By Jack Helbig
Jon Bigness looks innocent enough, with his clean-shaved, round-cheeked face and his quick smile. But beneath that cherubic exterior lurks an angry comedian determined to flout the rules of good taste.
As evidence take his new show, Cocksurehanded--billed as a response to Eve Ensler's hit play The Vagina Monologues and opening this weekend at the Bailiwick Arts Center--which includes a song about the pleasures of an affair with a 12-year-old girl with Down's syndrome. Another sketch, "Gaybaby," is about a boy still in diapers who puts the make on unwary men.
The comedy may be raw, but for Bigness it serves as an outlet for the tensions of what has at times been a harsh life. "My dad was a bum. He left my mother before I was born," he says. "One of the last times I saw him, when I was ten, he was playing guitar in a Ground Round in upstate New York. That's what he did for money."
He did, however, leave his son something few boys have: a half brother with the same name. "He had an affair with a lady at the same time he was married to my mother," says Bigness. "He got her pregnant; she had a boy and [they] named him John Bigness, with an h."
Bigness, the youngest of four and the only boy, was raised by his mother and grandparents in a two-flat in Marquette Park. "My grandfather died when I was five, and my mother was concerned I'd become gay because I had no male influences in my life."
There were bigger things to worry about in Marquette Park in the mid-70s: Nazis handing out flyers in the park, stirring up racial hatred and warning African-Americans to "beware." Bigness admits that he and his friends were as prejudiced and scared of blacks as anyone in the neighborhood. "We were sure they were going to lower property values, rape our women, and steal our lawn mowers."
His one escape from reality was comedy. He and his sisters practically memorized the comedy sketches they saw on TV. "Whenever my mother would bring her boyfriends home, she would make us perform skits from The Carol Burnett Show and Donny and Marie. My mother would watch these shows with us and go, 'You kids could do that.'"
At 17, Bigness moved to LA to try to break into show business. For a while he stayed in Van Nuys with a half sister, whose fiance worked as a stagehand for one of the studios. "They thought this would give me a leg up in the business."
But the connection evaporated when the fiance quit his job, leaving Bigness to float around LA looking for work. He fell into a telemarketing job and, seeking stability, started going to a little storefront evangelical church in Sun Valley.
"The pastor was a former biker and heroin addict," says Bigness. "He'd converted a lot of his friends. They had all these scary tattoos."
He went to church three nights a week plus Sundays, and he spent his free evenings handing out Christian literature to people on Hollywood Boulevard. The highlight of his ministry was getting yelled at by Robert Urich.
He also participated in tent revivals. "The pastor would say, 'You roll across the stage in religious ecstasy.' And when the time came I would."
Then a friend who had been a sort of high official in the church left it suddenly, following an altercation with the pastor. When Bigness pressed for an explanation, the pastor accused him of being possessed by an evil demon and proceeded to try to draw the devil out of him. "I went along with him at the time, but the next day I thought it was pretty stupid."
Bigness fell away from the church and moved back to Chicago. Eventually he made his way to the Second City Training Center, where he began to exorcise his real demons--his anger at his father, his foray into evangelism, and the racial strife of his childhood--in a series of depraved comedy sketches.
"I was all about looking at things that guys are too afraid to talk about," he says. "And a lot of those fears are phallic." After about a year and a half he had enough material for a show, and he began shopping it around. When he first took his script to director Frank Farrell, says Bigness, "he was taken aback.
"The material I gave him was just a bunch of dick jokes. I just wrote what I thought was funny. I didn't even realize how much of my material kept going back there until Farrell pointed it out."
But Farrell recovered from his initial shock--and then he made "the Vagina Monologue connection," says Bigness. "That was when he realized that he could do something with my material."
Cocksurehanded isn't a direct response to Ensler's play. "At first we had thought of seeing The Vagina Monologues and then spoofing it, but I know those monologues come from interviews with a lot of women about their vaginas. I didn't talk to anyone about their penises because I didn't want to get my ass kicked.
"It goes back to the idea that you can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair," says Bigness. "I am talking about all the sick ideas that pass through a person's head. But what separates you from being a sicko is not acting on it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.