Drew Hastings strides onstage at the Valentine Theater in Toledo Ohio – all 6’ 6” of him. He’s dressed in black like Johnny Cash, but from the neck up resembles a goyische Woody Allen. He wears thick black glasses which remind most of Buddy Holly, but Hastings refers to them as “my Al Sharpton glasses – big, black, you can see right through them.” In the first moments of his standup concert it’s already obvious — Drew is as multiplicitous as a Picasso painting, as offensive as an Andres Serrano photograph, and as confusing as – well, as a Drew Hastings standup concert.
Drew Hastings has seen many changes in his half century or so. Born in Morocco of a British mother and soldier father, reared in Ohio, he has lived all over the United States and held many types of jobs. It’s a bit sketchy exactly what some of those jobs entailed – in his own words, some were a bit “shady” – but what’s certain is each profession differed radically from the next. Most people pick a profession or two and remain at least in the general vicinity for their lifetime. But Drew Hastings, he makes it clear, is not most people.
“I was a long-haired hippie freak in the early/mid-‘70s and hung with Dayton, Ohio hippies who had long hair, did acid, had an Appalachian streak, and were complete badasses. The drug-using cousins of Larry Flint. Literally,” he said of his early life, via an email interview. Descriptive, eh? Yet still vague. He alludes to running a business and “governmental regulation” which “really started getting intrusive”. But it isn’t clear what type of business that was. At any rate, at some point “in the mid-’80s”, he decided he could be a standup comic – so he gave that a try.
So why is Drew so vague, so reticent about his biographical material? What he does give up is much more interesting than the bad relationship and city slicker on a farm stories to be found in his newly released DVD, Drew Hastings: Irked and Miffed. His blog page on MySpace shows a literate individual – anyone who’s a fan of A Confederacy of Dunces can’t be all bad, right? (Except one does fear that the dunces, to Hastings, are most of us.) The only similarity between his blog musings and his stage act is the elitism he projects outward. What we get, on stage, instead, are jokes and schtick. Rehearsed, exaggerated stories. Bad relationship formulaic humor. Fish out of water humor. Nothing that seems nearly as original as this man seems to be, once one gets a glimmer of what’s behind that hipster costume.
His act and his persona seem all over the map for the duration of this filmed live performance. He proves he can work clean with a story about an animal park – and then he drops some gratuitous F bombs, spoiling the fun. One hopes Lenny Bruce’s sacrifice wasn’t merely so that intelligent men could later shrink their own vocabularies. Comedian Hastings mentions in various articles and in his own blog posts online about how he hated L.A. In his emailed replies for this article, he said he “never liked the place” which was “a slow erosion of my soul”. Still, there’s something canned about the ‘I hate L.A.’ manifesto many performers profess while wringing their living out of the place. Comedians who dress in all-black and cherish a grudge toward Los Angeles are not exactly unusual, either.
So who’s behind the costume? Hastings shared a few biographical stories via email. After moving to Ohio at age two, he was raised Episcopalian. His mother remarried when he was eight, then he was suddenly “thrust into Orthodox Judaism, and not really… accepted”. Teen years were spent also not fitting in: he was beaten regularly, he said, “probably because I used words like ‘behoove’, ‘imbecile’, and ‘soiled trousers’, in 1960s Ohio.” He watched Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson on television as a child. He was “always fascinated by comedians” but “never thought about doing it.” His childhood ambition, he typed, was to be an archaeologist. One’s tempted to draw a parallel between digging for the truth about ancient civilisations and digging for the truth about the current world via comic analysis of it. However, some of the responses to my emailed questions made it plain: over-analyzing ticks him off.
What’s unique about Drew Hastings (or any individual) is what makes them interesting. As he wrote in one of his online blogs, “the road not taken” is the more rewarding. I just wish he’d taken that road more often in his comedy. If he had mined his life experiences for his comedy, instead of rattling off recycled jokes and rehearsed patter, I’d have been riveted. (More to the point – I might even have laughed.) He is “big on experiential experiences” and has proven that with a varied and colorful life spent under many guises in many places.
Drew Hastings: Irked and Miffed seems tame by comparison. One is left wishing for more "there" there. Recommended for his loyal corps of fans; others would do better to rent some Richard Pryor. Or Richard Lewis, if the man in black schtick grabs ya – he did it first, and better. Perhaps Hastings is the penultimate postmodern man: many personae, many changes, a copy of a copy of a copy – of himself. He tours “about 35 weeks a year”, he typed, so – he does okay. It takes real courage to stand alone on stage and tell some jokes. It takes even more courage to stand alone on stage and tell the truth. With all that he’s been through, there has got to be more than a jaded exterior to offer his audience. Or, so one hopes. "I believe all comedy comes from pain," Hastings typed. So, does he have the guts to go into that pain to truly find it? As the saying goes, “There’s a story there”.
It just hasn’t as yet been filmed.