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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 5 of 5

"What he does is not exactly chick bait," says friend and fellow member of the Church of the SubGenius Kurt Kuersteiner.

Occasionally, almost in spite of himself, Robins lands a gig that pays real cash. For two seasons, ending last year, he appeared as the announcer on a TNN cable talk show called The Conspiracy Zone, hosted by Kevin Neelon, formerly of Saturday Night Live. The show had a format similar to Politically Incorrect, but for the Zone, public figures like Ann Coulter came on to discuss conspiracy theories. And in 1998, Robins performed many of the voices for characters in the extremely popular video game Half-Life.

But most of Robins' endeavors are decidedly off-Broadway and unremunerative. "[The people I perform with] are amateurs. And if you parse the word 'amateur,' it means 'for the love of it,'" says Robins. "They do what they do not to make a killing or retire on it, but out of urgent necessity, and a knowledge that life is too short."

Robins' friends are forever receiving little handmade fliers for readings or recitations or shows where, sometimes, seven people constitute the audience. In August, for example, Robins will recite Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (which he knows by heart) on the decks of a life-size Spanish galleon in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. The Xtra Action Marching Band, a Bay Area performance group, will play an original composition between stanzas. All the while, the boat -- on wheels -- will carry the cast across the desert, acrobats will tumble from the riggings, a fog machine will puff, and cooks from a Gypsy restaurant located in the Excelsior District will serve dinner.

"I don't know what you would call this stuff," says Scott Beale, founder of the Squidlist, an online e-mail list that tracks the San Francisco underground arts scene. "We don't have critics reviewing it. I thought 'Wizard of Ass' was hilarious, but this isn't Matthew Barney."

Robins says he performs in free gigs in hopes they'll lead to paying ones. The reasoning breaks down when you consider that his lucrative opportunities -- The Conspiracy Zone and Half-Life -- resulted from personal connections. (Scott Carter, one of the producers of The Conspiracy Zone, was a high school friend; Marc Laidlaw, a writer on Half-Life, knew Robins through the underground comix scene.)

Though Robins says he's now focused less on illustration and more on performing as a career, he has never had an agent. "I suppose I should get one," he says reluctantly. "But I really don't know how I would go about doing that."

There's a SubGenius saying that a member of the Church will always "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." This seems to apply to Robins, as his total cluelessness in business matters is, at times, self-destructive. For instance, Robins often gives clients his original artwork -- the equivalent of a photographer giving away her negative -- without drawing up a written contract safeguarding its return. As a consequence, he has often not gotten the art back. Some complain Robins is whiny, and -- at times -- sophomoric. "It's easy to hate Bush, hate punk rockers," says Reagle. "I wish there was a way for him to use his gigantic talents on a greater level."

But if Robins were to have success, what would it look like? What market is there for somebody who can recite hundreds of hours of romantic poetry by heart, who looks like Benjamin Franklin, and who comes across as Samuel Johnson?

"It seems unlikely that any corporation that's not psychotic would let Hal have his own show," says Robins' roommate, Mavrides.

The following week, Robins receives word from his friend Scott Carter, the producer from The Conspiracy Zone, that two of Carter's entertainment industry pals are flying up expressly to check out the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." Implausibly enough, it appears that Robins' philosophy might be panning out: Hollywood is actually coming to him, at the Odeon.

A few hours before the show, Robins doesn't seem too concerned. When asked over the phone if he is boning up for his answers, he replies from his apartment, "Should I be? I don't even know what tonight's theme is." Nor does he have any idea what exactly the two men are coming to see him for, what he should be pitching them on.

"I don't know what they want," he says with a note of exasperation in his voice. "All I know is they're flying into Oakland, and Chicken has offered them a room in his loft. I think they might be used to better surroundings, however; they're from Los Angeles, they could be allergic to [Chicken's dog] Dammit."

The theme of the evening's show is, appropriately enough, "Dreams." The guys from Hollywood arrive as planned; they are dressed in chic suits, sit at a table near the stage, and laugh appreciatively at all Robins' jokes. One is Ken Crosby, a producer on Real Time With Bill Maher. The other is Paul Tompkins, who hosts a live variety show at the Hollywood nightclub Largo.

"We came down because I wanted to see if what Hal does could possibly work on my show," reveals Tompkins, while waiting to use the facilities. "I think it could, though maybe in a simplified form."

He adds with a rueful smile, "It doesn't pay anything though."

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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