Doug Stanhope – on the off chance that you don’t know – is probably the best stand up comedian around today. Acerbic, witty, cynical and libertarian (in the old, non-right wing meaning of the word), he’s the antithesis of the safe, right-on comedians who currently dominate the UK’s decaying comedy scene. If you don’t know his work, go and check it out immediately. We can wait.
Digging Up Mother is Stanhope’s first book – part autobiography, part a memoir of his mother, with whom he had an ‘interesting’ relationship. If you are expecting a mawkish, sentimental tale of a boy’s love for his mother, then you will be disappointed – the book opens with her arriving at his home, suffering from terminal emphysema, in order to kill herself, and the first chapter ends with the line “Mother was in a better place now. And by that I mean that she wasn’t all dead and drooling in a hospital bed in my living room while I was trying to watch football.”
Stanhope’s mother Bonnie seems to have been one of life’s eccentrics – prone to whipping out her enhanced breasts in front of his friends, telling off-colour jokes, reading Hustler (and allowing her nine year old son to read it, ensuring that he had “a Larry Flynt sense of humour in a Better Homes and Garden community”) and masturbating cats. She also comes across as needy, insecure, selfish and embarrassing – in other words, a regular human being. She was also his biggest fan, even when he didn’t have any other fans. The impressive thing about the book is how Stanhope can talk about her in such a critical way, and yet still allow his obvious love for her to shine through. Most family memoirs like this would paint an unrealistic rose-tinted picture of their subject, and the book is much better for avoiding that.
But of course, this is as much Stanhope’s story as his mother’s. And it’s a fascinating tale of his slow and unsteady rise through the ranks of comedians after a past that took in hustling in gay bars, accidentally having sex with transsexuals, working for phone scam companies and screwing as many women as possible while getting wasted regularly. It’s a warts ‘n’ all tale of debauchery and hi-jinks, thankfully light on the boasting (Stanhope is never overly modest, but is also willing to discuss his most embarrassing and pathetic moments too). And so there’s sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, petty criminality, obsession, chaos, poverty and adultery along the way.
Stanhope writes in a sharp, snappy style – this isn’t a comedy book as such, but it is often very funny. And it reflects the Stanhope style that we see on stage – those who take offence at pretty much anything will probably find this extremely challenging, as it not only revels in bad taste, but makes no quarter for political correctness either. There are graphic sexual descriptions, plenty of tales of drunken misbehaviour and even those closest to Stanhope – his girlfriend, his brother – have their personal foibles and secrets discussed with gleeful abandon. This might make Stanhope sound malicious. That isn’t the case – it’s all done with affection and allows us to see those around him in a more rounded way
Celebrity memoirs are usually pretty bland, backslapping, self-aggrandising affairs. Not so here. Stanhope’s book is everything that you would have hoped that it would be – witty, nihilistic and outrageous. Fans will love this, and those unfamiliar with his work might find themselves converts after reading this.