The show's concept is simple: Write down a question, slip a tip in the envelope, and the resident sage of the Odeon, Dr. Hal Robins, will answer. The 52-year-old Robins looks a bit like Benjamin Franklin: He's rotund; he dresses in a frock coat, brocade vest, bow tie, and watch chain; and a few long, stringy strands of gray hair fall from his otherwise bald pate. But from the brain of this unlikely headliner come astonishing answers. No question is too big or small, ridiculous or academic, personal or crude for his wit and intellect to tackle.
Rob Cole, a 34-year-old in a Hawaiian shirt and pajama bottoms, works a synthesizer, tape deck, and CD player up onstage to provide musical accompaniment, a collection of strange noises and retro music he selects spontaneously to underscore the action. Cole, who's known more commonly by his DJ moniker, KROB, is impishly handsome, with wild brown hair and a goatee, but on one side of his head and face only. The other half is smooth and hairless, the result of a water heater explosion during his childhood. KROB cues up some schmaltzy roller rink music.
The theme of tonight's show is "Meat."
The third man onstage, pulling an envelope from the pitcher, is John Rinaldi, aka Chicken John, the bar's owner, a loudmouthed 35-year-old who's wearing a straw boater and an ascot. He reads the queries, berates the audience, and punishes those who ask stupid questions with a free shot of Fernet, a vile liqueur made from fermented beets.
"Dr. Hal: The black rhino sure looks tasty," Chicken John reads while KROB plays a burping noise. "Why hasn't it been domesticated yet for my consumption?"
"Well," chides Dr. Hal, "not every wild animal can be domesticated; that's why we call them wild animals. And, in fact, the rhino is known -- besides its penchant for stamping out fires -- for poor eyesight and a terrible temper ..."
The audience chuckles. Several heads are bent, scribbling questions.
"... and you would not want this rampaging ruminant as part of your domestic ensemble. It is thus kicking up its heels in the African veld, and not in your living room. Things are often ordered as they are for a reason. In this case, it's the reason I've just given."
Chicken John slumps in his chair, watching Dr. Hal quizzically from behind a pair of retro, black-framed glasses.
"Tiny rhinoceros babies, or rhinocerettes, are thought to be winsome, appealing, and cuddly," Dr. Hal continues. "But in a few short months, significant damage to the furniture, walls, and floor would disabuse you of these thoughts and feelings. But, in a few short years, genetic engineering may give you the equivalent of the Vietnamese potbelly pig, only in the form of a rhinoceros."
Though Dr. Hal never does touch on rhinoceros consumption, he nonetheless wins a round of hearty applause.
"I want to be the only bar on this side of the Mission with a small rhinocerette," says Chicken John loudly into his mike.
"Well, Chicken, your girlfriend is a scientist," says Dr. Hal, conspiratorially. "I'm not going to suggest how to proceed, but obviously it's important to get to work on this ...."
In its two-year run, the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" has amassed a following of people who crave Robins' obscure wisdom and absurd humor like a 1950s housewife craved Valium. There's a consensus among the intellectual hedonists who make up the show's fan base that when Dr. Hal gets on a roll, the mental fireworks can be psychedelic. Rare words like "effulgent" drop from his lips. Obscure facts about dinosaurs or Mormons or Shakespeare are ludicrously juxtaposed.
But "Ask Dr. Hal" is only one tiny piece of a long, bizarre artistic career. Its star is also a celebrated underground cartoonist, a radio personality, and a core member of a fake religious cult with a national following, the Church of the SubGenius. Barely known outside the cultural underground of San Francisco, Robins is an icon to those who see mainstream success as selling out. On this particular fringe -- amongst avant-garde artists, dada-ist performers, and the eccentrics who hang around with them -- Robins is the Last Great Wit. And, to them, it doesn't matter if not everybody is getting the joke.
The Hal Robins you see onstage at the Odeon seems to be stuck in the wrong era; his home proves the appearance accurate. Robins lives with a roommate in a Victorian apartment in the Mission that looks like a museum storeroom filled with dusty tomes and dinosaur bones. He reads constantly and can produce odd facts on subjects ranging from hallucinogenic toad spittle to the Bible to outer space to transportation. Some call him a "walking encyclopedia." Others find him infuriatingly unable to adjust to the modern world, often to his own detriment. Though his dress for the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" is Victorian, at other times he wears a fedora and resembles Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He speaks in soft, baroque sentences and is shy and polite. For friends who come to visit, he keeps boxes of cinnamon candy in the refrigerator; he made it himself, from his grandmother's recipe.
Robins has no day job and supports himself by a variety of artistic pursuits. Since Robins was discovered by R. Crumb and published in the comic book series Weirdo in 1981, his dense, dark, detailed cartoons have appeared in collections with some of underground comix's biggest names, Spain Rodriguez (Trashman) and Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), to name a few.