Billy the Mime
Also known as Steven Banks, Billy puts a unique twist on the much-maligned art form.
By Bettijane Levine 12/06/2013
You may not have heard of Billy the Mime because he doesn’t perform on a regular basis. What he does perform is politically incorrect and definitely not a mass market commodity. We’re talking about him here because Billy the Mime is one of Arroyoland’s fabulously talented residents who make the area so artistically vibrant and diverse. His routines are conceptually unique. He wrings laughter and tears from audiences, using classically elegant mime techniques in material that is edgy, offbeat, irreverent and audacious. Critics say he has singlehandedly revived an art form that was never really in favor long enough to go out of favor.
The New York Times, reviewing Billy’s act, called him “a savvy artist [who can] shock an audience into gales of laughter and then stun it into silence — all without saying a word.” Magician-musician-comedian Penn Jillette devotes a 10-minute Youtube video to the art of Billy the Mime, whose act he says you should see because it is “compassionate, an inspiration. It will destroy you. He will break your heart and then make your heart soar.” His stage partner,Teller,told Arroyo Monthly, “I think that Billy the Mime is the perfect piece of entertainment. I will go to Billy the Mime any time I can possibly make it. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s disturbing, it’s fun, it’s virtuosic.” Variety said: “The most disturbing thing about Billy the Mime’s work is that it’s beautiful. With just a few movements of his hands… he creates an old-fashioned waistcoat. With an upward tilt of his white-painted face, he communicates the respect a young boy feels for an adult… But how do we forgive him for making us imagine the worst” when he turns “some of America’s most trenchant scandals and tragedies into charming entertainment?”
Just the titles of some of Billy’s 48 routines hint at what’s to come: “A Day Called 9/11” depicts that horrendous event from the viewpoint of attackers and victims, all in wordless horror. “The Priest and the Altar Boy” elegantly evokes the tragedy of church scandals. “Thomas [Jefferson] & Sally [Hemmings] — A Night at Monticello,” succinctly, and hilariously, depicts the ironic dichotomy between the public and private lives of America’s third president, who authored the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves and making one of them his mistress.
Billy takes on “World War II,” “The History of Art” (from cavemen to Banksy) and “The African American Experience.” And he looks at JFK’s last plane ride and Whitney Houston’s last bath. He roams through centuries, plucks out momentous events and iconic individuals and portrays them — men, women, children — all silently caught in historic (or histrionic) acts. With an incredibly flexible, Slinky-like physique and exquisitely controlled, evocative gestures, he communicates the appetites and attitudes that are timeless hallmarks of humanity (or inhumanity, as the case may be).
Billy the Mime is actually Steven Banks, a lifelong Glendale resident with a wife, two children and a multifaceted career that, on paper, seems conventionally successful (if you ignore his miming sideline). Emmy-nominated during his six-year stint as head writer for the animated megahit Spongebob Squarepants, he also writes plays, novels, TV sitcoms and music, and collaborated with the renowned Pilobolus dance company on a performance piece. He also acts on TV and stage, sings, writes music, plays guitar and does his mime routines in select venues here and across the globe when the mood strikes and free time permits.
Banks spoke with Arroyo Monthly from an office at Chuck Lorre Productions, where he’s currently writing a one-hour comedy-drama pilot for Lorre, the driving force behind a slew of hit TV series, including two of the country’s highest-rated comedies, Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory.
You recently told an audience that you hate mimes. Do you mean that?
I do hate mimes. Because 99 percent of them are pretentious. There’s no content to their shows. They’re all doing the same thing, like pulling at a balloon, or trying to climb out of a box; they’re all trying and failing to imitate Marcel Marceau. It’s very annoying. What I do is classical mime, but in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Where did this start, how did you get the idea for it?
At Hoover High School in Glendale. My drama teacher there, Robert Baker, was a tremendous influence on me. I can’t overemphasize his impact on me as an actor and writer, and we are still very good friends. He comes to a lot of my shows and we see other performances together.
Did you study performance art in college?
I dropped out of L.A. City College after a year. I went to clown school at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Then, for much of my life I [wrote and performed] assembly shows in junior highs, high schools and colleges around the country. The shows were mime and musical comedy.
How did you learn to mime?
I’m 95 percent self-taught. There’s a book by Richmond Shepard called [Mime:] The Technique of Silence, which I studied intensely. I also saw Marcel Marceau many times. Whenever he came to town I saw him.
What propelled you from doing school performances into legit show business?
I wrote a one-person play [as Steven Banks] called Home Entertainment Center, which played in L.A. and San Francisco. Then Showtime came and shot it as a comedy special and it aired 20 times. Then people in TV saw me and were interested.
Your career seems to have branched out in many different directions.
I was head writer on Spongebob Squarepants for six years and also did a show called Jimmy Neutron. And I had a half-hour sitcom on national PBS, called The Steven Banks Show, based on the character in Home Entertainment Center — a guy who dreamed of being a rock-and-roller but was easily distracted. It was produced by Brandon Tartikoff. I also did some acting on shows like Dharma & Greg and Caroline in the City. I’ve written a few plays done here, in Chicago and New York. One play, called Looking at Christmas, ran in New York, and PBS there shot it and has aired it the last two Christmases. I wrote a young-adult novel called King of the Creeps, published by Random House/Knopf, and I wrote a show called Love Tapes with Penn Jillette that will be in Chicago next year. I’m doing a pilot now for Chuck Lorre, called A Beautiful Mess. A lot of different things, plus the mime shows.
You have such diverse credits. When people ask what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
It depends on who’s asking, and in what way I want to impress them. Could be writer, actor, TV, mime — any of the things I do.
How often do you perform as Billy the Mime?
It depends. Sometimes I do Billy eight times a year, some years I do it 30 times. Changes all the time. I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and I did 25 shows in 26 days. Then I do shows in L.A., usually at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which gets a good, hip, smart crowd, both young and older people. I also did a six-week run in New York at The Flea Theater in 2007.
How did the mime part of your career evolve?
I did one routine as part of a show at a small comedy theatre. The strongest thing in the show was my segment about JFK. Then in 2005 my friend Penn Jillette asked me to do [a mime segment] in his [documentary], called The Aristocrats [about various ways to tell a single dirty joke]. It made me think it would be interesting to do a show about a mime who had no idea his routines were in very bad taste. I knew I had to do it technically really well, and it had to have substance. After The Aristocrats came out, I did my first show, which had 12 routines, including “A Night in Monticello,” “World War II” and “San Francisco Nights,” which takes place in 1979, about a gay man going to gay bars, getting AIDS and dying. I’d known people this happened to. The routine was very moving.
So you began writing and developing more routines?
Yes. I’d known mime could be very funny. I was surprised it could also be so very powerful and moving — audience members gasping and crying.
How many routines do you have?
I have 48 routines. I write them all out, just like a script. Then I rehearse and videotape each one, and I do it dozens of times until it is very clear and it makes sense, and there’s a beginning, middle and end. If done correctly, the audience really gets it. No words needed.
What’s your favorite thing about miming?
I get to play all the parts. Women, men and kids. In the routine called
“World War II,” for example, I play Roosevelt, Hitler, a German soldier, a Japanese pilot, a hula dancer at Pearl Harbor, the pilot of the Enola Gay dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
Do you have favorites?
I like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, because it’s historical, takes on one of the greatest, most brilliant Americans, who wrote the Declaration of Independence but at the same time was having sex with one of his slaves, a person he owned. That routine is very graphic and explicit when I show him with Sally, and then I contrast it with his public image, playing the violin, pouring wine, entertaining guests at Monticello. My show is not for kids. Another favorite is “The History of Art.” I get to play Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Andy Warhol.
Are there audience favorites?
They seem to like “The History of Art.” And one called “The African American Experience,” which literally covers slavery to Obama. Also, David Carradine’s last night gets a strong reaction.
I am just finishing a new play I will send to the Flea. And I just wrote a low-budget horror film set in World War I, which features a vampire. That was a unique war because of the gassing, the trenches, the tunnels between the trenches. No one has done that yet.
For upcoming performance dates, visit billythemime.net.