Billy the Mime: Steven Banks breaks with convention at Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Billy's not kidding around in darkly funny mime act
This article is from 2012.
Of the many versions of the titular joke featured in 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, one interpretation stands out. In broad daylight on LA’s Venice Beach, actor and comedian Steven Banks mimes the dysfunctional family tale of incest, coprophilia, necrophilia and every other taboo going, as Angelenos walk past, oblivious. ‘One of the guys said, “we’ve got to put a mic pack on you”, because all the other comedians had one,’ laughs Banks. ‘So if you look very carefully, when I get down on all fours there’s a little mic pack strapped to my back. And of course it’s silent!’
The Aristocrats co-director Penn Jillette (one half of illusionist duo Penn and Teller) has long been firm friends with Banks and had asked him for his unique take on the classic joke. ‘I’d already created this character of Billy the Mime in a few other shows,’ remembers Banks. ‘I’d done a routine called “JFK Jr: We Hardly Knew Ye”. It was right after he died and it was his whole life in two and a half minutes. I was trying to think of what to do for The Aristocrats and I thought Billy the Mime should do it. So then we went down to Venice Beach and Paul Provenza [The Aristocrats’ other co-director] was filming it. I said, “well, make sure there are no kids watching”. Then we started shooting and they hadn’t seen me do it. We had to stop on the first take because Paul was laughing so much and the camera was shaking.’
The experience convinced Banks to work on a full mime routine. Developing sketches with titles such as ‘Dinner with Jeffrey Dahmer’, ‘Roman Polanski and the 13-Year-Old Girl’ and ‘A Bad Day at Virginia Tech’, it’s clear he’s trying to avoid the usual clichés of sniffing a flower or trying to escape from a clear box. ‘The problem with mimes is that, most times, I just hate them because they’re either not trained and you don’t know what they’re doing or they’re very skilled but their routines are very pretentious. It’s really the only art form that’s kind of universally hated, but for very good reason because most of them are just not that good and it’s so easy to fall into that.’
Banks’ skills are largely self-taught. For a while, he made a living performing for kids at school. ‘I just did it for a few years and then I went to clown college. They did have a mime instructor there but I had already been doing it. But it certainly didn’t hurt to get more tips.’ Billy the Mime emerged as a response to Banks’ disdain for his contemporary practitioners. ‘My basic idea was: what if there was a mime who was very skilled and very good technically but had no idea the routines were in such bad taste? It was all about the subject matter.’
His interests are certainly at the dark end of the scale. ‘As John Lennon once said, it’s a good way to end something when you have someone die,’ he reasons. ‘I wasn’t conscious of that at first but then someone else said, “well, it isn’t a Billy routine until someone dies”. And I discovered that there was a lot of death in the show, but that makes it sound very heavy. It’s comedy slash theatre, in a way, but it’s satirical. It’s not a parody of a mime show because it’s got to be very clear. The death thing sort of snuck up on me after I looked and saw what was happening. But I guess, because it’s going to darker places, whether it’s doing World War II in five minutes or whatever, there’s a lot of death.’
Balancing his bleaker work, Banks has forged a diverse career as a comedian and actor, notably in his one-man award-winning show Home Entertainment Center, which transferred from stage to TV screen in 1989. The 1990s saw him take on a number of TV roles and a bit part in Beverly Hills Cop III. More recently, he’s carved out a niche as a children’s TV writer, earning himself an Emmy nomination for SpongeBob SquarePants.
‘I’ve done a lot of different things and it’s not like everything is going to be really sick and funny and twisted. It just all depends on the project. So I’ve done things in both worlds. I’ve written children’s books and young adult books. It works well to go back and forth but it all comes down to the writing and the execution. You have to apply the same basic rules.’
Next up is animated project The Governator, working with Arnold Schwarzenegger and comic book supremo Stan Lee. ‘It was going to be a series for young kids and then things happened in Schwarzenegger’s life and they put it on hold,’ explains Banks, diplomatically. ‘Then the producers came back with a new idea to make it in a sort of Austin Powers vein. I just turned in my script and they seemed to like it quite a bit so they’re wheeling and dealing with it. It’s about Arnold Schwarzenegger as a superhero.’
For now though, Banks is eager to introduce Billy the Mime to Edinburgh audiences. ‘Paul Provenza’s been trying to get me to go there for five or six years. I’m really excited to do it, and also to do routines that will work over there.’ And will Fringe audiences see any additions to his repertoire? ‘I can change it depending on what’s going on or if some celebrity dies. There’s a new one called “Whitney Houston Bath” and so it all really depends on what happens between today and August.’