|Achtung in cheek
By Sean Davidson
Quick: who's Heino? If you answered "a freakishly wooden folksinger and TV talk show host from 1970s Germany," you are, by Marc Hickox's math, the one out of every 50 people who will entirely get the joke of his show the Heino Happy Höur. "It's like being an Elvis impersonator if no one's ever heard of Elvis," he says. "Heino's known to the German community and record collectors and that's about it.... To everyone else [this character] is just a weird German guy."
Hickox is perched on a bar stool at Leoni's Italian Kitchen, next door to The Second City and its Tim Sims Playhouse where Happy Höur debuts Aug. 29, and explaining over pints of German import how he discovered der Fatherland's most disturbing TV star and turned him into a 90-minute comedy show.
"I rented a video from Suspect that was a collection of crappy moments from TV, and of course Heino was a big part of the tape," says Hickox, a wiry and excitable 29-year-old. Sing with Heino was, he explains, a truly horrible program wherein the über-blond Euro-Elvis lip-synched to volk songs while leading children through the Black Forest and other landscapes. A talk show, which followed in the '80s, clogged the airwaves with more bad music and variety acts.
Happy Höur poses as a taping of the latter, with Hickox as host and a gaggle of other Second City alums Mike Narhgang, Boyd Banks, et al. as assorted "spezialguesten." Sgt. Schultz of Hogan's Heroes does a walk-on, sharing the couch with Heino's silent yet menacing sidekick, the Kraftwerk-like band Radio Free Luxembourg, a sock puppet named Edelweiss and an actual diplomat from the German consulate. Expect beerhall revelry, stiff-legged dancing and lots of ruthlessly efficient singing.
An on-again, off-again Second City player since 1997, Hickox (What Fresh Mel is This?) has been testdriving his impersonation for about a year, riffing on Deutschland culture and its wartime follies with his troupe The Riot Act and at local comedy spots like Pirate Video Cabaret at Clinton's. People either love the act or hate it. "Oh, I agree it's offensive," he says, nodding happily, "but I think stereotypes are really funny.
"I think if you're going to be funny, you have to be very close to that line, or right on it, and you're going to push over it," he adds. "Some of my favourite comics do it. Boyd Banks is loved here because Boyd offends a lot of people. And it's refreshing because a lot of the time people show up at Second City, they want to be an actor or they want to be in improv, but they're not willing to take a fucking risk and push the material that much further."
Germans, he offers, are easy targets and an endless source of material because of their stubborn pride. "Some of them have always considered themselves..." here he slips into a Dr. Strangelove accent, "... elite? Better zan everyvun else? If you stick your chin out that far, if you hold your head that high, someone's gonna come along and hit it." The same goes for the Yanks. "You can always make fun of the Americans," he says, "That'll never stop."
Ethnic gags are one thing, but unless your name is Mel Brooks, making light of the Holocaust is tricky at best. That's when Hickox turns to his producer, Dan Shehori. "Being Jewish he can always tell me when I'm going too far with the Auschwitz references," he says. As if on cue, Shehori joins us. "We haven't put the muzzle on him yet," he says. "I know he's playing a character. I know Marc isn't like that. He'd have to really, really offend before I'd do something."
Hickox adds that, despite the constant references to the Third Reich, his Heino isn't, strictly speaking, a Nazi "Not a Nazi in the same way that someone who grew up in the Prairies or in the South isn't a racist. But there are certain things he says or takes for granted that are off-colour or wrong." Things like, "Throw your arms in the air, sieg heil like you just don't care" or, when a joke bombs, "Vat? You're looking at me like I'm putting you on a train."
But most of Hickox's material just comes watching the original in action. "The real Heino is weirder than I could ever make him," he says. "He's very rigid, very stiff. His demeanour is not that great. He tries to crack jokes and they end up being in poor taste. He's always struggling. But he always wins them back with a song."