Confessions of a Mind on Overdrive
Troy Dillinger has so much to give
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The Austin Variety Show is really two shows. There are the live performances, held at a large studio space in the largely abandoned Highland Mall, with Dillinger acting as an emcee full of raunchy puns and lurid innuendos. In this he's like his hero, Gong Show creator and host Chuck Barris, who is credited by many with dragging American culture into the schlocky reality-TV morass it's drowning in today. To accentuate the comparison, between acts by local comedians, bands, and burlesque dancers, Dillinger brings members of the audience onstage to play raunchier, more suggestive versions of Barris game show classics like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. Onstage, Dillinger never misses a chance to use a curse word or make a joke about bodily functions or human anatomy. He riffs with the raunchy abandon of a 13-year-old who can't believe someone's handed him a microphone and placed him on a stage with girls.
To be a modern version of Barris has always been in Dillinger's line of sight, even if he didn't know it. His father moved his family to Austin from Canton, Ohio, when he was 8 to avoid trouble with what Dillinger calls "the wrong crowd," and his parents' marriage dissolved not long after, leaving Dillinger in need of an escape.
"I'm this idealistic, creative, sensitive kid, and in the midst of all that, The Gong Show debuts, and it filled my entire fancy," Dillinger says. "It was funny, it was lighthearted, but it was also a little dark. And it was insane and it shouldn't be on television, yet it was one of the biggest things on television. I saw a place where it looked as if all adults wanted to do was be silly and there was no limit to how wild things could be. As a kid I wanted to be Chuck Barris, and maybe, at some level, there's a part of me that still wants to be Chuck Barris. Now here it is years later, and I get to be Chuck Barris."
The other half of the Variety Show is composed of scripted "behind-the-scenes" sequences inspired by shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office, where Dillinger plays an exaggerated, more fatuous, self-mocking version of himself, a character blind to the fact that his oversized ego is getting in the way of putting on a show called The Austin Variety Show. These portions of the show are Dillinger coming to terms with and capitalizing on the needy, attention-seeking corner of his personality that had nearly been the end of him on more than one occasion. "I realized that my experiences being just a self-centered idiot and screwing up everything I touched makes for great TV," says Dillinger.
Last month, to celebrate the show's new national campaign, Dillinger and his crew put on a performance that featured a viewing of the two completed episodes that Dillinger will be using to help sell studios on the idea. In those episodes, Dillinger, playing Dillinger, is forced to come to terms with the reality that his trusted stage partner Tom has quit because of Dillinger's narcissistic need to control and claim credit for every little aspect of the show. In the pivotal scene of the two-episode arc, the fake Dillinger is charged with committing sins the real Dillinger will admit caused the end of numerous bands, projects, and relationships over the course of his life. "Your insecurity and your drive and your need to succeed has blinded you from what other people need," one of the show's staff members tells him, reading lines Dillinger wrote. "You can't see shit anymore. You run them over. You treat them like hell."
Even a great egoist like "Troy Dillinger" can recognize the truth when he hears it.
Still, there's a difference between tamping down your in ego in the name of doing right by the people you love and throwing a perfectly healthy sense of self-worth out the window. And the new, modest, decent, humble Troy Dillinger is still unafraid of speaking about himself in the most grandiose terms. He can relate to Francis Ford Coppola, he says, "because of his commitment to making Apocalypse Now at any fucking cost." When he talks about his numerous failures over the years, he points out that Walt Disney once lost a studio and that Henry Ford took years to come up with the eight-cylinder engine. And, like Jesus, he isn't afraid of dying, as long as he does what he was sent here to do first.
"We don't know how my story's going to end," Dillinger says. "Maybe it will end tragic, but no matter; I had some really good years. And hopefully, I'll be able to say I made a lot of people laugh. Hopefully, I can say I helped my city maintain its heart. If I can say that, then fuck, put me on a cross; I died for your sins. My ego would love that: 'Austin, I died for your sins!'" Dillinger laughs at how outlandish that must sound, but he doesn't deny the sentiment. "Fuck, you have to have that kind of ego to do what I'm doing, to make your own life a television show and to think that show should be on national television and to think that you can single-handedly affect your entire city for the good," he says. "You have to have a huge ego, and I do."
This Saturday, The Austin Variety Show is putting on a performance to coincide with Troy Dillinger's birthday. In honor of the occasion, Dillinger has tapped his own musical alter ego, Stinky Derringer – a "despicable human being" who dresses like Elvis and sings "filthy songs" about groupies and nipples – to fill in for the band Shinyribs, which had a scheduling conflict. In addition, everyone who attends will get a piece of Troy Dillinger birthday cake.
"I wanted the cake to say, 'Don't you know who the fuck I am? I'm Troy Dillinger,'" Dillinger laughs. "But I'm having a hard time finding a bakery that will write 'fuck' on a cake."
The next live taping of The Austin Variety Show takes place Saturday, Feb. 25. See www.austinvarietyshow.com for ticket info. Televised episodes air Saturday nights, 12mid, on KBVO-TV.