Sunday, September 3, 7:30 p.m., $10–$12
Kings, Raleigh

At sixty-two years old, cult puppeteer, actor, and musician David Liebe Hart has inspired and frustrated his fan base for years. His personal mythology runs detailed and deep, and he’s a walking compendium of incredible and bizarre stories.

That said, getting the famed fringe artist to talk in any concise way can be troublesome. He’s particularly prone to long, winding digressions about his personal life and experiences in the entertainment industry, most of which involve being unfairly slighted or ripped off. He complains about “immoral” Photoshop images of him that have appeared online, and how a female fan supposedly manipulated him romantically to secure an internship at Adult Swim. He laments missed tour opportunities and chastises another fan he recently invited to his apartment who “betrayed” him and stole his laptop.

For all his admittedly sad personal stories and kvetching, Hart doesn’t come off as a curmudgeon or nihilist at heart. Beneath his eccentricities, he seems to be a kind, good-natured man whose brand of earnest, oddball performance is not rooted in irony or anti-humor. That his art espouses endless optimism in the face of the surrealist world he exists in might help to explain such contradictions.

Hart’s biography is strewn with a great deal of wild, unverifiable infohe claims that Jim Henson was his Sunday school teacherbut the actual facts are almost equally strange. In the seventies, he was a Hollywood hopeful who later appeared in bit parts on several prominent television shows, including Wings, Good Times, and The Golden Girls. By the late eighties, his outcast reputation blossomed as the star of a nightmarish Christian-themed Los Angeles public access show, The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program. Through a variety of puppets, he promoted the values of abstinence and Christian theology, albeit in a psychedelic, heavily chroma-keyed style. The show made the rounds in underground VHS tape trading rings, decades before his clips would rack up tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

He remained a fixture on that program for the next two decades, until legislation shut down most of the public access studios in L.A. in the late 2000s. He now has a small but loyal following of twentysomethings, most of whom know him from the Adult Swim alt-comedy staple Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.

On the show and its spinoff, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, Hart is notorious for his oblique song segments. His sincere nature and bizarre lyrics about emails, milk, and extraterrestrial life fit seamlessly within the show’s utterly grotesque mesh of the strange and the banal. The most famous song from that batch, “Salame,” is, by Hart’s explanation, based on a real-life encounter he had in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles with an alien named Jezebel Bordious.

According to Hart, she “looks like Bettie Page” and has “a big toe, not in the normal location but in the middle of her foot.” The word “Salame” comes from her extraterrestrial language, and means “the word when two UFO’s meet each other.” As Hart woefully explains, his alien love eventually left in a spacecraft and “wanted to come back to earth to marry me, but she never came back.”

Hart’s success on both shows gave him leverage to rekindle his career, manifested in a multimedia performance act that Hart frequently takes on tour. Since 2014, he’s teamed up with bandmate and manager Jonah Mociun for a revue that features puppets, performance art, original animation, stand-up comedy, and of course, more heartfelt songs about the paranormal. Hart explains a recent track, “Ghost Frog,” is about pet frogs who “accidentally died while I was on tour because no one fed them.” They appeared to him one late night as ghosts, promising to “haunt the shit out of him forever.”

For a while, he was also touring the amusing “punk rock” version of his music, which is mostly a simple palette swap from his beloved keyboard backing to upbeat pop-punk instrumentals. His current musical focus is hymns, he says. In typical David Liebe Hart fashion, he follows this assertion by voicing his displeasure with several other Christian denominations for “not returning [his] emails” about including his songs in new hymnal editions.

Hart’s bizarre claims and personality have naturally led some people to question whether his handlers are exploiting his quirks. It’s not a phenomenon unique to Hart. Many famed “outsider” artists like Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston have developed huge followings off their left-field talents, while their closest colleagues catch allegations of running a “freak show.” But the term “outsider” itself seems to imply a separate class, an easy way of othering artists who deal with mental illness or come from atypical backgrounds and placing them in their own league. The conversation around these artists is evolving, with no clear or convenient fix.

For now, perhaps the best solution is to view artists like Hart free of bad faith or irony. It’s a tricky line to walk in 2017 comedy, but an important one. Ideally, one should approach this kind of work with all the sincerity of someone like Hart himself.