The Enduring Mystery of David Liebe Hart

This article ties in to a podcast I recorded with David Liebe Hart, available here.

If you’ve ever spent any time with a toe dipped into Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!then you’re probably aware of David Liebe Hart. His first appearance came in the episode Salame, which heavily featured his music, puppets and thoughts on extra-terrestrial mythology. From there, he’s seen himself cast in numerous editions of that show, as well as various spin-offs, promotional materials and live tours. He’s become an integral part of their universe, whether Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim approve of it or not.

However, he’s been in the public eye, in some form, for quite a bit longer; just on smaller scales. Besides his work with Tim & Eric, Liebe Hart made an impression with his public access television show, Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program. Over a twenty year run (beginning in 1988), it made itself unforgettable with a remarkably surreal tone. Along with an army of woeful puppets, each episode would feature Liebe Hart singing religious songs and telling strange tales. Wrapped in chroma-key collage and obsessed with abstinence, it was often as unintentionally unsettling as it was hilarious. While this ran purely in various areas of California, its staggering styling left indelible marks on anyone who discovered it.

It was precisely shows like Liebe Hart’s that influenced Tim & Eric directly, particularly with such projects as Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. Of the many awkward and badly produced public access shows in America, Liebe Hart’s is certainly one of the most memorable. It goes so far with its aesthetic that, at times, you can’t help but question its authenticity. After any amount of time exploring its considerable depths, you have to wonder to what extent its sincerity stretches.

In order to expand that question, we must first rewind a little. Even before 1988, and the birth of Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program, Liebe Hart has tangible tendrils in the entertainment industry. While there’s little evidence beyond his claims, he repeatedly states that he’d made appearances on The Gong ShowThe Dating GameStar Search and other popular shows of the time. My research is barely able to confirm any of this, but it’s fairly believable. Only one of his early showbiz stories has a shard of definite fact in it. His work on Good Times, in the 70’s, is comfortably backed up by this:

It’s not much, and his contributions to the show were surely always small, but it’s something. It also, for me, helps give credence to his other claims. Because of this, it’s clear that Liebe Hart really was on the fringes before he ever picked up Chip the Black Boy. This seems to suggest that performance is something he takes seriously and has a passion for; it wasn’t just some accident of Heidecker, Wareheim and Doug Lussenhop‘s approach to editing. Perhaps that’s some indication that he truly is smarter than he portrays. Maybe it even nods toward the whole thing being a conscious craft. If he’d been involved in television in some way for this long, and on high-level productions, he must surely have a better grip on reality than his public personality?

But wait. Peddle back; again. Let’s take a closer look at Liebe Hart’s activities in the 70’s. His late teens, and early twenties, sit under a thick veil. In many interviews, Liebe Hart discusses how he was already deeply involved in the questionable world of Christian Science. Beyond that, he lists one of his main activities as stand-up comedy. Footage of this would probably be priceless. I can’t imagine what form his act would have taken in those days but, considering some things i’ll examine soon in this piece, it could either have been markedly more coherent, or equally as madcap. If his stand-up today is anything to go by, it’s almost guaranteed to have left the audience aghast at its eccentricity.

Additionally, his assertions are humble enough to make sense. The shows he lists as having appeared on are entirely likely. After all, he was probably just one of many who flew through the studios with an odd turn. Just how odd is the prudent question. While Liebe Hart’s history in Christian Science, and such wild familial connections as the Wright Bros., surely coloured him into a starkly unique individual, he was probably, by and large, a very average, untalented young man with dreams and delusions of grandeur. His apparent appearances are logical, being the stages that they were for acts such as Liebe Hart. I mean, it’s not like he’s claiming any sort of pedigree, like being close friends with Robin Williams before his tumultuous fame…

Robin Williams was raised in Christian Science, just like me which he can’t deny because everybody in Southern California knows that’s how he grew up. We became friends … We were both starving, and we were both doing work. Well Vivian Vance says to us, “Why don’t you two team up and do an act at the Comedy Store?” So Robin Williams and I did an act together at the Comedy Store way back in ’76. Well Garry Marshall saw Robin Williams and had an interest in him, but didn’t have an interest in me … All of a sudden I lost contact with Robin Williams … From time to time I’d get a phone call from his mother asking, “How’s my son doing. I don’t hear from my son.” I said, “I don’t know. I only see him on television.”

– Liebe Hart in a Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict interview.

While it’s absolutely documented that Williams has a background in the cult-like world of Christian Science, this is something that’s probably best taken with a pinch of salt. It could, indeed, be true, but it’s something that would surely have back-up lurking around somewhere. This means one of two things. Either Liebe Hart really is a genius of curation, thinking it would be amusing to paint his character as that delusional (or, rather, steeped in comedic legacy), or he genuinely is that tragically mistaken. It’s yet another example of the fork in the road that you often reach when exploring this unrivalled personality. Is it intentional, or is Liebe Hart really this off-the-rails?

It’s hard to see any truth to the idea that he could hang creatively with a mind like Williams’. That said, his level of creativity isn’t in question; merely his quality of creativity. It’s his personal disturbances that have rendered his work beyond the palatable, but they’re probably exactly why he stands out too. His popularity has increased in tandem with his mounting mental imbalances and, in that way, our complacency as viewers is somewhat sadistic. Conversely, the attention appears to be just what Liebe Hart desires. It’s not the only autobiographical story he tells about an infamous helping-hand. Another, involving legendary puppeteer Jim Henson, is even more far-fetched, also hinting towards some of his more exotic convictions…

Before Jim Henson became famous he had a local show that had a lot of strange puppets. He was also a Christian Scientist and he was my Sunday school teacher. After he died he visited me and said, “I want you to teach kids about Christian Science and I want you to do it on Public Access.”

– Liebe Hart in a Vice interview.

To be fair, the first part of that story is probably true. It barely takes any digging to find out that Henson did, in fact, work as a Christian Science Sunday school teacher in his early twenties. It also turns out that Liebe Hart, also born into the practice, would have been of prime Sunday school age at the time. It’s difficult to find any evidence of Henson operating as such in the Park Forest area, where Liebe Hart spent his childhood, but it’s still well within the realm of possibility. What’s not within any realm of possibility is the concept of a ghostly-Henson paying him a visit with lofty tasks and purpose. So, for any intriguing avenues to appear whatsoever, it’s that part of his story screaming out for analysis.

Firstly, ghosts categorically don’t exist, or are merely a manifestation of pareidolia*. As such, this particular manifestation was surely an expression of Liebe Hart’s inner drives and ill-confronted bitterness; that is, if it even happened at all. You could easily make a convincing case for it all being deliberate facsimile on the part of a mastermind. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that much of what Liebe Hart espouses is more than dipped in reality for him. Perhaps it was nothing more than an exaggerated dream, warped beyond recognition over time until he believes it himself. While gut-feeling and instinct is practically all you have to go on with these questions, it’s interesting to note the most well-known tall-tales that he presents as personal fact.

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To be nice and salient on this point, Liebe Hart is unquestionably fanatic about extra-terrestrials and UFO phenomena. His enthusiasm for his own pseudo-science demands a kind of respect, putting even Fox Mulder to shame in its voracity. For Liebe Hart, living in a world where alien encounters are commonplace appears to make total sense. He never seems fazed when alien nobles (reportedly) show their differing anatomies to him. He doesn’t think twice when claiming to receive phone calls from off-worlders; apparently, his widespread use of the word “Salame” caused uproar in the cosmos. To the rational, secular mind, not a second needs to be spent questioning the truth of these stories. They never happened. All we can consider is their sincerity.

Why someone would consider Liebe Hart to be a chaotic, or even insane, individual, is understandable when sampling almost any of his output. If he is holistically crazed, his potential sincerity is saddening and makes me want to cease my laughter. It has to be accepted that this could be the reality. The other extreme comes in the form of labelling him a meticulous act and falling to his feet in adoration. That consideration is more difficult to understand, and takes some explaining.

The arguments for Liebe Hart being a character aren’t available in a convenient YouTube clip. I’ll try to lay them out myself, with my own observations acting as my only guide. I’ve already made mention of his early experiences on television and stage. Beyond those seeming to imply an acquaintance with performance, there are other snippets to consider. His music, for example, is an interesting well of material. Despite a terrible singing voice, his understanding of music theory is actually underestimated. Many of his compositions for his public access shows are surprisingly well-written. That’s why it rings alarm bells in my head to hear the tunes he produces for Heidecker and Wareheim. Let’s compare:

Mother Evening Jehoveh Prayer composed and performed by David Liebe Hart (credited as “David Nkrumah Liebe-Hart”)

This comes from an unknown edition of Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program. While the backing music may very well be some begotten piece of copyright free muzak, the credits state that it’s a Liebe Hart composition. Personally, i’ll take that at face value. I see no reason to believe he didn’t write it. After all, he’s stated to have studied music intensely. That’s not even mentioning how it’s been a cornerstone of his act since he started. It’s not difficult to see Liebe Hart bringing this little ditty to life. However, while it’s a pretty grating piece at the end of it all, it shows a lot of skill and intelligence. It displays an admirable understanding of melody, harmony, chord structure and arrangement. Many of his songs on public access fit the same bill. Then there’s this…

E-Mail Song performed by David Liebe Hart (for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!)

Now, I’ve labelled this as being performed by Liebe Hart, without a credit for composition. I would imagine he did have a large part in its creation, but I can’t help but feel that Heidecker and Wareheim themselves had a hand. It’s just so different in approach to my earlier example. His songs for the show all seem to follow the same format too. It’s as if they’ve done nothing more than let an old keyboard tinkle away at one of its demos. Occasional (simplistic) chord changes happen from a single button press. Beyond that, Liebe Hart warbles on top, in what seems to be deep confusion.

Frankly, i’m not entirely buying it. When you put his later music up against his earlier work, something clearly happened when he crossed paths with Adult Swim. It’s a trend he’s continued on with, as he still puts out stuff through his independent YouTube channel. These songs, like I Eat My Veggies, seem like the work of an intelligent artist who’s found something that works for him. This probably brings along with it a certain acceptance of what makes him popular, which will only encourage him in the development of a character. The only other possibility is that lesser, and more derivative, talents – akin to his former collaborators – have repeatedly picked him up to milk for their own ends.

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This leads us back to a feeling of sadness. If Liebe Hart is sailing through all of this – unaware – then there’s no doubting that various wannabe creators have moulded his tone to their own projects. A cursory glance through his current YouTube may just be evidence. Was Robin Williams really once like Adam Papagan, seeking creative salvation from Liebe Hart’s intensity before fame bestowed its iron grip? The trouble is, drawing any hard conclusions is impossible. Speculation and hearsay become our only tools. The deeper we delve, the quicker we drown in the overwhelming quicksand of impenetrable detail.

If Liebe Hart’s claims of childhood abduction, and a connection to secret government technology, aren’t just fiction, they’re real to him at least. Assuming that’s the case, and bringing his obsession with Christian Science back under scrutiny, he may just be a passionate, yet disturbed, eccentric. Sometimes luck and fate can launch such savants to the heights Liebe Hart has unexpectedly enjoyed. If, however, he’s actually an Andy Kaufman-esque figure of subtle mockery and subversion, he may have done too good a job of it. Is that his real genius? Is that his real downfall?

With a need to understand more, I spoke to Liebe Hart personally. I had hoped to discuss his career with him, in-depth. Instead, I met a tirade of complaints and opinions. I’ve discovered since that this is his default mode when being interviewed. Admittedly, it was difficult to even get a word in. When I did, he seemed to largely ignore my questions and responses. Usually, i’d put this down to technical problems. Yet, it seemed that he really was that distracted by his own line of thought. Post-interview, I felt sure that he was mostly as one might think. It seemed obvious that his persona was reality. I merely felt disheartened that he needed the rather cynical cipher of editing to finally break through.

Then, something dawned on me. I typed out a quick synopsis for Benjamin; my co-founder here at Secret Cave. I’d set him the task of putting the podcast together, and he required a run-down. In writing out the events of our conversation, something revealed itself. Perhaps, I thought in excitement, Liebe Hart merely works his craft on a different scale. Let me try to explain. The talk, which saw a whole half hour cut, began with twenty minutes of near-incoherence. When I was able to eventually reply, I showed an interest in his UFO experiences.

With glee, I was told to prepare for a great story on just that subject. Two minutes later, Liebe Hart went directly off-track with yet more unconnected complaints. Determined, I used whatever chance I could to get him back on-track. This is when a suspiciously selective hearing came into play. Apparently deaf to my interest in his UFO story, his ears were otherwise quick to prick. The second I denigrated Masonry, extolled the virtues of gangster rap or stuck up for Heidecker and Wareheim’s heavy workload, he was directly on the case. Heated by the mere suggestion that gangster rap has its place, his triggers took me by grand surprise.

After a phone call from a strange woman, Liebe Hart rambled some more compelling rambles. Concerned primarily with racism, I had given up on asking any of my intended questions. Suddenly, though politely, he drew things to a close. Why? Thanks to his conversation with me, he had apparently overcooked his lunch. Written out like that, I can’t help but feel that much of it was intentional. In the moment, I felt confused and even a little undermined. In hindsight, I get the impression that our podcast was just another playground for an intensely intelligent creative.

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When it comes down to it, the enduring mystery of David Liebe Hart is part of his success. If we found out for sure that he did it all deliberately, would it really grasp an audience? Just the same, if it came out that his whirlwind of cognitive naivety is definitive, wouldn’t we feel a little too guilty in laughing at him? Let’s take one last, defeated, look at the fork in the road. Down one path, Liebe Hart’s acutely aware of the secret ingredient in his career and, effortlessly, how much of it to sprinkle around. Down the other, he’s just a bitter and broken victim to big dreams and manipulative cults.

In the middle of the fork, there’s a forest. It’s a metaphorical forest of the kind journalists like me like to camp in. Somewhere, in its murky folds, there are truths hidden deep in thickened underbrush. Neglected and cold, it sees far less travellers than the well-worn roads to its sides. It’s easier, more comfortable, to tread the extremes. Where actuality conceals itself is, often, all too much effort to unearth. This, I believe, is where David Liebe Hart is to be found. He’s more than a genius. He’s more than a lunatic. His appeal is in something far too forgotten. He’s human.

Here’s my conversation with the man himself, as the ninth episode in our second season of podcasts:

*Big thanks to John Rutledge, of Goldie Lookin Chain, for teaching me the word pareidolia. He absolutely knows it.

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.