David Liebe Hart is no joke.
While the musician, actor and puppeteer is best known through his association with comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the 61-year old Hart has long been one of the L.A. art scene’s most cherished cult figures. And he’s optimistic that his best years are ahead of him.
After decades spent in relative obscurity (although some of his early acting credits include appearances on Good Times, The Golden Girls and Wings), Hart received his big break in 2007 as a recurring cast member on Adult Swim’s Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, in which he portrayed a slightly exaggerated version of himself. Each of his sketches was set against a trippy animated background and consisted of Hart singing a “duet” with one of his bizarre marionette puppets.
Hart’s most iconic Awesome Show skit is for the song “Salamé,” which he performs with the bloated, ragged, nearly human-sized “Jason the Cat” puppet. The term salamé — which allegedly means “hello” and “goodbye” in the language spoken by a race of aliens called the Korendians — has become something of a generational secret handshake among millennials reared on Heidecker and Wareheim’s absurdist, post-cultural comedy.
Hart lives in an old East Hollywood apartment complex that evokes nostalgia for Hollywood’s golden era; he proudly rattles off the names of all the successful actors and actresses who once lived in his building. In the coming months, Hart hopes to land a more serious role on TV — he wants to prove to the world that there’s more to him than surreal, 90-second sketches on Adult Swim. “I’d love to be on The Big Bang Theory or any of the cop shows, like CSI,” he tells me. “I do comedy, but I can also do drama.”
In the meantime, Hart’s primary source of income is touring; he has more or less been on the road since July. “Jonah has me touring all over the United States and Canada,” he says, referring to his manager and collaborator, Jonah Mociun. Hart likes touring, but he implies that he wishes he were home more, bemoaning the fact that his Hollywood home is sometimes more like an expensive storage unit.
He’s only been back at his apartment for a little under a week, and when I arrive, it’s in a general state of disarray. A miscellany of packages, memos and CDs cover the floor. His groceries have spoiled, and his fish tank — Hart’s prized, decorative centerpiece — is thick with green slime. Dusty shelves are lined with collectible toy trains, books on UFOs and DVD reissues of some of Hart’s favorite shows from his youth, like Mork & Mindy and The Muppet Show. It's not “dorm room” dirty or disorganized — everything clearly follows some kind of organizational logic. Hart’s apartment is like an aperture into his own slightly chaotic existence: It may look like a mess to us, but everything is exactly where he wants it.
Hart’s willingness to spend time with his fans often gives people the impression that his on-screen persona and his “real” personality are indistinguishable, but that isn’t accurate. When he knows he’s in the presence of someone familiar with his most popular work, he noticeably hams it up. The first few times we hang out, he attempts to regale me with stories about John C. Reilly and his Awesome Show colleague (and long-time friend) James Quall. But once Hart realizes that I don't expect him to constantly entertain me, he begins talking candidly about the things that actually matter to him: ghosts and extraterrestrials, show business hypocrisy, the pursuit of true love, and — maybe most significantly — the Christian Science church.
Hart’s love of music is inextricable from his religious faith. The church is where he learned to play. “There was an organist at the Christian Science church I went to as a kid in Chicago, and she taught me music theory and how to play different Christian Science classical hymns,” he says. “I had a grandmother who was a Lutheran and another grandmother who was a Baptist, so I started playing at [two different] churches, and then I started writing my own hymns and choir arrangements.”
As a young adult, Hart developed a feverish affection for rock & roll. He got a job at Chicago radio station WLS, "which at the time would play a lot of rock & roll and country, and so I started doing cover songs out at clubs.” Hart says that he auditioned to join Styx and the band Chicago, who at the time were still called Chicago Transit Authority — dubious claims (both bands are quite a bit older than him), but amazing if true. “They went to my high school,” Hart says. “I played music with both of those bands for just a little while, before moving out of the area.”
Hart’s love for both Christian Science hymnals and popular music launched two parallel musical careers. In the public access community, Hart rose to notoriety in Los Angeles with The Junior Christian Teaching Bible Lesson Program, a (mostly) earnest vehicle for Hart to espouse the teachings of Christian Science through music that ran for over a decade and served as the aesthetic antecedent to his Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! skits.
Hart still performs traditional religious music every Sunday at the 4th Church of Christ, Scientist in Long Beach. Sometimes, he’s allowed to perform hymns that he’s set to his own music, but today he’s singing the originals. Dressed in his Sunday best — a dapper pinstripe suit, with a blue-striped dress shirt — Hart leads the service in three classical hymns. His passionate, sonorous voice consumes the entire room — this is David Liebe Hart when the cameras are off.
After the service, Hart introduces himself to the congregants he doesn’t already know and tells them where they can listen to his original songs. I ask a member of the church, who chooses not to be identified, if there’s concern that Hart sees the church as a tool to self-promote.
“He knows that he’s not here to promote himself, but on occasion [he] will mention it before or after the service,” the congregant tells me. “He has a sincere interest in singing and performing and sharing his faith with others, and he shares his faith though music, so in a way [the church and his original music] are connected. But it’s not just somebody trying to make money, it’s someone who’s sincere about what he’s doing.”
In recent years, Hart’s status as a minor celebrity has allowed him to tour off his original, secular catalog. On his latest LP, 2015’s Astronaut, he travels to dense, electro-pop territory, an idiom that perfectly befits his other passion: aliens.
“In 1968, some extraterrestrials walked into my room, and took me up in a beam of light,” Hart says. “They operated on me, took samples of my skin and hair, talked to me telepathically, and told me they weren’t going to hurt me, but that they just wanted to see what made me tick. I was there for two weeks.
“I’ve had experiences with ghost phenomena, too,” he continues. “There was this orange ghost who would sit in the corner chair of my room that I called the Pickle Man, who used to tickle me and lick me, and it was strange, having a ghost lick me. He was all orange — it wasn’t like a traditional, caucasian ghost. After I cleaned my room, he would throw all of the stuff out of my closet, put too much food in my fish tank, play the piano, take out my toys and play with them — and then just before it became morning, he would disappear under the rug.” This experience served as the inspiration for Hart’s song “The Pickle Man & Mr. Moose,” off Astronaut.
While many of Hart’s songs concern the otherworldly or supernatural, a few offer a rare glimpse into his humanity. “Fabian,” which appears on the 2014 album Go Into the Light, tells the story of an ex-girlfriend who dumped Hart and moved to England. Then there’s “Nature,” also off Astronaut, which brings to mind the stoned naturalism of late ‘60s Beach Boys and features the refrain “I love nature!” When Hart touches back down to earth, his music can take on surprising emotional resonance.
I ask Hart how he would describe himself, and he answers me like I’m a casting director. “I’m hard-working, comical, I can be funny, I’ve taken stand-up classes,” he says.
This description ultimately doesn't do him justice. Hart has a range of quirks that are amusing and legitimately strange — his tendency to commit awkward solecisms, like repeatedly saying “Donald Strump” instead of “Trump,” clearly had a big influence on Tim and Eric's comedy — but, separated from his green screen and ventriloquist shtick, there’s little inherently comedic about Hart’s personality or music. When he’s being truly bizarre, it’s often just an act.
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“I remember Jimmie Walker [the actor who played J.J. in Good Times] saying that he was always just considered a weird black man, and nobody would take him seriously," says Hart. "People used to go up to him and say ‘dy-no-MITE!,’ thinking it was the only thing he knew how to say.”
Like Walker, Hart thinks that some people assume he’s merely a summation of quirky soundbites, a human pull-string doll. But he feels like most of his fans take him more seriously than that — particularly the younger ones. “Your generation likes me, but my generation doesn’t,” he says, a little sadly. “The people I have problems with are people my own age and older.”
A song-and-dance traditionalist to the core, Hart is basically satisfied as long as he’s entertaining people. He says there’s no point in trying to control how some people perceive him. “Some people take me seriously, and some people don’t, but that’s their problem,” he says. “I just have to swallow my spit and be grateful that I’ve at least made it.”