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Digging Up Mother by Doug Stanhope (2016) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is Doug Stanhope’s autobiography. It is also a biography of his mother, Bonnie. Until her death, their lives were entwined. Stanhope writes quite well and tells the story of his life—and his Mother’s—in a rollicking and well-structured novel.

“Mother” is a piece of work: she loves her son nearly unconditionally. She is a free spirit who is Doug’s best friend for decades. They have the same sense of humor. Bonnie is an actress, a masseuse, a con-woman and Doug’s biggest fan no matter what he does. She is also a depressed woman in constant pain, easily addicted to pain medication, though on the AA wagon for most of her life. She is manipulative. She is a hoarder. She is loved by many. She is the life of the party.

Doug Stanhope is a plainspoken, smart, observant comedian with a lot of miles on him. He’s spent years on the road, playing every bowling alley, dive bar and roadhouse in every state in the U.S. He’s nearly the definition of a functional alcoholic. He doesn’t like to be alone and has warmed his bed with many women on the road. He’s almost never been single. He loves living communally, nearly constantly living with at least one, if not several people. Even when he lived in a car, he had a roommate. He’s had a litany of powerful actresses as long-term girlfriends. He’s had many friends, some for decades. He is faithful to them, if not his official girlfriends and lovers. He is now living with the mentally ill Bingo in Bisbee, Arizona.

His life is lived in the seedier part of America—he would call it a more honest life in a more honest place. He’s never compromised, though he has worked in Hollywood, trying to make a go of it. Unlike Bill Hicks, he didn’t shun the commercial world—though he has retained his honesty and hasn’t censored himself at all. His material is highly sexual, highly coarse and uproariously funny. He’s funny because he tells the truth. Some of his opinions are a bit too libertarian, but his heart is in the right place. He’s quite intelligent and can put long off-the-cuff diatribes together that cut our society deep, to the core, and still be shockingly funny.

Before he was a comedian, he was a telemarketing grifter. With his gift of gab, he was one of the best. Despite having spent most of his life in the grayer areas of the law, he’s never been in trouble and never been in prison. He’s been in jail, but was always bailed out. He’s had TV shows, but he’s always loved being a comedian more. He likes airport bars the best—hotel bars, if need be.

As a comedian, he’s quite humble, constantly pointing out comedians who are better than he is. He revered Mitch Hedberg. He is now, by definition, better than Hedberg. He’s considered to be the best comedian alive by many of the other best comedians. He does not pull punches. You know he won’t. He won’t sell out.

Some citations to give you some ideas of his thinking and comedy:

“[…] unlike the Internet, the newspaper eventually ends, so you know to get on with your day.”
“A frustrated waitress or store clerk laughing is way more gratifying than a paying audience.”
“Anyone who says that suicide is never the answer hasn’t heard all of the questions.”
“When I say that I wrote Mother off, I don’t mean that I cut off contact or deprived her of any financial support. I was still with her and helped out all I could. The write-off came in that I knew that I could no longer invest myself emotionally in trying to get her to help herself.”

I know this feeling with politics or rational discussions. At some point, with some people, you give up. You achieve detente by implicitly no longer talking about anything but the weather and pets.

“They sent her ashes back months later. I tried to sell them on eBay, with all proceeds going to The Humane Society but the auction was shut down within hours. Seems selling dead people is not only against eBay policy, it’s against federal law. Feds must not like cats like Mother did.”


“Crystal River, Florida was a dead, one-story highway town on US 19 north of Tampa. Sawgrass, strip malls, rednecks, and dying people. I bet it hasn’t changed. Mother was renting a three-bedroom ranch-style house at the end of a dead-end street. I didn’t know why she needed three bedrooms living alone but they all seemed to have stuff in them. It was the beginning of her hoard and that hoard would include cats. A lot of cats. She introduced me to them like they were my siblings. When I got through meeting her cats, she started showing me pictures of her cats. A lot of pictures of cats. Gosh, did her cats do funny things. “Look at this one, it’s Peter sitting up like a person! And here’s Margaret licking Alice’s head!” Yeesh.”
Page 81
“At Midwest, the booby-prize was the “Roman-Greco coin,” which was, of course, “priceless.” You couldn’t give the customer a number on its value as that would be “mis-repping,” a far bigger sin than customer abuse. There was a very specific language you had to use. That was the difference between immoral and illegal, and “priceless” kept everyone out of jail.”
Page 109

“Hey, Tom… get this. This morning at breakfast, my dog said, ‘In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature—or go insane.’”

“That’s a very astute dog.

“That’s what I thought at first. Turns out he stole it from Charlie Chaplin. Fucking plagiarist dog,” I said, having just read the quote out of the newspaper.”

Page 138
“If I had days or weeks that I couldn’t fill with a gig, there was always a comedian, a waitress, or a fan from the audience willing to put you up. That’s the great thing about being young and following your dreams—people are excited for you. They want to encourage you, help you out, and send you off with a sack lunch. If I were forty-seven and living out of my car, people couldn’t sprint away from me fast enough.”
Page 151
“They wanted to manage me and I had no idea what that entailed, but I couldn’t see how it was bad. They took me out to some gothic, upscale wild game restaurant and we ate buffalo, boar, and quail. I hadn’t ever been in a restaurant that actually had someone at the table taste the wine. That shit only happened in movies. The bill had to be in the hundreds of dollars. I couldn’t imagine paying that much for a meal. That’s what I’d pay for a car. There was no way I’d be signing with anyone else at this point. The meal had already paid for itself before I even had dessert.”
Page 156
“Dane was also now Mother’s arch-rival but she took it seriously and never let it go. For years after you’d hear her say, “I saw that fucking Dane Cook on TV. He’s fucking awful! I can’t believe these fucking people think he’s funny,” to the point that I’d end up having to defend him. The Yankees don’t hate the Red Sox as people, Ma. I like to hate Dane Cook. But it isn’t personal. It was just fun to have a nemesis. Mother acted like he’d molested me as a child.”
Page 163
“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 know to get on with your day.”
Page 173
“A frustrated waitress or store clerk laughing is way more gratifying than a paying audience. It’s the difference between a girl blowing you because she likes you versus blowing you for money. You don’t critique a free blow job. You’re just grateful for the courtesy.”
Page 174
“He sent me his picture. I’d bring it with me later whenever Khrystyne would bring me to functions where there were famous people. I’d ask them very politely if they’d mind taking a picture with my retarded brother’s photograph. He’s a big fan and couldn’t be here, well, because he’s retarded. Stars can’t say no to retards. It’s part of an oath, I believe. Khrystyne could get us in anywhere, invitation not necessary. She made a sport of it. From Oscar parties to the American Comedy Awards, I got pictures of Victor with everyone from Weird Al and Dennis Rodman all the way up to Nicole Kidman and Winona Ryder. I don’t know how popular you can be on death row but I’m sure it couldn’t help but boost Victor’s reputation.”
Page 174
“Occasional shrieks from pains or night terrors. And that’s your reward for ninety-seven years of good, clean living. It was gruesome. It didn’t excuse Mother’s treatment of the patients, but like the prison guards on death row and living in that shitty town just outside the razor wire, you could see where it would drive you into depression, sadism, or insanity. Anyone who says that suicide is never the answer hasn’t heard all of the questions.”
Page 179
“I hated auditions. Actors are generally horrible, empty, vapid people and writers install temporary personalities into their voids. You go to an audition and it’s a room full of desperation, as though three lines for an insurance commercial is the sole donated kidney and everyone in the lobby needs the transplant to live.”
Page 187
“My record nonstop drive at that point was twenty-seven hours. I figured we could make this in forty-eight hours in a straight shot with Mother only having to take the wheel when I needed to grab a couple hours to recharge. Boy, was I fucking wrong. Mother didn’t take the wheel once, although she might as well have been driving with all her unusual invisible brake-stomping and other gesticulations and critiques. I was a lot more patient then than I would be now, but even then, I was getting pretty fucking irritated very quickly.”
Page 189
“Mother hated Khrystyne right away. She said she was a “phony,” and she might have been correct, especially if you think being polite and smiling when you really want to say, “You repulse me on every level of humanity” is being fake.”
Page 191
“The woman has sucked all the funny right out of me. She talks so fucking much that half my friends are afraid to call. I should give her your address. She’d bore you to death quicker than you could say ‘OLD SPARKY!’ She can do nothing for six hours and then spend six more hours telling you about it.”
Page 193
“As I started selling CDs and later DVDs and t-shirts on my Web site, she’d take care of shipping merchandise. Fans knew the merch was authentic, as the t-shirts would be covered in cat hair and reek of cigarettes.”
Page 197
“Some people use the word ‘cathartic.’ But it was comedy where comedy was its most important. Not just to make you forget about your shitty, quotidian life. Not just when laughter was the best medicine but the only medicine. Like my dog Otis once said, “We must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature—or go insane.””
Page 204

“The warmup guy—as I now know is common for live audiences in taped television performances—kept fluffing the crowd like they were preschoolers.

““Now what are you going to do when we introduce the first comedian?” Wild cheers.

““C’mon, that’s not good enough! Let’s try it again! What are you going to do???” Bigger screams and they were never good enough.

“Comedy Central can’t look like they were filming some nobody! You can always do better than that! By the time the announcer called my name, the crowd screamed like they were waiting to see gladiators being eaten by pigs. It felt entirely duplicitous.”

Page 214
“We then filled underneath the back seats of her car she had stored there with raw chicken and rolled it to the bottom of the hill where it would get towed. Fuck her. We’ve never heard from her again.”
Page 217
“I may be a sexual deviant like some people have branded me. Yes, I need a veritable buffet of niche gutter porn and dangerous latex implements before I even can even achieve mild arousal. No, I am no stranger to erectile dysfunction, some stemming from my use of non-prescribed antidepressants and black market hair-growth products, some stemming from years of sexual practices that range from vulgar to gray-area illegal.”
Page 227

“I did anti-patriotism material and I couldn’t give a fuck who didn’t like it. I did a show titled “Regarding 9-11” with the theme of how 9-11 has affected comedy.

“I opened with: “Everyone keeps asking, ‘When will it be OK to do comedy again?’

“I put a lot of thought into that question. When will it be OK to do comedy again? The best answer I could come up with was this:

“June 8th.

“That’s when it will be OK.

“Considering in the five months since the attack, the death toll has fallen from 6,700 consistently down to now 2,800, I figure at that rate, on or around June 8th, no one will be dead anymore.

“Then, let the jokes begin.

“Even today, when you consider the drop—6,700 down to 2,800—that’s a difference of 3,900 people that are now undead. We have gained 1,100 more people than we lost. And they need jokes.

“Why do death tolls always start high and go lower? Because the media is a pessimist? No, because death, if it doesn’t directly affect you, is entertainment. The more dead, the more entertaining, the more papers it sells. No one rubbernecks at a car wreck to make sure everyone’s ‘OK.’

“And if people aren’t directly affected they will always try to attach themselves to the tragedy. Everyone playing Six Degrees of Separation from 9-11:

“‘My sister’s ex-fiance went to school with a guy who almost took a job at the World Trade Center and he could have been in there so that’s not funny.’”

Page 231

“Renee brought up the fact that I was still legally married to Dori from thirteen years earlier. Like taxes, divorce was confusing paperwork that I never found very necessary. But it didn’t matter. We didn’t need any kind of certificate or legal filings. We’d just call it a wedding and call ourselves married. We can call ourselves anything we want. We can call ourselves popes or colonels or Indians. We don’t need anyone’s permission. We’ll just be married.

““But it won’t be legal?”

““You’re right. It won’t be. We’ll be doing drugs, too. They won’t be ‘legal’ either but we’ll still be high.””

Page 232
“Renee was falling down shitfaced before they even got her into her dress. At the bar her friends jacked her up with ecstasy just to keep her upright. The best man was chosen by a high-hand contest on one of the bars video poker machines. My longtime fan and good friend Joe Vernon won with a queen-high flush in hearts. The show was chaos. The bridesmaids heckled every comic relentlessly. My set led directly into the ceremony. Instead of a ring, I gave her a Platinum Visa card in her name. That’s far more commitment than a diamond. Extreme Elvis played us off and would continue to play the audience out. He was immediately naked and most of the band followed as well. I was thanking people for coming as he pissed into a pint glass and chugged it down, warm urine pouring out of the corners of his mouth and down his face.”
Page 233
“Seeing her crying in the doorway, face swollen and lips broken and knowing that, short of a cop-killing spree, there was nothing I could do about it filled me with impotent rage.”
Page 236
“The mood was ugly enough after the arrest when she found out she was pregnant. There was no need to have the conversation. We both had no intention of bringing children into this ugly, fucking world. RU486, the abortion pill, was a miserable experience for her. It took several tries, and all resulted in an agonizingly slow miscarriage. It was unbearable for her physically and stomach-turning to have to watch. I scheduled a vasectomy as soon after as possible. I couldn’t go to O’Brien’s without staring out on to Main St., wondering if each passing cop was the one that had beat up my girlfriend and what I’d do if it was.”
Page 237
“ON MARCH 15, 2005, I WAS BOOKED TO DO THE UNIVERSITY OF Maryland with Mitch Hedberg. By this time in my career, it was clear to anyone that I was not a college act. Over the years I had become even more jaded where college kids were becoming dumber and purposely blinded. Hedberg could pull off the balance. I was more vitriolic and to the point.”
Page 256
““Piss Roulette” was born there in Death Valley. Like Russian Roulette with two players only with squirt guns. Six guns, five filled with tequila, one full of piss. You’d pick them up at random and squirt it into your mouth until one of you lost.”
Page 258
“My coherence was unraveling. Five weeks previously I had been leaving L.A. with Renee with great expectations of a new, peaceful life. Now I was living in Arizona with a defrocked mendicant priest-poet, a bald mental patient, and a drunken, suicidal Mother.”
Page 264
““When Doug had moved to Bisbee, Bonnie called me, terrified, unintelligible, weeping. I went straight to her and found a complete stinking drunk. Gone was the swagger, the wit, the true joy through the lens of pragmatism and dreams come true. It was the first time in my life I really understood alcoholism. I used to joke my mom was an alcoholic because she drinks daily. But her personality doesn’t change, and she doesn’t threaten suicide.”
Page 270
“I was close back to being broke. So much so that I actually got fired by that accountant for not making Man Show money anymore. They work on a percentage. I understand. But still, it felt like getting 86’d from your barber for going bald.”
Page 272
“The only times I have stopped drinking for any length of time more than a couple days are on my attempts to quit smoking. I have to. Three cocktails is about the limit before I reach for a pack, with “Fuck it, you’re gonna die of something!” dribbling out of the corner of my defeated mouth.”
Page 278
“I remember when I used to drive without insurance in my early, flat broke days. Eventually, I was pulled over and cited for it. I remember doing the math on the fine versus the cost of having insurance all those years. I made out like a bandit just paying the ticket. I feel that way about drinking now at this age. Should my liver explode in the morning and I bleed out from yellowed eyes, I still come out well ahead for the good times I had. And I don’t have to wrap my stories up in some disingenuous backpedaling of coerced remorse.”
Page 279
“Bingo’s mother Gay came down to take care of her at the house until I could get back from the road. Gay and her husband Ron are lovely people. They are retired professionals who live in Northern California where Ron—pronounced “Rhaaaaan” in Gay’s thick Midwestern accent when she’s yelling from across the room—runs his own hydroelectric power off a stream that goes through their yard. It powers their whole house, with excess left to sell back to the electric company. Clever fucker, this guy. He had to create a corporation for the enterprise and asked us for a name for the company. If it isn’t obvious to you, it was to me. Gay Power. If you really love your wife and want to honor her, put that sign loud and proud in front of your house. Oh, did they laugh. But they never used the name. It’s only funny if you actually do it.”
Page 283
“[…she had] either emphysema or COPD, which, so far as I know, are the same fucking thing. Autism or Asperger’s, your kid still isn’t in the debate club.”
Page 285
“When I say that I wrote Mother off, I don’t mean that I cut off contact or deprived her of any financial support. I was still with her and helped out all I could. The write-off came in that I knew that I could no longer invest myself emotionally in trying to get her to help herself.”
Page 287

I know this feeling with politics or rational discussions. At some point, with some people, you give up. You achieve detente by implicitly no longer talking about anything but the weather and pets.

“told her I’d call her on speakerphone live from stage during every show to play “Mother, Are you Dead Yet?” knowing that if she were alive, she’d answer with the favorite line from our old Monty Python days of “I’m not dead yet!” Otherwise, a caregiver or paramedic might answer with bad news. Mother loved the idea. Vicariously, she’d get to be on stage every night, and there was gambling involved. Mostly, she would know I loved her. I gave her a SkyMall catalog and I encouraged her to buy as much shit on her credit card as she could. If you’re gonna die, why would you die with $10,000 worth of Visa credit wide open? There’s not going to be any estate that they can come after unless they want it paid off in old cats or expired Hormel Compleats meals.”
Page 289
“In the best of times, coming home from a tour like that is where the work really begins. There are bills to pay, paperwork, and getting all your shit back together. Unpack, repack. Call people back. Pet your pets. Reconnect. Do laundry. Now there’s construction in the yard, in-laws, and your mother who is about to die. How do you handle it all? Cocktails, goddamnit! And quick! No time to try to reinvent the wheel.”
Page 291
“They sent her ashes back months later. I tried to sell them on eBay, with all proceeds going to The Humane Society but the auction was shut down within hours. Seems selling dead people is not only against eBay policy, it’s against federal law. Feds must not like cats like Mother did.”
Page 295
“The minute you die, so many of the things you cherished in your life become immediately worthless. Mother’s framed certificates from massage and nursing schools hung on the walls. I kept them but had to ask myself why? I will never hang them on my wall nor will my brother or his children. Am I supposed to leave them in my own crawlspace and make them someone else’s problem when I croak? Yet to just chuck them in a dumpster that quickly seemed even too callous for me. Best to just keep them for a while and eventually give them to the thrift store for some other hoarder. They will use the frame someday for something. And for only $1.50.”
Page 296