Stuart Mitchell is known to most as Heywood Banks. In spring 1971 Mitchell dropped out of college and decided to hitchhike to Florida to start a life as a folk singer. This would start him on the path of creating Heywood Banks, a stage character known for his comedic songs including Toast, 18 Wheels on a Big Rig, and Big Butter Jesus.
The Creation of Heywood Banks
As he was helping his wife, Shirley, raise their two kids, Mitchell also wanted to make a living performing. During a period of “trying a variety of things,” he was in New York recording songs that had a country flavor. Wearing a cowboy hat in some photos that were taken he thought “this is not me.”
During a conversation with his wife, he said, “We might as well come up with some other name so I’m not embarrassed by doing this.” Shirley said she liked the name Heywood and Banks was added because it had a good rhythm to it. Heywood Banks was created in the 80s and has been used ever since as a stage name. At the time, friend and fellow comedian, Gary Kern suggested stating before performances that Stuart Mitchell couldn’t be there but his cousin, Heywood Banks, is filling in.
Banks jokes that he was shopping at Salvation Army before thrifting was cool. During a shopping trip, he picked up a leisure suit he used on stage, acting as Heywood Banks, and people loved it. This goofy style can also be seen in the songs he creates.
Banks drops names like Gamble Rogers, Gary Kern, The Smothers Brothers, and Victor Borge as people who he has learned from or influenced him over the course of his decades-long career. He’d love to get to know Eric Idle. Banks’ odd comedy and unique style appeal to people of all ages.
The Comedic Songwriter
Banks started out as a musician. While he has dropped all of his serious songs, he considers himself to be a songwriter. Being a comedian comes through in the types of songs he writes and performs, showing off intelligent, witty humor. Even after performing for 50 years, he still thinks it’s phenomenal to be able to get up on stage and work.
“It’s a wonderful job to do something you like and then to make people happy because of something that you like doing,” says Banks. He loves the positive energy that comes back at him from the audience.
He says his performance isn’t a kids’ show but it’s something you can bring kids to. The comedy is clean but still may be suited for older audiences, especially as performances typically take place in comedy clubs and bars. However, Banks said that he likes to use bigger vocabulary words in his songs so kids will ask their parents what certain words, such as anthropomorphic or colonoscopy, mean.
Banks has refrained from taking on political content in his shows saying he’s “too lazy.” It would require writing all of the time due to the ever-changing content. He’d rather stick with classic jokes, that he likens to an annuity that just pays and pays and pays. His song Toast is the perfect example of something he created that has remained popular over the decades. He referred to it as his “escalator to purgatory” that has “taken on a life of its own.”
He said that he’ll play Toast for the rest of his life and tells of kids from all of the world who have won talent contests at places like school, church, and camp singing this song. Some people don’t know who wrote the original lyrics but Banks still enjoys seeing how far this masterpiece has come over the years. When asked if he likes to eat toast, he replied, “Of course! Who doesn’t?”
When asked if he’s working on new songs, Banks replied with, “Constantly.” At the end of last year, he started writing songs to be released in an upcoming Christmas album. The title of one song on the album could be called “Rudy the Radioactive Bioluminescent Rhinitis Caribou.”
Coming to Lowell
“It’s just fun,” says Banks about performing in front of an audience. “It’s fun to have people laugh and have a good time.” He also says he laughs every day and thinks others should do the same and make it a priority.
Laugh along with Heywood Banks at The Old Theater on Saturday, April 30 at 8PM. Tickets can be purchased here. The performance is the last comedy act at the theater until the fall. It is also being used as a fundraising event to help with building restoration. Tickets will increase in price on April 27.
Photos courtesy of Heywood Banks and used with permission.