No Joke

Comedian Drew Hastings wants to bring jobs, tourists, architectural preservation, and agri-tainment dollars to Hillsboro, Ohio. In return, he’d like to be able to order a hummus plate. Is that too much to ask?

Drew Hastings needs help.

It is a blustery early April morning, he hasn’t had breakfast, there’s a reporter and a documentary filmmaker in his low-slung, tidy house, his cell is buzzing with calls about last night’s Republican mayoral debate, and he’s scheduled to do two long-distance telephone interviews before lunch.

Drew Hastings
Drew Hastings

Photograph by Jonathan Willis

“I need an assistant,” he says.

You wouldn’t think that it would be an impossible task, hiring one, since Drew Hastings lives outside of Hillsboro, 50 miles east of Cincinnati in Highland County, where the unemployment rate is still hovering around 13 percent and good jobs for women—“I usually work better with women,” he says—are as scarce as medical benefits at Walmart. But it’s complicated. He needs someone who can look in on his real estate holdings when he’s out of town. Someone who can call his agent in Los Angeles to check on his bookings and who can touch base with the Future Farmers of America, because he’s keynoting a convention for, like, 4,000 teens in a couple weeks. He needs someone who can arrange radio interviews; who can follow up with the Colorado filmmaker—not the one who’s adjusting a tripod in his back office right now, but a different documentarian—who’s working on a reality show about his life; and someone who can, in a pinch, drive his rattletrap pickup truck into town for supplies. So far Hastings hasn’t stumbled across a person with this particular skill set.

We are standing in his kitchen when he explains this, a U-shaped affair that back in the 1960s must have seemed plenty commodious to a farm wife but which today looks almost elfin. This is partly because 21st century cooks have supersized expectations and partly because, at six-foot-six, Hastings dwarfs whatever he’s near.

If you recall Drew Hastings at all, you probably remember this about him: Back in the early 1990s, when he was starting his stand-up career in Cincinnati, he was the comedian with the hipster vibe—black suit, black turtleneck, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, spiky hair; a 30-something iconoclast with a sense of humor as dark as a nun’s closet. His height (“freakishly tall,” the wife of one friend insists) was arresting in the confines of Aunt Maudie’s and the other cramped comedy venues of the day. But he quickly moved on to larger stages and a bigger city—Los Angeles—where he lived and worked for years, performing, writing, doing guest shots and TV pilot appearances. Until a half-dozen years ago when he moved back to Ohio—he’d had it with L.A.—and bought this place: Springhill Farm, 35 acres perched on the edge of a winding road at the top of a hill.

He didn’t grow up in the country so he wasn’t returning to his roots. He just figured it was as good a place as any to unpack his suitcase between the weekend gigs that are the bread-and-butter of a touring comedian. Besides, being a fish out of water had always provided him with plenty of material before. And what could be more out-of-waterish than wearing Armani to feed the barn cats or driving his 1988 Cadillac to Magee’s Restaurant for the meatloaf special?

But a funny thing happened on the way to the barn. Hastings found a place for himself in a rural community that has been keelhauled by the economy. And now he’s running for mayor of Hillsboro. “I could use what limited celebrity I have to bring positive attention to this town,” he explains to me, just as he told the audience at the debate the evening before. He knows he’ll have to work hard to be taken seriously. There are people who think he’s doing this—running for mayor, farming, this whole country thing—to boost his career. As if farming is how Jerry Seinfeld rose to fame. As if Hollywood loves small-town America.

Actually, this morning people do seem to be taking him seriously. There’s a message from someone inside city hall who says the mayor is steamed because of a remark Hastings made at the debate; plus, he has that docket of radio interviews waiting for him—calls to Traverse City to chat up morning DJs in advance of his weekend show there. But before that, he has to feed the cows.

He heads out to face the herd of Springhill Farm—eight Black Angus (plus one Hereford), all pregnant. Hastings owns a cow-and-calf operation; when the calves are born, he’ll sell them to farmers who raise beef cattle. He’s not sentimental about his livestock; he doesn’t call out “Bossy” or “Buttercup” as the bovines trudge toward the upper pasture where he’s maneuvering the tractor carrying their hay into the field. But he sees their value beyond the obvious hamburger-on-the-hoof benefits.

“I was in therapy in L.A. for years,” he tells me after he brings the Massey Ferguson to a stop. “Turns out all I needed was to do chores.”

If a messed-up childhood and dissipated youth are requisite for comedic genius, then Hastings has the bona fides. The son of a young Brit and an American sailor who was stationed in Morocco, he was born in Casablanca 57 years ago, then whisked off to the less exotic soil of Columbus, Ohio. Dad split when Drew was 7; Hastings remembers walking along a creek with him, hearing Of course I’ll come back to visit you. He didn’t see his father again for almost 35 years. (At their awkward reunion, his old man handed him an envelope containing a gift: the deed to a cemetery plot next to his own. Hastings’s first thought: This is how he’s going to catch up?). When he was 9, his Church of England–raised mother married into an Orthodox Jewish family, and he found himself with step-grandparents who were less than thrilled with the union. He went to shul and studied Hebrew, but it didn’t go well. “The first word I learned was shiksa,” he says, “which meant, ‘Marty, what have you done to us?’”

Drew HAstings photographed in late May on the land that inspired the material for his “Farmageddon” comedy tour.
Drew HAstings photographed in late May on the land that inspired the material for his “Farmageddon” comedy tour.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis

The second marriage was in ruins by the time he was in junior high and his mother moved him and his sister to suburban Dayton. He was tall and skinny with hair down to his shoulders. “I thought I was Bowie,” he says. His classmates thought he was effeminate and beat him up. High school was a sullen, druggy affair: he never graduated. He spent a year in San Francisco on his own; finally his mother found him a warehouse job in Cincinnati and he moved back to work his way through the University of Cincinnati. For a while he lived downtown at the Fenwick Club—the Catholic men’s boarding house on Broadway, where P&G’s headquarters now stand. A sweet deal until someone noticed him using the crucifix in his room as a coat hook and he was tossed out.

And there it is. “You find the humor in it,” he says.

It’s a safe bet that in Hillsboro, Drew Hastings is not the only adult with a GED and a dissolute adolescence. But on the night of the GOP primary debate, he was surely the only one who’d ever gotten a standing ovation on The Tonight Show. So Republicans had every reason to expect the evening to be entertaining.

At first, it seemed like they might be disappointed. The debate was a three-way affair with Hastings; Rod Daniels, a current city council member; and Terry Mikkelsen, the owner of a multimedia production company. The turnout—about 150—jammed a meeting room at the High-Tech Center, Highland County’s public service office complex. Daniels, an Army Reservist (PsyOps; he’s been deployed to Haiti as well as Afghanistan), and Mikkelsen (in a wide necktie printed with a large cross) both sported fresh-looking haircuts. Hastings, his glasses pushed halfway up his forehead, his streaked hair whorled into a wild nimbus (cut by Pump Salon in Cincinnati—“No one else touches it”), looked a bit like a mad scientist who’d replaced his lab coat with a Hugo Boss jacket. But he was fairly quiet during the opening volley of questions from moderators Katie Wright, a reporter for Hillsboro’s The Times-Gazette, and Gary Lewis, the city auditor. Daniels and Mikkelsen responded in detail to queries about traffic problems, law enforcement, and the “volatile firehouse issue”; several times Hastings admitted to needing more data. But he hit his stride when Mikkelsen expressed disappointment at the lack of drug personnel in the police department.

“I’m not sure that they are understaffed,” Hastings said.

“The mayor says we are,” Mikkelsen countered.

Understand that the administration of the current mayor—Democrat Richard Zink—has been facing so much criticism that multiple Republicans were eager to get in the race and no one had filed to run as a Democrat. Everyone in the room knew that. Hastings took his cue like a master thespian, timing impeccable:

“Well, the mayor of Hillsboro is the reason the three of us are in here.” Big laugh. “I take with a grain of salt a lot of what the mayor says about our city.” Applause.

The evening jogged along from there, with Daniels, Mikkelsen, and Hastings weighing in on potholes and EMS runs, on outside audits and service contracts, and on the fact that two of the candidates—Daniels and Hastings—have professional obligations that could potentially interfere with the part-time duties of the $25,000 a year mayor’s position. Daniels, the Reservist, said it was doubtful he’d be called to Afghanistan again. Hastings explained that he performs weekends. “The worst that would happen to me is I would get held over for two nights in Las Vegas.”

Finally the topic came to jobs, and the candidate’s different visions became clearer. Mikkelsen talked about attracting startups—particularly green industry businesses. Daniels pointed out that civic leaders in nearby Greenfield were already positioning that city for green enterprise. “Do we directly compete with that?” He saw a need to work regionally, to come up with a business development plan that would guide Hillsboro for years to come.

Hastings talked about hay art. He probably didn’t set out to riff on that, but hay art somehow became the crux of how beefing up tourism could quickly inject jobs, increase tax revenue, and jump-start the city’s revival. “Agri-tainment,” he called it.

“Agri-tainment?” said Mikkelsen, a dubious note in his voice.

Hastings rose to the challenge: Rural, family-friendly events and attractions, he explained. Quick hits that can bring in some money fast. “One example: I’ve seen [projects] where people take hay and create artwork.” Hillsboro is surrounded by fields, he pointed out. So why not a fall event where artists create scenes with bales of hay along each highway coming into town? Promote it in Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Chillicothe, people will want to see it, they’ll come, they’ll bring money, and they’ll spend it here because, “Now they’re in Hillsboro and they’re HUNGRY!!!”

And with that—God’s truth, ladies and gentlemen—the audience burst into applause. That’s agri-tainment.

In May, Drew Hastings won the Republican primary, taking a whopping 64 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In November he’ll square off against John Levo, a Democrat running as an Independent, to lead the city of Hillsboro, where according to the civic slogan, “Pride Rings True.”

Fun fact: In 1870, the nation’s Mean Center of Population was Hillsboro. That means that if the country was a stiff piece of cardboard and all the citizens weighed the same, Hillsboro would have been the spot where God could balance the United States on His/Her Divine Finger. It was, literally, Middle America. When you visit, you’re struck by its 19th century architecture—the red brick Highland County Courthouse with its stark white Greek Revival columns; the tall Italianate uptown storefronts; the graceful Queen Anne homes built by families whose pockets were plump from profitable carriage shops, lumberyards, foundries, and agriculture. And when you learn about the city, it does sound like it was in the middle of things. An 1873 saloon protest here sparked the stirrings of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union movement. In 1910, you could ride an interurban train from Norwood and spend the afternoon enjoying the fresh air of Highland County. And time was, a family driving from Canada to Mexico on U.S. Route 62 or from California to Maryland on U.S. 50 could stop for the night where those then-major roads intersect at the center of town.

“Historically, it was a crossroads city,” explains Bob Lambert, director of the Hillsboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the local historical society. Routes 50 and 62 are still important, and the city is within an hour of the fringes of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton. “A day-trip town,” Lambert says.

Lambert’s new here, relatively. A CCM grad (broadcasting and tech theater), he gravitated to stand-up comedy in Cincinnati and eventually to the West Coast, where he and Hastings worked on sitcom scripts together. After Hastings moved back to Ohio, he started kvelling long distance to Lambert about his new home—in particular, about how nice everyone was. “These are our people,” he’d say. In 2009, Lambert says, “I finally decided I’d had enough of L.A. and moved.”

To Lambert, Hillsboro has more than matched Hastings’s publicity. “We live,” he proclaims, “in the America most people only dream about.”

Except, of course, for one thing: the America of most people’s dreams has jobs.

In April 2011, Highland County, where Hillsboro is the county seat, had an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent—fourth highest in the state. And it has been worse.  The whole nation knows what happened to Wilmington when DHL closed its shipping hub in 2008 and 8,000-plus jobs evaporated. Well, those workers didn’t all live in Wilmington. “Three years ago, we had 28 percent of the DHL workforce,” says Katy Farber, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce. “When that closed, it was ‘How can we survive?’ ” Unemployment got as high as 19.3 percent in 2009–2010 and even though it’s improving, “a lot of people are probably underemployed.”

In better times, the chamber labored to lure companies. But businesses aren’t relocating now. Even the “big” successes are comparatively small and hard-won. Kansas City–based PAS Technologies, an aerospace firm that currently employs 100 in Hillsboro, announced in April a phased expansion that would add 40 jobs now, and over time, “maybe 200,” says Hillsboro councilman Peter Pence. The deal, he says, “has been in the works for months.” The mayor, county commissioners, governor, state and national representatives…everyone worked on getting that 40-job expansion. Pence has no expectations that Hillsboro will land a new large employer; “being realistic,” the city needs to do all it can to build small businesses.

“We’re trying to grow our own,” confirms Farber. The county has an “enterprise facilitator” who assists people who want to start up a new business, expand an existing one, or who need help keeping a small firm from going down the tubes. And there’s a campaign to shop local—a business-to-business appeal to get companies to supply one another whenever they can—which Farber says has kept sales tax revenues healthy.

But the real verdict is this: Hillsboro and Highland County will have to rebuild itself. The DHL site has been empty for three years. Über-righteous conservative talk show host Glenn Beck put the nation’s spotlight on Wilmington’s woe’s, not Hillsboro’s. Ultra-perky celebrity chef Rachael Ray didn’t fix the city a Thanksgiving dinner or fill its food pantries (that was Wilmington—again). And so, says Farber, “We’re just throwing our shoulders back and getting on with it.”

When Drew Hastings moved to Hillsboro six years ago, the economy was in better shape and he was the one who needed to be revived.

Hastings usually sums up his feelings about Hollywood with a one-liner: “The sun doesn’t set in L.A.; it just gives up and drops into the ocean with a bitter hiss.” But the reasons he left aren’t that funny. He never felt comfortable there, never felt he fit in. Then a good friend—a man who’d had great success as a comedy writer and producer—committed suicide while on the phone with his wife and kids. “I think he ended up hating himself for what he’d become,” Hastings says. “That’s what made me say, ‘I think I’ll get out of here.’ ” He rented a cabin in Hocking Hills and drove around southwest Ohio, eventually making his way to Hillsboro. There was a 35-acre farm for $189,000; he figured he could afford that.

And so began years of making fun of farming—specifically, his own adjustment to rural America. Which, as he tells it on stage, has been panicky (Did you know that a possum walking through a cornfield at night sounds exactly like three men with an ax?), ill-informed (I got ripped off. I bought a herd of Black Angus hogs. I thought they looked short coming off the truck. “Pigmy cattle,” my ass…) and out-of-sync (A friend said “Drew, you need to cut that hair, get a flattop, a plaid shirt, work boots.” I said, “Nathan, I want to look like a farmer, not a lesbian.”)

It all went into the mix when he taped Irked and Miffed, his 2008 Comedy Central special. And he regularly regales friends with stories of his adventures in agriculture. Last year, Denver filmmaker John Burshtan (another southwest Ohio native) said he wanted to make something of it; he assembled a crew, followed Hastings around for days, and put together a marketing trailer for The Battles of Hastings—a reality series about the comedian’s 21st century Green Acres existence. Burshtan, who produces nonfiction material for broadcasters such as HGTV and the History Channel, agreed to honor Hastings’s premise for the show—that it would make fun of the comedian, not the people he encounters—and he financed the promotional trailer himself. “The first project that I’ve thrown serious dollars at,” Burshtan says. Now it’s in development with a production company that’s pitching it to “the usual suspects in the basic cable world.”

“Drew is a big personality with a unique perspective,” Burshtan says. The problem with the networks seems to be, “They don’t know where he fits.”

Where he fits in the political DNA of Middle America is another question. A fiscal conservative, he acknowledges a Libertarian, Tea Party–ish bent (“Every time I hear ‘EPA mandate,’ I get suspicious,” he says of the recent $15 million infrastructure upgrade to Hillsboro’s wastewater treatment plant that has bumped up citizens’ water bills). But he doesn’t like labels. He’s pretty sure that America would be better off if the government spent less time and tax dollars butting in. And he’s convinced that Hillsboro would have a brighter future if the city could tap deep into its small-town charm.

On a hot spring day, shortly after Hastings has secured the GOP nomination, he takes me on a tour of the city he wants to lead. Hillsboro’s population is a bit over 6,500, and like most places its size, the commercial “center” has shifted to the fringes—in Hillsboro’s case, the north edge of town. That’s where you’ll find Kroger and Walmart, among others, as well as the campuses of Highland District Hospital and Southern State Community College. Things are quieter uptown on Main Street, and after lunch at Magee’s Restaurant (where the wall calendar behind the cash register is turned to December 1968), we pass a store that sells home oxygen supplies; a Hallmark card store that’s going out of business; and a candle shop that has just opened. In Beech Street on Main, the new candle store, owner Brent Huffman is working on his displays—pottery, art, and jewelry by southern Ohio artists as well as eco-friendly soy candles that he makes himself and markets through spas and gift shops. Huffman grew up here (“When people ask which Huffman family I belong to I say ‘All of them!’ ”), moved away for years, then came back in 2009 when the interior design firm he was working for in Chicago faltered. He likes Hastings’s ideas for cafés and galleries along Hillsboro’s broad streets as well as his enthusiasm for small businesses. “Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see the potential,” Huffman says.

On the southeast corner of Main and High Streets is one of the places where Hastings has seen potential. He purchased the late-19th century former bank building and leases it out for office space. Among the existing renters when he acquired the place was the Ohio Adult Parole Authority, whose presence was loudly announced by a prominent sign on the front of the building. Hastings took down the sign because, he says, advertising the fact that this is where the area’s meth-heads and heroin dealers check in after they’re gated out was  “lunacy.” The mansard-roofed building is cream-colored now, its scrolled eave brackets detailed with olive and taupe accents. He points a block away to a similar building: same age, same architecture, but chalk-white, boxy, undistinguished. “I wanted to show that this is what you can do with uptown,” he says.

North on High Street is another of his projects: the old National Guard Armory, which he bought in 2007 to keep it from becoming a tear-down and sold in 2009 to a woman who has opened a bridal salon there. Down the street, next to a recently defunct Bible bookshop, is a sliver of a storefront—just seven-and-a-half feet wide—that someone is using for storage. He’s had thoughts about turning it into a coffee shop—someplace to get a latte and maybe a scone made by the town’s fancy cake bakery. He figures there are people who’d like a place like that. If it happens, he’s already got a name: Sufficient Grounds.

“There’s pent-up demand,” he says. He wants Hillsboro to have 21st century niceties without sacrificing its character. (If elected: WiFi everywhere!) But how do you convey that without insulting your neighbors? Take Magee’s, a place where—judging by the reception he gets—he has cheerfully consumed many platters of burgers and fries, chicken and noodles, beans and cornbread. “I love that food,” he says, “but I’d give anything for a hummus plate.”

Occupying much of the block next to the courthouse is what Hastings calls the “best real estate in town”—a one-story, 13,000-square-foot red brick complex that once housed the city’s police and fire departments. He bought it last year for $74,000—just over two-thirds the appraised value. His was the only bid—a fact that has not kept detractors from griping about the deal. Now he’s looking for investors to help him turn the property into a cluster of shops and cafés. A challenge, but nothing compared to what it’s going to take to pull a rabbit out of his hat at Bell’s Opera House.

Hastings is fond of saying that locals used to regard the town’s 1895 opera house like an ex-wife or a former girlfriend: neglected and forgotten. “I came along and said, ‘Wow, what a great old building.’” And it turns out the girlfriend metaphor is apt: Bell’s Opera House is where Hastings’s love affair with Hillsboro enters high-maintenance, engaged-to-Kim-Kardashian territory.

He bought the building in 2007 with his mother, an interior designer who lives in Florida. They got it for $100,000 (the owner was asking triple that) and he says he has put another $100,000 into the commercial storefronts on the street level so that he can rent them out. Hastings takes me up the musty staircase to the second floor, where the performance hall remains—the ornate proscenium and sweeping balcony; huge, ancient frames waiting to be covered with canvas to make flats for long-gone thespians; pullies to load materials from the alley below; and tantalizing scraps of handbills plastered against the backstage walls—“Lynn and Flannery, the Lady Minstrels” and “The Lealy Brothers, Rink Gymnasts,” and the Drayton sisters, who signed their name and the year—1936—in the dressing room. The auditorium is faded and dusty but magnificent. Even with the seats removed, you can feel it: This is where Hillsboro once came to experience something special.

Whether Hillsboro will ever get to do that again is a big question. Hastings figures it will take $4 million to restore it, and he and his mother formed a non-profit with the intent to renovate Bell’s as a multipurpose facility for meetings, conferences, and performances. The plan is for the nonprofit board to purchase the building from them, then fund-raise and apply for grants for historic restoration. He has already received some funds from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission for his initial work. State funds, federal money—there’s no question that the fiscal conservative in him is conflicted about the possibility of taking substantial tax dollars for the opera house’s rebirth. But Hastings thinks this can be a cultural, commercial anchor of uptown. “We know we’re doing something good,” he says. “I see a lot of government money given out for crap. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that’s life.”

Running for public office is not such a stretch for a comedian. That’s according to former Cincinnati Public School Board member Michael Flannery, who began his stand-up career here in Cincinnati with Hastings back in the day. In fact, he says, it’s pretty natural: “The comedian part of you—the part that’s [observing the world and] saying, ‘Hey! Look! That’s wrong!’—that’s the same part of you that wants to get on the school board.” Ironically, he points out, if you’re a comedian and you manage to get elected, “Performance isn’t part of the job.” Nobody wants to be a joke in office.

John Levo is taking Drew Hastings seriously. The retired banker and former council member registered to run as an Independent when no Democrats filed for the office. He says he did it because he had experience to offer and because, with no Democrat running, the next mayor would be elected by a relative handful of people voting in the GOP primary. “I believed that was grossly unfair to the citizens,” Levo says.

He doesn’t doubt Hastings’s sincerity, but it sounds as if he finds Hastings’s vision a bit too Lake Wobegon-ish to accomplish the complicated, collaborative, long-term work of bringing in decent jobs and growing multi-employee companies in the region. “Drew seems to have a real interest in redeveloping downtown Hillsboro,” he says. “But Hillsboro is more than just downtown.”

As Levo sees it, there’s a big difference of opinion between longtime residents and newcomers: The long-timers want to see the expansion of business and industry; the newcomers see the future of the city as a revitalized small town with coffee shops and boutiques. “I don’t see these types of things developing a large number of employees that will increase the revenues of the city,” he says. He commends what Hastings is trying to do with the opera house, “but I don’t know that renovating one building can be enough of a spark plug” for the whole town’s economy. And then there is the glaring example of what happens when grand plans move at a glacial pace. The historic Parker Hotel on Main Street was purchased years ago by someone who plans to restore it; today, even the most charitable preservationist would be hard-pressed not to call it an eyesore, and the owner and the city are battling over its future.

“Drew is actually trying to do something,” Levo concedes. “But I don’t know if what he envisions is what the rest of the citizens of Hillsboro are envisioning.”

That question will be answered this fall, when Hillsboro does or does not elect Hastings mayor after what may or may not be a grueling campaign. Like so many who have waded into the pool of public life via the ballot box, he’s suddenly found himself neck-deep in dirty laundry.

In mid-April, a former girlfriend filed a complaint against him with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that she had received a “disturbing message” from Hastings.  The investigating officer spoke to the woman and to Hastings, who said that he was the one being harassed by the 25-year-old. The sheriff’s office found no physical threats, concluded it was a breakup spat, told the two to stay away from one another, and filed no charges.

All of which was handled out of the public eye until three weeks after the GOP primary in May, when The Highland County Press wrote about the situation and the allegations—including the woman’s claim that Hastings had threatened to use his friendship with the sheriff against her, and a message Hastings allegedly sent to the woman in which he told her “I am suddenly aware that my life is not working. I have a drug problem. I have an escape problem.”

Not exactly Weinergate or the Valerie Plame Affair, but more than enough to give Hastings a taste of Big Time Politics. Overnight, he says, “The campaign went from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to In the Heat of the Night.” He says the “drug problem” was a reference to a reaction he was having at the time to a prescribed drug. “She made it sound like a lifestyle drug problem,” he says.  The rest of it was end-of-relationship drama, leaked to the press, he claims, by his detractors.

It was, Hastings says, “Sheer TMZ.” A little bit of Hollywood, down on the farm.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue.


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