Photo by Steve Bird
How Steve sees Bird: A self-portrait
Bird flies LES stage for the page
Novel ‘not the output of a man at peace with the world’
BY TRAV S.D.
Steve Bird is a rara ava. Since the mid-1980s, the Buffalo native has lived and worked in New York (mostly the East Village), performing his off-kilter monologues and sketches to amused — and sometimes concerned — audiences.
With the June, 2009 publication of his outrageous first book (“Hideous Exuberance”), Bird’s career seems poised to enter a new phase; even if the book has been percolating for three decades.
“I actually began a sort of prototype of the book when I was still in high school,” says Bird. The astute reader may suspect as much. The work’s adolescent origins seep through the book’s fifteen sections — which read like Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” as conceived by a brilliant, angst-ridden teenager with an axe to grind.
Full of gross caricatures of trailer park bimbos, celebutards and hellish demons, one imagines its first draft scrawled in a composition book alongside dirty doodles — and being read aloud to giggling classmates in a corner of the school library. It’s not the output of a man (let alone a kid) at peace with the world.
A self-professed “school newspaper geek” and “wallflower,” he enrolled in nearby Niagara College as a theatre major before small town life got to be too much for him.
He transferred to NYU in 1981, but rapidly began what he calls a “downward spiral. I got sucked into the whole punk scene, which was just then winding down.”
Punk mecca CBGBs was still in full flower then — even as its seminal bands (the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie) were achieving national fame. After dropping out of school for awhile to carouse, Bird eventually returned to NYU’s Gallatin School to graduate with a concentration in World Lit.
But the urge to perform (one might say a morbid one) never left him. From the mid-1980s through the early 90s, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. If your conception of the form is the stereotypical one of a guy in a button-down shirt talking about sports teams and the food in his refrigerator, it must be kept in mind that this was the heyday of numerous outré acts with broad, goofy characterizations that brought their monologues much closer to what most people think of as performance art.
Not surprisingly, Bird lists as his inspiration nuts like Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait and Emo Phillips, as well as ballsier female comics like Sandra Bernhard, Judy Tenuta and Margaret Cho. Ultimately, though, stand-up is a commercial medium, and says Bird, “I never fit into that genre. I started out as a kid studying to be a concert pianist, so I was coming from a high art place. Stand-up clubs are no place to try to be an artist.”
Fortunately, a few years later he was able to finally find a home in the burgeoning performance comedy scene at alternative clubs in the Lower East Side like Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious — which were just getting off the ground in the mid-90s. The linchpins of these two clubs were their open mic nights, where the most outrageous performers in town (some of them genuine mentally ill) could get stage time.
At Surf Reality, bald, mild-mannered host Faceboy held court until the Allen Street club was shuttered in 2003. At Collective, elf-eared slacker-chick Rev Jen fronted the Anti-Slam until its Ludlow Street theatre closed its doors that same year (she managed to keep her popular show going at a succession of venues. It’s currently ensconced at Bowery Poetry Club).
Bird quickly became a familiar face at both open mic nights, and became popular for his menacing demeanor and the completely uncensored malice of his diatribes. It didn’t hurt that he was also funny.
Rev Jen says of Bird, “One thing I’ve always loved about Steve’s performances at the open mic is that even if he’s the last performer out of 50 or so Art Stars who all happen to be doing interpretive dance or penis jokes, he gets up and has insane energy. Very few people can crack me up at the end of a 5-hour show, but he’s quite capable [of doing that]. Also, I love it when, Harvey Korman style, he starts giggling in the middle of his set.”
From the open mic nights, it was natural for him to expand — so he began producing a series of shows at Collective Unconscious. The titles of the productions speak volumes: “Sarcastic Passion,”“Jealous Competitive Bastard,” “Outside the Comfort Zone” and “Ass of Satan” to name just a few. The format was usually a “one-man show” — but in reality, it was a variety show hosted by Bird. “Actually I was more of an anti-emcee,” says Bird. “I specialized in alienating and antagonizing the audience.” In addition to his monologues and improvised rants, Bird would book equally out-there special guests from the downtown scene like Shecky Beagleman, David Leopold, Karen Sneider and Audrey Crabtree (who directed many of his shows).
“Steve’s a truth-speaker,” says Crabtree. “He has this great imagination and this way with language, but also this anger at society and its complacency that feels so justified. What struck me was how brave he was, the way he believed in his material and kept going, even when audiences weren’t getting it at first.”
Gradually, Bird began to build an audience — but just as momentum was gathering, 9/11 hit. People stopped going to theatres for a time and the Lower East Side clubs folded. Bird took a break from performing in 2002, only emerging from hibernation with the opening of the now-defunct Mo Pitkins on Avenue A four years later.
In the meantime, he’d begun serious work on “Hideous Exuberance” — which went through four major revisions over five years before finally making it to print.
“I’m more calculated than I used to be,” says Bird, “I used to be really angry. I still am, but to a lesser degree. I edited some stuff out. My goal was to make it vile, but with discretion. I wanted to give it some gross-out elements, but also wanted to go for the philosophical and the sublime. The book is sort of R-rated experience combined with Dr. Seuss.”
One seldom hears an artist describe his own work as “vile” and “gross” — and in an approving manner no less; but is characteristic of Bird’s work that these are the very effects he is going for.
“Some psychologists would say the impulse is infantile, I guess,” Bird says. “Artists play with paints the way babies play with their own [shit]. I’m a bad little boy making a mess. I want to transcend taboos. It’s self expression first and foremost.”
Like all the great satirists, he lists as his targets “mundanity, banality, hypocrisy [and Victorianism].” And where did he find all that? Back in his native Buffalo, where these scatological stories (which mix elements of William S. Burroughs, Victor Hugo and the Chronicles of Narnia — among countless others) first began.
“A lot of this is directed toward my family. They were definitely caught up in appearances. I’m definitely not showing this book to my mother and my sister,” says Bird.
So much the better for us, his fellow disgruntled, alienated New Yorkers. If you keep your eye peeled, you’ll find him in the line-up of venues like Comix and Bowery Poetry Club. And — full disclosure — he’ll be reading on a bill with me at Von Bar on Bleecker Street on March 15.