‘Violence vs. humor’

Gettin’ rowdy at Hank Duke’s bi-monthly variety show

Variety show host Nick Stiles, aka Hank Duke, with guitarist/comedian/wrestler Steven Schultz.

Variety show host Nick Stiles, aka Hank Duke, with guitarist/comedian/wrestler Steven Schultz.

Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Hank Duke’s Good Time Variety Hour: Hank Bless America, Sunday, Sept. 10, at Maltese Bar & Tap Room.

If variety really is the spice of life, it follows that variety shows embody the essence of entertainment. Hank Duke, the long-haired, country boy alter-ego and stage persona of comedian/musician and Gnarly Deli food cart owner Nick Stiles knows that, and he proves it as host of both the monthly Hank Duke’s Trivia Hour (last Sundays) and the semi-regular (roughly bi-monthly) Hank Duke’s Good Time Variety Hour shows at the Maltese Bar & Tap Room.

This past Sunday (Sept. 10) was the Variety Hour, and the show’s theme was “Hank Bless America.” Fittingly, the Maltese stage was decorated with dangling, glittery, red, white and blue stars-and-stripes baubles, while the sound booth was draped with both the standard Old Glory as well as a rainbow-flag version. A live trumpet fanfare, followed by a bit of pre-recorded Rage Against the Machine, led into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Hank Duke’s grand entrance as performer and master of ceremonies.

Sporting an acoustic guitar, plus a neatly trimmed beard and a flat-brimmed black cowboy hat complemented by shoulder-length hair, Duke was the personification of contemporary country. But his look is belied by a “Weird Al” Yankovic sense of musical humor that gives him leeway to take the melody of Van Halen’s “Jump” and use it for the basis of a comic diatribe about, you guessed it, “Trump.” A more subtle musical reference emerged with a parody of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s big hit, “Tell Me Somethin’ Good,” which transmogrified into “Tell Me Trump is Good.”

Having gotten the ball rolling in a rollicking manner, Duke turned the stage over to his sideman, fellow guitarist/singer/comedian Steven “Uncle Steve” Schultz, whose exhortation to “Fuck politics!” provoked intense cheering that intensified in reaction to his somewhat contradictory follow-up, “Bernie, Why’d Ya Hafta Lose?”

Chaz Kelly’s stand-up of 9/11 “humor”—delivered on the day before the anniversary of that seemingly impossible-to-joke-about act of depravity—challenged and confirmed our collective ability to use humor as a means of buffering and channeling our deepest sentiments regarding humanity’s potential for using violence as a means of expressing political or religious frustration. Laughing at acts of terror and the people who commit or suffer from them may seem flippant, but laughing at the human condition can be, and was, therapeutic.

The music and jokes (and musical jokes) provided an amusing sort of cerebral variety, but the show really took off with the addition of feats of physical dexterity. And The Good Time Variety Hour didn’t stint on providing genuinely amazing displays of brute physicality and courage, particularly in the wrestling match between 4-foot-10 Robyn Engel and 6-foot-plus opponent Uncle Steve. As it is with big-time wrestling, the moves were choreographed for maximum drama.

To cap off the all-American violence vs. humor theme of the show, the climactic act of the evening featured a hotdog-eating contest between Maltese bartender, musician and all around good guy Jimmy Reno and local comedian Jason Allen. Having earlier eaten two of the dogs—supplied free for patrons of the show by Gnarly Deli—I can testify as to their quality. But watching the competitive consumption evoked such a circular rush of feelings—regarding humor, ethics, violence and diet—that I’ll have to return for a bit of follow-up contemplation in two months (Oct. 29) when the Good Time Variety Hour rolls around again.