To Steven Banks, mime is an "art form that has been justly ridiculed due to untrained and amateur practitioners performing pretentious and self-indulgent work. There's a good reason to hate mimes. Most of them are awful."
And he's a mime!
Banks, a 60-year-old actor and writer in real life, puts on infrequent shows as Billy the Mime, a mime unlike any other you've seen, and one that changed my impression of the art.
"Well, a lot of people don't get it," he agrees, "and for good reasons. There are so many people who are bad practitioners. They have no technique, or they have great technique but they're not doing anything. They're just smelling flowers and getting trapped in boxes. Which Marcel Marceau did great, but you know, do some new stuff."
Banks performed Monday night at the Upright Citizens Brigade space on Sunset at Western, for which the $5 tickets sold out rapidly.
The hand-lettered title cards he uses tell you it's not a show for kids.
In "The Abortion, 1963," Banks pantomimes a woman getting a coat-hanger abortion. In "Drinks with Bill Cosby," a young woman visits Cosby's hotel room, he drugs and rapes her, then watches one of his TV shows. In "Whitney Houston's Last Bath," we see the singer undressing after a gig, wistfully examining herself in the bathroom mirror, taking drugs to counter what she sees in the mirror, drowning, then flying away to a happier place.
In our interview, Banks seemed to avoid saying why these sketches are so deeply effecting — he says he loves that audience members react to them differently — so I'll say that, for me, his performances strip these tropes down to the pure physicality of the acts depicted. It's one thing to know backroom abortions happen, it's another to see the cruelly casual doctor and the shattered woman. Billy the Mime acting out a reported rape — in a performance with darkly humorous moments — underscores the enormity of the accusations against Cosby. And in the Whitney sketch, a woman who starts as a tabloid character becomes a human being again.
Banks has been performing as Billy the Mime for about 10 years. His most notable moment came when he pantomimed the joke "The Aristocrats" for the documentary about the dirty joke. He says he's been friends with the movie's producers, Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, for years (he was on his honeymoon in San Francisco 36 years ago when he met Gillette) and they insisted he perform the joke in mime. The first take, Banks says, was ruined because Provenza laughed so hard during filming.
But Billy the Mime doesn't perform much because, as he admits, there's not much of a market for mime.