Rob Delaney’s Zany, Surrealist, and Frequently Ribald Humor

There is a certain kind of book that begins to fill the shelves of booksellers big and small as autumn trees make loose their leaves. One doesn’t need to go far into the shop to see these books stacked by the plenty, ensuring that everyone has the chance to buy a copy for a relative they didn’t know how to shop for. These books take many forms, ranging from the TV personality-based, the umpteenth odes to all things feline, and some things more certifiably insane. Come Christmas day, the book is good for a laugh or a conversation point, but after all the wrapping’s come undone the only thing it will likely see is the deepest recesses of a bookshelf.

Rob Delaney’s memoir Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage seems like one of those books. It’s written by a guy whose claim to fame is a Twitter account dominated by zany, surrealist, and frequently ribald humor. (Recent highlight: “Peter Jackson just found a postcard JRR Tolkien wrote his nephew in 1938. He’s turning it into 22 nine-hour films.”) The cover—pushing past that non sequitur of a title—features a label which reads, “Funniest Person on Twitter: Comedy Central Comedy Awards.” The dust jacket contains a tantalizing author description, including lines like, “He loves women with abundant pubic hair and saggy naturals” and “He broke into an abandoned mental hospital with his mother.” At first glance, Mother. Wife. Sister. appears to be just the kind of book one would give to her crazy uncle and say, “Hey there, this here book is a hoot!” only then to drown one’s Yuletide family angst with a helping of spiked eggnog.

To be sure, Delaney has written a story that is, indeed, a hoot. His signature Twitter humor is nicely weaved throughout, such that this doesn’t feel like a transcription of an especially good stand-up act. Comedians, after all, are a kind of storyteller, and as Delaney has demonstrated in his stand-up special, Live at the Bowery Ballroom, storytelling is integral to his jokes.

These stories, however, are not aimed at basic observation or Seinfieldian “what’s the deal with thats.” He’s surprisingly forward about details that most would find ways to couch around euphemism: there’s talk of peeing the bed, embarrassing accounts of drunkenness and, of course, his fateful car accident, where he breaks multiple limbs—and that’s only the beginning of a long rehabilitation process, with stories just as embarrassing as the ones before the accident. Mother. Wife. Sister. is the laugh riot that one would expect coming from Delaney, but it’s far from the holiday gift throw bag book one might expect it to be.

That being said, if one’s primary reason for reading Mother. Wife. Sister. is to read a lot of really funny things written by Delaney, she’s not making a wrong move. The book isn’t a string of short, absurdist jokes, but there’s plenty of Delaney’s requisite humor to love. His habit of defamiliarizing words by the use of quotation marks leads to one of the early chapters’ best lines: “My wife and I almost got into a fistfight a few nights ago over my peanut butter consumption. Her argument is that she wants me to stay ‘alive’ and ‘healthy’ so I can stick around and help raise our ‘son.'”

Later on in the book: “An American Airlines stewardess propositioned me at the reception and I politely said no because I’d wanted to get it on with a Lithuanian friend of the bride who had light green eyes. To use an old Lithuanian saying, she ‘wasn’t interested,’ so I slept alone that night.” His well-known weird streak, captured in full glory on his Twitter profile, is seen in statements such as, “All birds have silicone tits; look it up.” When he describes the steps he took to ensure his (then pregnant) wife Leah’s safety after catching Hepatitis A from a tainted cake, he writes, “I also made sure we didn’t share cups or utensils, and I took strict care not to poo in her mouth, even at night.”

The importance and necessity of this humor comes not, however, from Delaney’s need to maintain himself “as a comic” or “as the funny guy from Twitter.” The true feat of Mother. Wife. Sister. is that in spite of the many tragedies it details, it never feels like a terrible story. Once the book reaches its final page, it’s if anything low-key triumphant.

By any stretch of the imagination, Delaney’s retelling of his drunken bender that resulted in extensive hospital time (to say nothing of the medical debt accrued as a result) should be devastating—so should any number of the escapades that happen during the time of his life where alcohol was flowing as freely as the mighty Euphrates. By keeping the tone of the writing conversational, lapsing only into literary pretense in the French chapter and section titles, Delaney makes engaging with his turbulent life’s story surprisingly easy. This accessibility often means that especially poignant passages have a way of sneaking up on the reader, such as the one when he details what helped him the most during his rehabilitation process:

And though I can’t identify [those who remain sober after rehab] by sight or smell and wouldn’t dare bet on who will succeed or fail in their sobriety, I like to be in the same room as them… if I’m being honest {and fuck if that isn’t Ingredient Number One in staying sober), I want to be around broken people who have just made the seismically powerful decision to get fixed. I want to feel their energy move throughout the hospital’s ugly beige multipurpose room and let it wash over gets me high.

It helps that his insights are actually, well, insightful. “It’s important to explain that major depression is not even peripherally related to ‘sadness,'” he details in one of the book’s best passages. Furthermore, he notes, “Those who think that depression is ‘good’ for creative people may form a line and very aggressively blow me.” That line is then followed up with the one major difference that Delaney sees between the unfortunate time he spent in prison as opposed to being depressed and out in free society: “A jail sentence ends.” Sometimes, it really only takes a sentence.

Mother. Wife. Sister is a story written well and, of course, written in the funniest manner possible, though there is some narrative steam lost after its third section, easily the strongest of the five. Given the emotional investment that’s easy to place in a story about someone trying to overcome addiction, after those events unspool themselves, it’s hard to keep the momentum going, and after section three—entitled la rehabilitation—comes to a close, the next two sections—entitled la romance and la famille—are noticeably more episodic. The timeline even alters, with some anecdotes going back on the initial timeline of the book. (Also included at end is a very good if out of place essay entitled “Problem Areas”, which Delaney initially published on VICE.)

Those familiar with the Bowery Ballroom special might also find the section on the Hepatitis A contraction a bit of a retread. Some of Mother. Wife. Sister‘s funniest material comes in these last two parts; it’s pretty hard for one’s inner immature teen to not emerge in the chapter entitled “SIDA?”, with lines like “I saw the weirdest butthole today” and phrases like “rubber-sheathed penis boner” ripe for the chuckles. So what Mother. Wife. Sister‘s latter two parts lack in overall continuity they make up for in polished comic relief.

But perhaps stories aren’t meant to be so neatly told. After all, a good many of Delaney’s own tweets cut off mid-sentence, sometimes mid-word. More important than anything about Mother. Wife. Sister., even more than the jokes about “boobs, tits, and what have you”, is the fact that this writing is nothing if not genuine. In interviews and other engagements, Delaney is quick to name-drop his literary heroes (once arguing that one need only read Herman Melville and Toni Morrison to get what America is about), but he doesn’t attempt to make an event out of this book. He calls it only as he sees it, speaks only from that strange and funny organ called the heart.

Those who prefer their comics clean may have already been put off by Delaney’s Twitter remarks, but they’d be missing out by passing up on Mother. Wife. Sister. Because, frankly, it might not be such a bad thing if more memoirs came with quips about birds and their silicone tits. Maybe the world would be funnier, and a little more honest.

RATING 7 / 10
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