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The Wizard of Ass Has Spoken! 

Hal Robins - erudite comic of the absurd, underground cartoonist of note,co-host of the world's strangest radio program, early member of the Church of the SubGenius - has a new hit with the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." But he really could use a paying gig. Really

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003

Page 4 of 5

Then he met Chicken John. Chicken dressed like a 1950s used-car salesman and displayed a knack for attracting freaks, staging spectacles, and getting audiences to come to them. Chicken and Robins met through the Church of the SubGenius and a dada social group called the Cacophony Society, whose members (for example) dress up as clowns and ride public transit, for amusement's sake.

In 1997, Chicken and Robins staged a series of interactive game show parodies with elaborate wooden sets they painted together in a China Basin parking lot where Chicken was living out of a bus. In the shows, Chicken worked the audience from the stage, while Robins provided commentary and acted out fake commercials. One in three of the shows bombed. "The Newlydead Game," featuring recently split couples, ended with one contestant in tears. All tested the limits of taste. Contestants in the pair's version of "1000 Dollar Pyramid" encountered the category "Racism," and were forced to guess words like "honky," "nigger," and "polack" in the surroundings of the politically correct Mission performance hall Cell Space.

Eventually, Chicken and Robins ran out of game shows to parody and had to make up their own, including "Make Me Puke," in which Robins' arch, Alistair Cook-style commentary sometimes provided the only clue as to what was happening onstage.

Hal Robins and Chicken John move in circles full of outrageous personalities -- perverted pyros, drug-crazed machinists, sadomasochistic clowns, fake nuns, real prostitutes who cover themselves with roaches onstage, people who poop in front of an audience then wipe their butt with the American flag. Through performing regularly as a foil to Chicken, Robins earned a reputation as a brilliant, literate, classy, and -- at times -- reasonable voice. He became the guy to call to add substance to an improvisational amateur theatrical event.

In the early years of Burning Man, its founder, Larry Harvey, called on Robins to host the event's fashion show. "He's imperturbable," says Harvey. "His timing is perfect. He can turn very little into a great deal. And on top of that, he's a perfect gentleman. I don't think we've seen a comedian who involves as much in the way of intellectual content since Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce."

In the summer of 1998, Robins suddenly shifted from being Chicken John's sidekick to the main attraction when the two staged a Burning Man performance called "The Wizard of Ass." Using duct tape and newspaper, they constructed a 40-foot-high pair of ass cheeks sandwiching a blowtorch that farted fire. Robins sat behind the great ass and answered the questions of supplicants who were first forced to skip up to Chicken John on a strip of yellow linoleum. Robins' answers were esoteric and rambling. Or they were short and to the point: "You have wasted all of our time with a question of that caliber! The Mighty Ass has spoken!"

Little did they know that from the smoldering embers of "Ass" (torched at the end of the festival) the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" would rise.

When Chicken bought the Odeon in 1999, he was consumed with a machine he'd built to layer scrolling karaoke lyrics over hard-core porn tapes and broadcast the result over a local TV signal. "Porneoke" had a good few months, during which Hal Robins memorably performed "Monster Mash" in front of a tape of fornicating dwarfs. But the end came when the bar's Bernal Heights neighbors began picking up the porn/karaoke on their TVs and made a stink. Chicken refocused his energies, devising a platform for his favorite performer based on the success of "The Wizard of Ass." The "Ask Dr. Hal Show" was born.

In the beginning, "Ask Dr. Hal" had no stage, no KROB. It was Chicken flogging the audience and reading the questions, then Robins answering them. But it worked. A small cabaret (or, more accurately, dive bar) was the perfect setting for Robins to entice an audience to accompany him on intellectual tangents. And Chicken kept the show moving. "When Hal does it on his own, it's too slow," says Chicken. "He tries to open the envelopes without ripping them, so we can reuse them later."

On a Tuesday afternoon, Robins' wallet is stuffed full of expired membership cards to questionable organizations, including something called the "San Francisco Water Skiing Society," and a handful of bills. "This is all the money I have in the world," he admits, then adds hastily, "until tonight." He is alluding to the tips he gets from the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." And tips are the only monetary compensation the show provides; Chicken John can't pay Robins (the Odeon is allegedly running in the red).

Robins' friends worry about his financial situation; he has no health insurance and admits that a persistent cough and swelling feet give him cause for concern. Last month, he barely made the rent. He rarely calls people long distance, because he can't afford it. He once was late on sending a client some artwork, because he couldn't afford the $3 and change it cost to mail.

Robins is single and has never married or lived with a woman, though he has had girlfriends. "It's difficult to find someone who will put up with my many limitations," blushes Robins.

"I think he's an old-fashioned guy, and he believes that in order to marry or have a relationship similar to marriage, you should be able to provide a certain amount of financial security," says his sister, Martha, a teacher in upstate New York, "which he's never been able to achieve, because he's not interested in it."

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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