Comedian Paul Day could have been any casual fan last Friday at the Comedy Studio. A 44-year-old father of two from Watertown, slight of build and nondescript in his white dress shirt and jeans, he tends to blend into a crowd. About halfway through the show, Day got up and sneaked quietly into the closet that serves as the club's dressing room.
He emerged as God-fearin', liberal-hatin' Billy Bob Neck, in a John Deere cap and denim jacket with leather collar, his bottom lip pouched with chewing tobacco and his eyes brimming with righteous anger, a guitar slung around his back. Neck faced the crowd, pausing as he looked around the room. "I'd like to start this off with a prayer, if you don't mind," he said with a definite twang, bringing uncomfortable laughter.
"Heavenly Father, welcome me into this den of liberal secularism and protect me from the evil that lies there within," said Neck before offering up his wish for a constitutional amendment allowing George W. Bush to serve indefinitely and asking God to make sure Barack Obama doesn't become president and that Al Gore is blamed for the Justice Department scandal. He finished up with a song about bringing Jesus to Iraq.
Day, a former actor, invented Neck for a John Kerry benefit in 2004, trying to break up the monotony of liberal comics indulging in Bush bashing. He's played him exclusively ever since, and does it so well some people don't realize it's a joke. People call in to his weekly radio show, "Billy Bob Neck's Hour of Bein' Good," on Tufts's WMFO-FM (91.5) or post to BillyBobNeck.com or his My Space page to complain. He's also gotten some national exposure from liberal pundit Arianna Huffington's Huffington Post and the political satire site ShelleyTheRepublican.com.
He has infuriated right wingers and liberals who think he's real, even when he posts a video of himself on a comedy club stage. "The best e-mail I ever got was from the Huffington Post, and it said, 'I hope you know they were laughing at you and not with you,' " says Day, laughing. "Well, I'm standing in front of a sign that says 'The Comedy Studio.' "
Derek Gerry, Day's friend and sometime collaborator, leans to the right politically but admires the character's authenticity and audacity. "Paul's a liberal thinker, and he knows his religion," he says. "That's fertile ground, but few have approached it as thoughtfully as Paul does."
To prepare for the character, Day feeds himself a steady diet of right wing and religious talk shows, usually a couple of hours a day. Neck's persona comes eas il y to him now, sometimes too eas il y. "To do it right, you have to really understand it, which is kind of where I'm coming from," he says. "I do find myself sometimes hearing myself and going, ' you have to throw a joke in here, because right now, you're just parroting. ' "
Though he can sympathize with those who may find his act offensive, Day feels the need to fight people like James Dobson and Rush Limbaugh, people he sees as using the façade of religion to advance political ideas at odds with tolerance and forgiveness. "Billy Bob is meant to push it to the point where people go, that just can't be true," he says. "What he's saying is just factually inaccurate. I've heard other people talk like that, maybe they're factually inaccurate, too."