Monday, June 29, 2015

The Funny Man You Never Knew: Meet Steven Banks


Last week I asked my blog’s Facebook followers if any of them had heard of Steven Banks. When all I got in return was the sound of crickets, I knew it was time to enlighten the masses with a blog post about this comedic guy whose short-lived TV show has a cult following (of which I may just happen to be a member.) 

It also confirmed my thought after all these years that Banks should have been much bigger and famous than he is. Magician Penn Jillette, one of his long-time friends, told the New York Times in 2010 that Banks "should have been Steve Martin; he's that good." Despite not becoming a household name, he has enjoyed a lucrative career in the entertainment industry, and has written books and scripts for children’s television including CatDog, SpongeBob SquarePants, and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. In recent years, he's been touring and performing as "Billy the Mime" (a mime who takes on taboo subjects) which is a good thing, because it’s when he’s on the stage or in front of a camera that he and his talent really shine. 


My introduction to Banks was via PBS. In the summer of 1994, PBS stations aired The Steven Banks Show which was, believe it or not, the first original sitcom the station produced and aired. The late Brandon Tartikoff of NBC fame produced the show, which consisted of 13 episodes. All ran except for one, “Miss Janie Regrets”, because it parodied a PBS children’s show (no information is available about which one.) 

The Steven Banks Show was pretty much about…well, the quirky Steven Banks and his life revolving around a messy apartment. Banks often came across as a man trapped in a teenager’s body—a guy who puts off doing work in favor of emulating his musical idols of the ‘60s and ‘70s with a comedic edge and deep down, just wants to be a rock and roll star. He had a best bro named Pepper (Michael Kostroff, who recently popped up on an episode of The Blacklist) and had a crush on his neighbor, Mariana (Teresa Parente, who also had a gig on Married With Children.) 

In the first episode, Banks wins what he thinks is John Lennon’s guitar during a television auction but instead ended up with John Lennon’s guitar case. It’s an embarrassing situation, and everyone thinks he’s a loser, until he discovers that Lennon tucked away lyrics to an unpublished song called “I Miss Paul”, which Banks plays to the tune of “Imagine.” I still remember some of the lines: Yoko's driving me crazy // She’s screaming in the hall // Yoko's driving me batty // With a crazy caterwaul. In fact, PBS offered a CD for sale that contained several of Banks' original songs. 

Here’s a scene from that episode where Banks reenacts the Beatles’ story using dolls and toys as props. 



The last episode of the show was truly bizarre: Banks has a crazy dream that includes a scene where he’s on The Dating Game and Mariana is the female contestant; the other bachelors include Caligula and John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and Mariana can’t make up her mind which one she wants to go out with. After the show's run, I kept hoping PBS would commission more episodes but it wasn't meant to be. To this day I still wonder if Steven and Mariana finally got together. 

One of the funniest clips of this show, which I was disappointed to discover is not uploaded anywhere online, was when Banks used his hands after one of the episodes to reenact a couple getting frisky and having sex…I remember watching this in amazement and wondering how it slipped past the PBS censor committee…especially when they instead had a problem with a parody of one of their programs! If memory serves me correctly, the scene ended with one of the hands holding a cigarette. 

This actually wasn't the first version of The Steven Banks Show; it had an original run on Showtime in 1991 with Banks playing a guy named Steven Brooks but the concept was the same. 


A few years prior to his television debut, Banks starred in a one-man theater show that he conceived and wrote: Home Entertainment Center. This has been uploaded to YouTube in several parts and I highly recommend checking it out for some laughs sometime. In it, Banks does spot-on, hilarious impersonations of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, performs original songs, and delivers an amazing drum solo that would impress even Terence Fletcher of Whiplash. He performed the show 440 times and earned several awards. 

Maybe it was the fact that Banks' act pretty much followed the same formula, but it's still a little perplexing as to why he was never invited to appear on The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman and offered a show on network television. A funny guy that kind of slipped through the cracks...and got resurrected a bit here on Go Retro. Here's a great clip from Home Entertainment Center. If you're a Dylan fan, skip ahead to the 8:30 mark and enjoy.

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