such a party with a new sense of so many things. On my two-day trip home from there in 2005, I wrote and wrote, trying to record and remember all the magic that had transpired. To no avail. The magic is in the people. Seeing Doug again afterward and trying to help him explain the party to others proved pointless and inspiring simultaneously – much like trying to review this book.
I won’t ruin it for you. Bonnie doesn’t die at the end. She dies at the beginning. Do know this: Mother’s death was an inside job.
He would hate me for saying this, but Doug’s a really great writer. I often use comedians as examples in my writing classes, because people often think jokes just come to comedians fully formed right on stage. As a Splitsider reader, you know that couldn’t be further from reality. Writing is the infrastructure. From jokes to emails to essays, Doug’s writing has always been exceptional. His throwaways are more genius than most geniuses’ best work. I just opened the book to a random page and landed on two gems. “I still think animal shelters should be open an hour before last call and right next to a bar,” he writes. “Or even in the bar. Adoptions would quadruple.” And on the facing page he continues, “I loved and still love reading the newspaper in the morning with a cigarette. It makes you feel like you’re doing something. And unlike the internet, the newspaper eventually ends, so you can get on with your day.”
Doug’s wisdom and quotable aphorisms abound throughout. “Sometimes doing the right thing and following your heart are opposites,” he writes, “And doing both at the same time can make you feel shittier still.” On the lighter side, a long-standing rule in his family, in his comedy, and in his life has been “It’s only funny if you actually do it.” Say what you want about Doug’s lifestyle, but he lives with more follow-through than most people can muster.
In short, Doug Stanhope’s Digging Up Mother is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious, as fun as it is funny, and as personal as it is relatable. It’s a testament to his skills as a writer, a storyteller, and a comedian. It’s a testament to his love for his mother.
Roy Christopher is currently corrupting the youth at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He recently pulled a muscle in his back while eating ice cream.