Aug 12th 2010 By Ryan McKee
learned the fearless stage persona that made him famous while slinging jokes on the streets and subways of Chicago for spare change. Don Hepner is taking a similar path -- an off-ramp in Iowa.
For 50 cents, the "Gong Show
" veteran will yell a joke into your car window as you sit at a stoplight.
"I'm always doing crazy things," Hepner tells us over the phone while standing at his off-ramp. "Tomorrow morning I'm performing in a donut shop."
He admits the highway has been his most successful gig, but he also performs in grocery stores, Chick-Fil-A
s, coffee shops and bars. McDonald's, however, turned down his offer to perform.
"I read an article about how fast food chains are trying to get customers to stay in their restaurants longer," Hepner says. "So, I approached a McDonald's with the idea, but they didn't go for it. I guess they hadn't read the same article."
Hepner began performing during the stand-up boom of the 1980s and spent 13 years on the road. As clubs closed down, he took a job managing a theater in California and focused on his acting career. You may recognize him as Dr. Reynolds in the low-budget slasher film "Final Exam
After being let go from his theater job, Hepner started looking at other options, which weren't plentiful in an area that he says has about "18 stand-up comics" and no comedy clubs. Then he learned that it's legal to panhandle in the city of Bettendorf if you have a panhandler's license, which is free and easy to get.
"I saw these guys at off-ramps hassling people for change -- and they don't even tell them a joke!" he says.
The stoplight stays on red for just 30 seconds, so the only jokes Hepner can tell are one-liners. For example: "My wife calls me her little lava lamp -- interesting to watch but not very bright."
"Normally, when I'm performing I'll do longer material," he says. "I have stories about teaching school and being married four times. But you can't do that here."
The response has been surprising. He has made up to $20 an hour and media outlets as far away as England have run stories on "The Off-Ramp Comic." Still there are haters who love to hate.
"Some people heckle as they drive by," he says. "Usually they're already gone, but I'll yell something back like, 'Oh yeah, well you're driving a Toyota' or 'You're a pulmonata.' Those are snails who mate alone, so it's a clean way of saying, 'Go eff yourself.'"