I would cast Edgar Oliver in any role — Edgar Oliver as the tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park, Edgar Oliver as the voice of Shrek, Edgar Oliver as Harry Potter. Scorsese needs to make a Public Speaking style documentary about him. Marc Webb needs to cast Edgar Oliver as Spider-Man. Someone needs to make a two hour IMAX 3D movie of Edgar Oliver standing in a dilapidated old boarding house, telling darkly funny stories about his life. All his plays need to be adapted into movies.
Ever since I discovered him via a small role in the movie Gentlemen Broncos, I’ve become obsessed. His videos on YouTube — telling stories at The Moth, giving a drunken tour of his home, clips from his plays — are unspeakably mesmerizing, so much so I’ve watched each of them at least ten times. His voice, his face, and his life story — they all work together to construct this larger-than-life personality who seems more like a character out of a gothic novel than a real person, like a cross between Dracula, Vincent Price, and maybe a turtle. His voice is a melodic syrupy moan that lingers carefully on words, stretching them out, and twisting them into his own unique parlance. Words like “burglar” and “deep” become “burglaaaaaa” and “DEEEEP.” “Secrets” and “downstairs” becomes “Ssssecretssss” and “downstehsssss”. Seemingly innocuous language is rendered profound or dense with irony or darkly sentimental. The word “horror” (“horraaaah”) is spoken like the name of someone he loves dearly.
As told in his Moth performances and plays, Oliver grew up in a small town called Savannah, Georgia — not Transylvania as you might suspect — where he lived in a creepy old house with his artistic sister and their eccentric/deranged mother. Her bizarre, occasionally terrifying behavior, would inspire a lifelong fascination with madness and the macabre. She told her children their house was haunted by evil spirits and, with their participation, used a Ouiji board to communicate with them. She drove them around aimlessly for hours every day. She never let them do anything without her. However, such is Oliver’s delivery that incidents like his mother trying to run him and his sister down on their bikes are made funny as well as disturbing.
That incident in particular may have inspired his play Motel Blue 19, which he wrote and starred in. The play revolves around a mother and son who, during a vacation, commit several gruesome hit and runs. What might have been just a chilling horror story, with Oliver’s brilliant writing and delivery, ends up shockingly funny and strange. Watching his opening monologue for the play always makes me laugh when, after running down a girl at a bus stop, there’s a long silence, followed by the mother suggesting they pull over and eat at Dairy Queen. In the Moth performance, he tells how his mother, in real life, was advised by a fortune teller to adhere to a strict banana split diet.
There’s a sweetness to him that lends a certain innocence to his macabre manner. The Gentlemen Broncos Webspot #4 shows Edgar Oliver introducing his mad scientist character and the laboratory set. “I’m especially looking forward to riding my battlestag,” he says, and then chuckles. It reminds me of another video of him reading a poem called “The Donuts Luncheonette”, which also ends with him chuckling in that same odd way. “The Donuts Luncheonette,” a pretty simple poem about how much he loves this donut shop even though he’s never been inside, ends with: “I arrive, of course, near sunset… for my lunch… at the donut luncheonette.” Then he chuckles, and I think, ‘Oh my God, he’s a genius.’
His more recent play, East Tenth Street: Self Portrait with Empty House, revolves around his life in an old New York rooming house, living with people so crazy and bizarre, he might as well have been living in an asylum, people who tried to murder him, sprayed roach poison at each other, or slunk naked along the staircase. There’s a sense they’re more like living poltergeists, and his affection for all these “strange and amazing people” he lived with particularly struck me. Stories like these can no longer come out of an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.
What I love most about Edgar Oliver is just how epic he is with his “character” without it feeling contrived or artificial. Frequently, his work concerns death, murder, madness — basically all the usual Edgar Allan Poe themes, but with Poe, there isn’t the same level of humor. Oliver has a knack for injecting irony and absurdity into what is otherwise horrifying and disturbing. He’s always aware of his creepy persona, and sometimes manages to poke fun at it as in the opening of his “Easter Extravaganza” from 1994 when he says, “I should warn you, probably none of these performances will have anything to do with Easter,” followed by the eerie opening monologue to Motel Blue 19. This is my favorite, when he’s embarking into something close to self-satire.
Listening to him tell stories, I realize I will never be as interesting as Edgar Oliver. It’s impossible. I have a lifetime of suburban white male stereotypes, moderately healthy childhood memories, and a long history of adherence to sanity weighing me down toward mediocrity. I’ve watched too much television, been too normalized and assimilated by the culture. There are tragically few people as spectacularly fascinating and eccentric as Edgar Oliver, seems like there are fewer all the time. And since I don’t live in New York, I need him to be in more movies.