In a full beard and a sleeveless black bicycle jersey, Phil van Hest follows a five-hour writing binge and a sweaty bike ride through the thick summer heat with a goblet of beer and a careful diagnosis of American debt. He chews over his words with deliberation and candor; the subject of his conversation is well-researched, but the words are improvised and sincere, as one of the city's favorite IndyFringe Festival icons deliberates the material of his newest one-man show, Motherbanking Bankholes.
His long, distinctive beard would be impractical for most men in late July, but it becomes van Hest; it is one of few definable characteristics of one of the most enigmatic men you will ever know.
He is equal parts artist, performer, philosopher, comedian, writer, anthropologist, critic, psychologist, teacher, student and activist. That's not much of a marketable brand, but it is Phil's — and it is all his own. Think of a modern-day Khalil Gibran, with a few more anus jokes.
Even when writing his
own promotions, Phil van Hest struggles to define himself as an
entertainer. A comedian evokes images of a microphone and a brick wall,
and that's not quite right. "Philosopher" evokes images of required reading,
and he uses the word "fuck" a couple dozen times too many for his work to find
its way into an IPS curriculum.
While van Hest insists that comedy is simply the numbing agent to dull the mosquito bite of the difficult truths he explores, it is the laughter — not the universal truths — that fills the seats. He does both very well, but the two are mutually dependent on one another for his success.
"I came to this after three years of telling penis jokes for a living," van Hest says of his current string of one-man shows. This spring he moved to Indianapolis to pursue a career of comedy/activism/philosophy/theater/writing. "There's money in dick jokes," he says. "But it felt irresponsible from an artistic integrity standpoint. I try at all times to — and this is really the death nail — educate while making people laugh.
"I try to be factual, accurate and well-researched. But the trick is presenting it in a way that's not fucking boring."
Trying to find God
In Indianapolis, van Hest says, more people have got on board than anywhere else.
After stopping through town the last few summers for IndyFringe, van Hest decided to take his search for a sustainable lifestyle to Indianapolis on a more permanent basis. He has a television-free, automobile-free life in the oasis of Rocky Ripple, where he spends his days writing.
Ideally, van Hest wants to live in a commune of organic farmers, living off the fat o' the lan'. Fully aware that all the American frontiers have been claimed, he seeks a life of communal-based living where he can grow his organic veggies and eat them, too.
"I don't want to need as much, but to start a commune I'm going to need some capital before I can live within a more locally dependent network. It's an illusion to think you can live independently," he says. "I want to build a village, but you'd have to find a group of Amish people or Luddites who are willing to raise their people on this land so that there would be generations to take care of you, but still be close enough to a hospital. And have some health insurance. It's possible, but you have to reinvent the wheel.
"It seemed like that concept was much more available here than in California."
Van Hest doesn't have the answer to America's collective financial ruin, but he wants his audience to consider the heart of the question in his new show, Motherbanking Bankholes, which he will unveil at IndyFringe. This year's effort is a deviation from the broad sociopolitical spectrum of past shows.
"Before, I've always taken on vague philosophical constructs," van Hest says of his latest endeavor, which is largely an affront against the imaginary and asinine concept of American debt. "But this is the first time I've tried to attach the premise to something concrete."
Van Hest finds the nebulous monster of American's financial system — where we play a game in which we strive to be "good at debt" and get the best "debt score" — to be a condescending and dehumanizing beast of our own making.
"It's a faith-based system, and I have a problem with that for the same reason I had a problem with organized religions when I was younger," he explains. "I'm just supposed to accept that someone has a plan, that I don't understand that plan and that I have to just move on with my life. We're supposed to be comforted that we don't know what it is and never will; just be comforted that some larger benevolent figure is taking care of it for you.
"It's like the rapture; it's like an imaginary system. We created it; it's so far-flung at this point no one knows what it is. Even the people who are paid to know what it is don't know what it is. I feel insulted by this notion; if you want to know what's really going on it shouldn't be that hard to find out. But the fact that it's being purposely hidden, it's like spending your whole life trying to literally find God."
So how do we gain independence from this rat race of financial ambition and never-ending debt?
"We could build a commune. But you know what we'd need to do that? A loan."
IndyFringe favorite comic Phil van Hest promotes his new summer standup act