Beyond Mr. Big Stuff: A Q&A with Harry Hickstein

Harry Hickstein is not the man he used to be. He’s even better. Back in 1985, Harry went on stage for the first time at the Comedy Womb in Berwyn. He was “a hulky, intimidating presence,” and audiences wondered whether he was a member of the Mob or Hell’s Angels, according to Vince Vieceli and Bill Brady, authors of Stand-Up Comedy in Chicago. Back then, Harry was known as “Mr. Big Stuff.” Wearing silver and pink lamé jackets, fluffy boas, ruffled shirts, and hats as big as a Wendella tour boat, Harry would stride to the stage as heads turned in awe. He was an alpha lion at 6’3 and 460 pounds, roaring, boisterous, and entirely in control. But “that’s not what I was going for at all,” Harry told me.

Now, at the age “of 60-plus” (it’s a showbiz thing), Harry is still turning heads. But today, he commands attention for other reasons. It turns out that his imposing onstage personality was not a sword but a shield. The outward bluster hid his true self, a shy boy who had endured endless unwelcome comments about his size. But Mr. Big Stuff would go places. By 1987, Harry was opening for the biggest names in show business. First Tom Jones, then Ray Charles, Spyra Gyra, The Four Tops, Rare Earth, and “many more that I’ve forgotten,” Harry said. He won significant roles in several movies, including Tom Selleck’s An Innocent Man and Meet the Parents. Unfortunately, an injury prevented him from completing the former, and a studio re-haul thwarted the latter. Harry was not deterred. He appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Judy Tenuta wrote about Harry as the ex-boyfriend in her memoir. He was immortalized as a comic book character. He won nationwide contests and toured the country. Once, an audience member nearly died laughing. Along the way, Harry – almost accidentally – became an award-winning hospice volunteer, changing the lives of patients and their families.

Three years ago, Mr. Big Stuff encountered an obstacle he could not overcome, or so it seemed. Two health crises in a row. Both nearly killed him. He was forced to take a prolonged break from comedy. Then, in October 2022, another twist. Steven Springer offered Harry a spot on his hit show at The Laugh Factory. That night, Harry made his way to the stage. This time, he had to do standup sitting down. But Harry was back, and Mr. Big Stuff was nowhere to be found. I was there that night and witnessed Harry’s stage presence and magnetism. His genuine natural charisma flowed and lit the club. Every inch of the cavernous space felt alive with his warmth and energy. This gem of a man riffed with audience members as if no time had passed and we were all best friends. This time, Harry had nothing to hide. By 2023, Harry was back to headlining around the Midwest and appearing in major venues, including opening for Rob Schneider at Horseshoe Hammond before an audience of thousands.

Harry kindly spoke with me by phone about his remarkable life and recent transformation.



Teme: How would you describe your life philosophy?

Harry: I never worry about what I can’t change. To me, every day is a good day. I moved to Manteno (Illinois) twenty-nine years ago. There was one stop light. Now there are four, so it’s time to move again. I’m originally from Chicago. Englewood. South Side. But I grew up in Alsip. I never would’ve believed I’d move out here, but I love it. I don’t like to publicize this well-kept secret, but there is a herd of three dozen bison near me. I’ll have my lunch there and watch them for an hour or two, which is not something people expect from someone in show business. I can sit and watch an anthill for an hour and be entertained.


Teme: What were your growing-up years like?

Harry: My dad was my hero. We lost him when he was fifty-five, and I was twenty-five.

Teme: Oh, that’s young.

Harry: We couldn’t find him. He went to the park and … No. He died. He was a construction worker and concrete contractor. Everyone feared him. But my dad would always stop and help people. If I see someone who needs help, I never look the other way. But I never saw my dad kiss my mom or hold her hand. Isn’t that terrible? But he had a great heart. He would do anything for anybody. Do you know who influenced me? My Uncle Marty, who married my dad’s sister, my Aunt Harriet. Uncle Marty worshipped the ground she walked on. He would kiss her in public, hold her hand, and put his arm around her. I wanted that for my mom, but my dad was just too rough and tough.

Teme: I heard you wrestled a bear!

Harry: I was sixteen at the time. I weighed 345 pounds, and I was almost six foot four. I was a wrestler, and I played football. One day, my dad says, “Come on, punk. We’re going for a ride.” Being called a punk, well, that was endearing. Me and my dad were really close.

We go to the International Amphitheater [in Chicago], and there’s a wrestling ring there. My dad says, “See that ring over there?” I say, “Yeah.” He says, “Go sign up.” I said, “For what?” “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fun, and if anybody asks you how old you are, tell him you’re twenty-one.”

So I go over there, I sign up, and I’m waiting there in line with all these men in their thirties, forties, and fifties. The referee comes out, and he says to me, “You’re the biggest man here. You’ll be the last one to wrestle the bear.” I’m thinking, “Wrestle a bear?” I look at my dad. My old man’s just all proud. Most parents are proud if their kid gets an “A” in school. I got many of those, but his kid’s going to wrestle a bear. Oh, God. So anyway, they have the biggest guy wrestle the bear last because the bear gets more excited, and they think a big guy can handle it. This bear is just tearing everybody up. Finally, the referee says to me, “You’re up.” I jumped in the ring. Ahh! My first experience of people in a crowd going nuts. The referee goes, “Pick him up.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” He says, “Pick him up.” So, I got under the bear. The bear stands up, and I’m looking up at the bear. This bear breath is like… You know, when you dry your hands in a public bathroom?

Teme: Yeah …

Harry: The strongest blower you ever had, that’s like a bear with his breath. It’s not very pleasant. How do you wrestle a bear? I don’t want to grab a bear’s fur and really tick him off. I’m trying to wrestle him, and the bear’s just tossing me all over the place. My old man’s back there was his little Kodak Instamatic camera. He’s having a field day. I finally get the bear in a headlock. But a bear has kind of rounded shoulders. You can’t pin a bear. The bear just tosses his head, and I’m airborne. Okay, I have to tell you. The bear beat the living daylights out of me. We’re on the way home. My old man goes to me, “Wasn’t that fun?” He hit me in the arm. I said, “Ow!” Honest to God, he says, “You know, there’s another place where we got to go. I hear it’s either in Michigan or Indiana, where you could wrestle a gorilla.” I’m thinking, “Dad, if you want me to leave home, just tell me.” When we get home, my mom … she’s the sweetest lady in the world. The first time she ever cussed was when we came home that day. “So where’d you boys go?” “Go ahead, tell her kid.” I said, “I don’t want to.” She said, “Oh, where’d you guys go? Did you have fun?” I said, “No.” And she goes, “Where?” He goes, “Go ahead, tell her, punk.” I said, “Well, we went to the International Amphitheater.” “Oh, was it fun?” “Dad had fun.” And she goes, “What’d you do?” My dad said, “Go ahead, tell her.” “I said, “I wrestled a bear.” “What?!” I said, “I wrestled a bear.” “What kind of bear?” I said, “A real one.” “You wrestled a live bear?” She looked at my dad, “Bob, what the hell’s wrong with you?!” “Ah, he’s tough. Don’t worry about it. It was fun.” It was the only time I ever heard my mom cuss. Isn’t that something?


Teme: How did you get interested in comedy?

Harry: I was the class clown in school. Well, let me preface this with the fact that I hate attention. I always hated attention because I was eight pounds at birth, and by six months old, I was in two-year-old clothes already. The men called me “The Meat Ball.” The women called me “Precious.” Women loved to squeeze my cheeks. I was always on display. In Chicago, we had alley parties, and every time, I’d hear, “Hey! Here comes The Meatball.” It was always, “Oh, look how big he is! Oh man, you’re going to play football.” I always hated that attention. When I got older, I got picked on a lot. When you’re a big kid, other kids want to challenge you. When I started knocking out guys with one punch, they suddenly wanted to be my friend. I discovered that if I could make people laugh, they wouldn’t tease me. I’ve always been shy. I was probably one of the most popular guys in high school. I never went to my prom. I didn’t have the guts to ask a girl. I was too shy, believe it or not. In my junior year of high school, I got into close-up magic. I used to go to Riley’s Trick Shop in Worth, Illinois. The resident close-up magician was Jim Wallace. He was a hilarious comedy magician who had a significant influence on me and guided me. I started doing magic tricks for my family. I got pretty proficient. I started working at some bars. It was fun and entertaining for people. It was a great way to meet women, too. Dave Devin was a comedy magician. We used to hang out. He said, “Man, I want to try comedy clubs.” So, we went to the Comedy Womb in Berwyn. He kept telling me, “You’re funny, man. You got to try this.” In late 1985, I signed up at the Comedy Womb. I did four minutes, and I got laughs. Every time I did another four minutes, I tried to do something new. A year later, I started getting paid. We didn’t have open mics. We called them “new talent nights,” but they were showcase rooms. That’s the best way to learn. It was always packed with people off the street because of the comedy boom.

1987, I was the emcee at the Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville. Tom Jones was also playing there. He was big back then. It was a five-thousand-seat auditorium. The club manager approached me and said, “You’re opening for Tom Jones tomorrow.” I said, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me.” He says, “Do ten to fifteen minutes. Keep it clean.” I was known as a clean act. Tom Jones couldn’t have been more likable. Got my girlfriend a center seat in the front row. My friends and family came. He met everybody. He was taking pictures and signing autographs with them. The opening for Tom Jones led me to the opening for Ray Charles at the same theater. Ray Charles signed a postcard with his picture on it, “To Harry, thanks for opening.” Still my favorite piece of memorabilia. I’m so grateful for being in the right place at the right time. I’ve kept that piece of memorabilia and the tag from the Tom Jones Tour above the door in my bedroom.  I think I’m a better comic today than ten years ago. I’ve started doing stories about my hospice work. The first time was at the Acorn Theater in Royal Oak, Michigan, for the owner David Fink. The audience was a little nervous, but I got laughs. You have to be able to see something that’s funny and break it down so people can relate to it. But I always like to make them laugh at me because people can’t get offended.


Teme: You’re excellent at ad-libbing and crowdwork. How did you develop that ability, especially if you feel shy?

Harry: You know where it came from? Fear. Being a fat kid, being teased. I’ve been humiliated before in front of people. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t carry that stuff with me now. The only thing I carry is I’ve always been for the underdog. I’ll stop and help somebody take somebody’s cause or protect somebody in a heartbeat. I don’t let anybody pick on anybody. But getting back to being humiliated, it’s not fun. Every time you’re putting yourself out there, you can be humiliated. If you say the wrong thing or it’s not going well … When a comic dies on stage, it’s the most miserable time of your life. Something weird takes over when I’m on stage, and I have this ability. I don’t know where it comes from. I think it’s out of fear because you have to develop something. Otherwise, you look like an idiot. Friends ask me, “How can you not like attention and get on stage? Well, it’s because I’m in control when I’m on stage.

Teme: How do you handle crowd work in bigger venues?

Harry: At a big venue, you have to repeat what the person said. Otherwise, most of the people in the room aren’t going to hear it. I’ll ask the crowd something like, “By applause, how many of you are Baby Boomers?” or ask somebody in the front row or rhetorically ask a question. I enjoy working the room. When I get there, I look around and get a feel for it.


Teme: Is it okay to ask about the health challenges?

Harry: It was three years ago. I had twelve transfusions in three weeks. I was supposed to have a two-hour robotic operation and an hour of recovery and out the next day. I didn’t even tell my family. I didn’t want to worry anybody. But after the procedure, I didn’t wake up for eighteen and a half hours. Six days and six transfusions followed. Then, three weeks later, I was at home and passed out. After an hour and a half, I finally got my strength together and called the paramedics. They admitted me to the hospital. Another seven days and another six transfusions. All the doctors asked, “Who have you got at home to help you?” I live by myself. They all winced and went, “Ooh.” I would drop something, and it would stay on that floor for a couple of weeks until I felt strong enough that I wasn’t going to fall down picking it up. When I went into the hospital, I probably weighed around 279 lbs. I was down to 235 within two weeks. I haven’t been 235 pounds since fourth grade. I wound up in the old man’s arms. I used to have some pretty good guns. You know, guys. We worry about that. It took me a year and a half before I had the strength to step into a pair of pants. I called to get a ride home from the hospital. I had nobody because I hated asking people. I had to call an ex-girlfriend, the only girl I’d ever asked to marry me. After that, I went to see my primary care. He comes into the exam room. He goes right to the computer. He’s reading the screen. All of a sudden, he looked at me. He goes back to reading. He looks at me again. He goes, “Both times you were in the hospital, you almost died.” I said to him, “I’m too pretty to die.” I laughed, and he just stared at me.


Teme: How did the health challenges impact your comedy?

Harry: I’m 180 degrees different. That illness experience regenerated me and my comedy psyche. I have a new enthusiasm. My writing seems effortless now. I’m giving other people lines. Comics ask me, “Hey, I got this bit. What do you think?” And I’m tagging it with two other lines. I’m lying in bed at night, coming up with lines, and waking up in the morning and thinking about it. I’m so happy with how things are working now. I performed for the first time after being sick for two-and-a-half years at the Laugh Factory. I owe that to Steven Springer for inviting me to his show. I didn’t know if I was still funny. I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I’d still like doing it. I didn’t know if I would ever do this thing called comedy again. I’ve come back better than I was. I still have one last hurrah left in me. I was always nervous before the show, but at that time, I wasn’t nervous. Usually, I’m thinking, “Okay, what’s my opening line?” I wasn’t thinking about my act. I didn’t care about anything. Honest to God, Teme, it was like waiting for a bus. Even when I was introduced, I still didn’t feel anything. I’d asked Steven earlier, “Do they have a railing [on the stage stairs]?” Since being sick, I have had a little problem with the stairs. He said he didn’t know if they had a railing. He said, “How many times have you worked in that place? You don’t know if there’s a railing?” But we don’t pay attention a lot of the time. So, as soon as I got there, I saw the railing. I said, “Okay, great.” But Steve had already told some comic, “Walk behind him going up the stairs in case he’s shaky, and I’ll try to help him up.” So, when I started going up the stairs, there was a guy behind me pushing me, and Steven’s got my hands trying to pull me. I went into acting mode. I started acting like I was going to punch him, like, “What the heck do you guys think you’re doing?” I started getting laughs. When I got up before the mic, something magic took over. That extra thing in the brain just clicked on. I was able to do material about the room, and it just worked, and it was fun. That’s when I knew I was back. It’s just like, “Oh, yeah. I got to be doing this.” The last thing I wanted to do for the last two years was comedy or find a girlfriend. Now, I want it all. I’m old, and I’m almost ready to start dating again. But I’m doing comedy again.

Teme: What changed in you that changed your comedy?

Harry: I’ve wondered, “Why are things just working so well for me now?” I sit on stage where I always stood on stage. Other comics are telling me, “People are hanging on every word you’re saying.” I’m more amazed than anybody. I finally figured it out. It goes back to being a fat kid and being teased. About fifteen years ago, I was coming home from the Barrel of Laughs in Oak Lawn. I was in a hit-and-run accident. The guy hit me and took off. I gave chase, almost rolled my vehicle down an embankment, and ended up in the hospital. When I got out, I had to do physical therapy. The first three times I went to physical therapy, it was in a massive room with only two or three other patients. The fourth time I went to physical therapy, the room was packed with people. I had to walk all the way through the crowd. My physical therapist said to me, “Harry, anything wrong?” “No,” I say, “Why do you ask?” “I noticed,” she said, “when you came in today, you immediately looked at the ground. You just stared at the ground as you walked all the way over here.” I didn’t realize it until recently. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want people to see me. That goes back to being fat. I used to ask people all the time, “When I’m on stage, what character do you see?” I was “Mr. Big Stuff” on stage. I had a tour jacket with leather fringe and patches. I would sometimes wear a pink lamé jacket or silver lamé jacket. I had a pink feather boa and a big cowboy hat. I was boisterous. I was animated. I was wild. I did props. I was just all over the place and loud. Just larger than life. I had women all over me.

Mr. Big Stuff/Photo by Bill Brady

Then, I finally realized why things are working so well now. Do you know why I was like that back then? I was trying to hide the fat guy. Doing the props and being over the top. I didn’t want them to notice the fat guy. I used to get attention, unwarranted attention, being a big guy. I’d walk into a room or a restaurant; somebody would look at me and say something under their breath. The whole table would turn around and look at me and smile. They’d laugh. I knew they were talking about me. That would always happen, and that’s a very uncomfortable feeling. Now I’m starting to get attention, but it’s good attention. Not that I think I’m anything, but now women are smiling at me, striking up conversations at the grocery store. I’m thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” Now, when I’m on stage, I’m sitting there just being me. I don’t have that monkey on my back anymore. I’m not trying to hide anybody. I’m not trying to take the focus away from a fat guy. Isn’t that crazy?

Teme: That’s profound.

Harry: Subconsciously, back then, I didn’t want people to notice me. If I didn’t see them, they didn’t see me. I didn’t realize that until a few months ago. I started asking myself, “Why all of a sudden do I have this newfound confidence on stage? Why is it working so well, and people are suddenly there for me?”

Teme: What process got you from there to here?

Harry: I went from 525 lbs. to 285 lbs. in thirteen months. I kept that off for twelve years. Then, all of a sudden, I tried one of those vanilla lattes from the Speedway. The following month, I had another one. Then I had two the next month; then I had three the next month. All of a sudden, I was having one a day. Then three, four of them a day. I went from 285 lbs. to 346 lbs. Then I got sick and went down to 235 pounds, and I had to put some weight back on. I got up to around 279 and thought, “Okay, this is enough. I’m going to start working out.” I got down to 260 lbs. That’s where I’m now. I have a newfound confidence. I’m not worrying about people judging me. Not having that monkey on my back has changed things and how people accept me. “Accepting” might be the opportune word right there. I’d failed at accepting me. I never cared about standing by the door and shaking hands with people. Being shy, I always feel uncomfortable. Back in the days when comedy was so big, people used to ask for an autograph. I used to feel so weird giving people my autograph. Who the hell am I? But there’s a metamorphosis that goes on when I’m on stage. Offstage, I’m pretty low-key. I like to take rides in the country. People see you on stage; they think you’re a partier. I especially remember one dude. After the show, he high-fived me and shook my hand. Then, when everybody was gone, he approached me, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Thank you, man. I needed to laugh tonight.” I thought about that. What was this person going through that made some difference in his life? That’s what I take with me. That’s what makes it all worth it.

I met a woman who owned a bar in Markham one night. She came to the show after she broke up with her boyfriend of many years. She was depressed. Her friends kept trying to get her to go out, and they brought her to my show. She told me she’d been to other shows, and I was the first comic that made her laugh. She became a big fan of mine. She started hiring me to do shows at her bar. After a show, people say, “I enjoyed that,” or I see my neighbors buying nineteen tickets to see my show every time at Tuffy’s [in Wilmington, IL] … All the nights on the road, the tough crowds, the biker bars, the hecklers, hearing things like that make it all worth it. They helped me, and I’m glad I could fulfill their expectations. My only barometer of success is if you do a good show, you should get laughter and applause. I don’t need people patting me on the back. People are seeing the new Harry Hickstein. I used to do a lot of self-deprecating humor. I’m a big guy. You have got to mention that elephant in the room. I thought it was funny. All these people would shake my hand, saying, “Oh, that was funny.” But the person I want to tell you about is one woman who came up to me after everyone’s gone. She was almost sheepish and hesitant. I said, “I hope you enjoyed the show. Is there something I could help you with?” She said, “Mind if I ask you something personal?” I said, “Go ahead. I’m an open book.” She goes, “Why do you make fun of yourself? I don’t think it’s right. All these people are laughing at you.” What a dear, sensitive soul. I say to her, “Let me tell you something. I was a fat little kid growing up. I’m a fat adult. When I was young, people teased me. Some of those same people who used to tease me and make fun of me for being fat now pay to hear me. So, who won? But now, the new Harry, the new Mr. Big Stuff, doesn’t have that monkey on his back. And it’s just so much different.

Teme: How does that transformation manifest on stage?

Harry: Back then, I was very animated. I was all over the stage. I did a lot of props. I was bizarre. I opened with music. I would bury a heckler. I was intimidating. Now, my approach is different. No longer intimidating, but more approachable and engaging. I remember cringing when a woman once said to me, “Everyone knows you’re in control when you’re on stage.” Now, I found what I wanted. Being sick and the fact that I didn’t have the stamina to stand on stage for an hour forced me to sit down and take a different approach. But also, I’m no longer that behemoth on stage that I’m trying to hide.

Artwork by Walter D. Ayers III

Teme: Do you feel more comfortable letting people see your true self?

Harry: It’s funny you should mention that. A woman just called about something we were doing for homeless vets. She said the same thing, “You finally love yourself.” It’s not that at all. It’s that I accept myself and who I am today. Before, there was more to me than what people saw. They didn’t see the real person. The real me comes out on stage now. Before was acting. What you’re hearing now is closer to me than I was on stage when I was Mr. Big Stuff with the costumes, the 500 pounds larger than life. It was a show. Yes, I was in control because I didn’t want to be humiliated. But when it’s all over, this thing we call life on earth, the thing I’m most proud of is my seventeen years volunteering for hospice.


Teme: How did you start volunteering with hospice?

Harry: Twenty years ago, I hosted for Bill Brady at Barrel of Laughs three Sundays out of the month. This woman and her husband and her friends would show up just about every Sunday I was there. They’d sit right in the front. She had cuff crutches. Well, one day, I accidentally kicked her crutches. They were in the aisle. The crutches go flying. She makes a joke about it. I make a joke about it. Afterward, I get off stage, and she says, “Hey, come sit with us.” I was honored they would call me over to sit with them. I mean, who the hell am I? I ain’t nobody. She said, “We come here every Sunday for you.” She told me she used to drive a semi-truck. I said, “Oh, my God. Were you in an accident?” She says, “No, I have MS.” She was shot once and stabbed twice. One heart attack, two strokes. We got to be friends. Her name was Gail. She was a wonderful human being. She used to call me a lot. One day, she called me and asked how I was doing. “Oh, Gail, I said, “I was crossing the street. I turned to look to see the traffic, and my neck locked up.” She said, “Oh, that must have hurt.” I said, “It was killing me. I couldn’t turn my neck. I was worried about getting hit by a car.” And she said, “Oh, my God, I feel so bad for you. I’m so sorry.” All of a sudden, it hit me. Who the hell am I complaining to? I felt like the lowest jerk in the world. What right do I have to complain to this woman about anything? I thought it was insensitive of me. It bothered me to the point I couldn’t sleep. I thought maybe I should talk to somebody. I can’t talk to one of my friends. If you met my friends … oh, jeez. If I asked my family, they’d think there’s something wrong with me. So, I keep things to myself. I realized there are two hospitals in Kankakee. Maybe I can go and ask somebody there. I’ve never experienced any of this. I just felt horrible. So, I’m driving down Route 45 to go to the hospitals, and I see the Kankakee County Health Board. So, I thought, “I wonder if there’s anybody in there.” Then I thought, “Screw it. I’ll go work out.” Typical male testosterone. Women are tough. If it were up to men to give birth, we wouldn’t go through it. There’d be six people on Earth. Four would be two sets of twins. I go in there. I saw a lady. I said, “Do you have a counselor or somebody I can talk to?” She said, “No, we don’t do that here. There’s a hospice down the street. Maybe somebody there could help you.” I didn’t know what hospice was. I go into the hospice, and the lady says, “Well, we don’t do anything like that, but I’m going to talk to the counselor.” Then she returns and says, “She’s on the phone right now, but she’d love to talk to you.” She comes out and says, “Hi, Harry. I’m Lorene. Come into my office. Tell me. What’s going on?” So, I told her. She said, “Harry when somebody is very sick like your friend and asks you how you’re doing, they want to know. If everyone holds back from them, they’ll feel much worse because they’ll feel like they’re the only ones.” I went, “Oh my God. Thank you.” I gave the woman a big hug. Then the lady started asking me about what I do. I was messing with her. I’m teasing her, and she says, “I really like your personality. Did you ever think about being a hospice volunteer?” I said, “I don’t know. Why? You need something moved around here?” Then she explained what it was. And I thought, “Ooh. Wow.” And I said, “Yeah, I guess I could.” I was completely taken aback, but I felt I owed them something. She says, “You missed the spring class on working with patients, but we need people in the office to drop off “scripts” and equipment.” I did that for six months until I took the class to do direct care. It was fifteen women, me and another guy. People are telling why they want to volunteer for a hospice. All these tear-jerking stories. I’m the last one. I said, “Check it out. All these women. These are better odds than a bar.” They brought in a guy who had a thousand hours of volunteering. He told a story about a guy who passed in his arms. This guy is tearing up and crying. People in the class are crying. I thought, “What am I getting myself into? Oh my God. I can’t do this.”

Teme: That’s what I would have been thinking.

Harry: But I made a commitment. I figured I’d give them a year. I wasn’t your typical hospice volunteer. When I met the new boss at Kankakee Valley Hospice, he said, “I notice you don’t wear the uniform.” They have a big purple T-shirt with big white letters emblazoned with “Hospice at Kankakee Valley.” I said, “Look at the size of me. I’m a billboard. I’m sure that’s probably why you’d like me to wear it. But I don’t want to be a billboard. I don’t want it in their face. They already know what’s going on. I’m just there to try to get them through today and think about something else other than what’s impending.” I worked with patients who were World War II and Vietnam veterans. Tougher, bigger men than I’ll ever be. I would hear volunteers talking to these patients like, “Sweetie, how are we doing?” When I talked to these patients, I’d say, “Hey, get out of bed! Quit faking!” They’d say, “Hey! Kiss my ass.” I’d say, “No, you kiss mine!” Then we’d high-five and laugh. I’ve never said “goodbye” to my hospice patients. I always say, “Alright, man, see you next week.” I’d always say that to my first patient. Then, one day, I said, “Alright, man, see you next week.” He looked at me, and he waved. Never did that. He passed over the week, and I never saw him again. They assigned me to the Veteran’s Home. The volunteer coordinator, Becky Arsenu, said, “I’m putting you there because those guys are tough. They can be angry. There can be a lot. But I found out my patients like jokes. I can’t tell you what kind of jokes because of the HIPAA laws. I thought, “This will be a piece of cake.” So, I found the first room. He’s a big man. He’s lying in the fetal position on his side. I said, “Hey, Mr. So-and-So, how are you doing? I’m Harry. I’m the new hospice volunteer.” He has these big old sunglasses that old people wear that look like windshields. I’m thinking, “Does this guy like jokes? How is this going to go?” I say, “How are you? Is there anything I can do for you?” I was so green at the time. He puts his hand up, so I think he wants me to pull him up. So, I pulled him up in bed. He starts screaming. I think, “Oh, Jesus. I’m Doctor Death. The first guy I’m going to touch is going to die.” I panicked. I said, “Okay, buddy. I got you. Just calm down.” All of a sudden, he looks at me, lays back down.

Teme: I really want to know what’s going on!

Harry: That’s how I felt. I found the head nurse. I said, “You better go check on him. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong. He put up his hand, and I pulled him up in bed, and he started screaming.” And she said, “When he does that, he’s got to go to the bathroom.” Here’s a guy soiling himself, and I’m rubbing his shoulders, patting him on his shoulders, saying, “I’m here for you, buddy.” He’s got to be thinking, “Who’s this freaking idiot?” We became friends. I used to arm wrestle him. He’s the guy who waved “bye” to me. I’ll never forget him. I would sometimes see twelve patients a day. I’ve heard more than once from the volunteer coordinator that a family called or wrote a letter saying “thank you” because they always knew when I visited their loved one because their loved one was in a good mood.


Harry: One day, the volunteer coordinator, Becky, says, “What are you doing next Wednesday? I want to take you to lunch.” I said, “Nah, you aren’t going to take me to lunch.” She said, “Why not?” I said, “For what?” She said, “It’s at the country club.” I say, “Country club? I am not getting all dressed up.” She said, “No, just dress nice. You’ll be fine, and you’re going with me.” I said, “I don’t go to those kinds of things.” I never go to that stuff. I’m not sociable. I am when I have to be, like in the clubs, but I’d rather go to a friend’s house or family. That probably goes back to being shy. She said, “You’ll like it. It’s good food. It’s on the river, and there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house.” I said, “No kidding.” I love architecture. And I said, “Yeah, okay.” She said, “Wear something nice.” We go over there. I go, “What the hell is this?” Turns out it’s an awards luncheon for “Volunteer of the Year” for Kankakee County. There was one person nominated in every category. One in business and one in farming, and I was nominated for healthcare. After lunch, they say, “We’re going to hand out the awards. When your name is called, stand up and say a little something about you.” “Oh my God,” I said. “Hell, no. I’m not doing that. I got to go to the bathroom.” Becky said, “You just sit there.” I said, “No, I really got to go to the bathroom.” She said, “Sit.” So this woman stands up, they honor her, and everyone applauds. Talking about what she’s done. She’s standing up straight. She’s proud, and she’s smiling. I’m like, “Oh my God. I got to get out of here.” Becky grabs my hand. She says, “You are not leaving anywhere.” They said, “Volunteer of the Year for Healthcare of Kankakee County, Harry Hickstein.” So, I stood up. They’re reading everything I did. I’m looking at the floor. I’ve got my hands in my pocket. I’ve got my hands out of my pocket. All of a sudden, I sat down. I couldn’t handle it. What an idiot, huh? Two years later, Becky called me again to come to another banquet. I said, “No. I am not coming.” She says, “Just do it for me. Everyone is asking why you never come.” And then she says, “And bring your mom, too.” I go, “What? I’m not bringing my mom. I don’t want to look like a big loser walking in with my mom.” That male thing. Tough guy. She goes, “I want to meet her.” So I told my mom, “Hey, Ma, they’re having a banquet for hospice volunteers.” She said, “That’s nice.” And I said, “Becky wants you to go. Do you want to go?” She says, “Oh, no. That’s okay. I’m busy with my ornaments.” She makes fine china-painted porcelain ornaments. She’s made a name for herself in the South Side. People would come from other states to buy her stuff. She’s an incredible artist. Of course, she doesn’t do it now at 96, but she quit only six years ago. She says, “I got my porcelain to do.” She’s like me. She doesn’t like crowds and things like that. I don’t like going to big functions where I don’t know people and being forced to be sociable. I said, “Ma, your birthday is coming up in two weeks. Let this be your birthday dinner. How is that?” She said, “If you want me to go, okay, I’ll do it.” So, my mom went with me. I go to sit in the back. And somebody comes over, “We got your table over here.” I said, “We’re fine back here.” My mom goes, “Yeah, we’re good back here.” But he goes, “No, we got you over here. I am utterly oblivious to what’s going on here. After dinner, they’re going to present the awards. Becky goes up to the podium and says, “For volunteer of the year, I have to tell you, when this person came to me the first time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with this person.” I told my mom, “I think she’s talking about me.” My mom goes, “What?!” I go, “Oh my God. I got to go to the bathroom.” My mom said, “Just sit there.” Becky says, “… this person was very different than most of our volunteers, but our feedback is that a family always knows when this person has been with their loved ones because their loved one is in a good mood. Volunteer of the year, Harry Hickstein.” I wanted to crawl under the table. It was the longest walk of my life. All the awardees gave speeches. But I just looked at the audience. I go, “Thanks.” And walked off stage.

Teme: What is that about? You’ve been on stage in front of thousands of people, but as soon as somebody wants to say something nice ….

Harry: I don’t take compliments well. I’m not one to ask for help. Though I will ask for directions. I’m not one of those kinds of guys. I’ll give a person my last dollar but never borrow money. That’s just the way I am. But I’m glad that I had the personality to do comedy. That probably helped to deal with the hospice patients. Once, I was making the rounds as Santa Claus. A volunteer elf and I went to this one house in the country. The son came to the door, probably around my age. He says, “Mom hasn’t spoken or opened her eyes in five days, nor has she eaten or anything. It’d just be wasting your time.” I said, “We understand, but you wouldn’t waste our time.” After a moment, he goes, “Why not? Let’s try it.” I walked in there, not so much loud as boisterous. I started ringing my bells and saying, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!”

Teme: That sounds very authentic.

Harry: Thank you. Then, this woman sat right up in bed. Eyes wide open like she was three years old. She said, “Oh my God. Santa Claus. I knew you’d come to see me.” Her son had tears in his eyes. I had tears. Elf had tears in his eyes. I hugged her. When we left, this elf and I were paralyzed. We usually talked in the van. I usually rip my beard off. But we sat out in the van for ten minutes. We didn’t say a word. At hospice, I was the go-to guy for the 11th hour. One Sunday, I saw twelve patients. I went to see one of my guys, and the CNAs were with him. His breathing was labored. I’d talk to him and grab his hand; suddenly, his breathing became normal. I held his hand for a while and talked to him. “Hey buddy, how are you doing?” I told him about how my week went. He calmed down. I had to see ten other people, and it was getting late. So, I went to another ward. But something’s telling me to go back. I called the nurse. She says, “Let the CNAs know you have other patients, so somebody’s with him.” But something told me, no, go back. I went back. I’m a big guy. Sometimes, guys wear our clothes way after we should’ve thrown them out. The seam gets a little weak. For some reason, the air conditioning was out in the middle of July, and my clothes were sticking to everything. It was miserable. I go walking back in there to sit with him. I pull up a chair to sit down. I go to grab his hand. I sat down, and all of a sudden, RIP!!. I go, “Well, SON-OF-A!” I ripped the ass out of my pants. Do you believe that? Not like I’m the only guy walking around here with my ass out.” He smiled, and he left this earth. A FAN (ALMOST) DIES LAUGHING

Harry: One time when I was working with Bill Brady, I was up on stage and had a great crowd. I was rocking the room. It’s such a good feeling. All of a sudden, I heard a big thud. I hear somebody say, “Oh my God!” Some guy had done a header on the table right in front. Many things happen in comedy, and you have to go with it. I said, “What happened?” I heard, “I don’t know. He just passed out.” I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, is anybody in healthcare here? Somebody said, “I called 9-1-1.” The paramedics came. They ended up getting him up and walked him to the lobby. So now, how do you go on after that? So, I just started talking to people. I said, “How about a nice hand for everyone who helped out here.” Then I said, “This isn’t the first time.” I told them how I once put my hand through a glass prop door on stage and had to call an ambulance. The audience laughed. I brought them back to me. So, I’m able to continue, and I’m doing my damn show. I’m getting near the end. All of a sudden, somebody heckled me. I look down. It’s the same guy who passed out. “You!” I said, “You’re heckling me?! If you think you needed the paramedics before, you’re going to need the whole damn fire department now.” He laughed. I said, “Give him a nice round of applause.” I never want the audience to be nervous. Afterward, he comes up to me and shakes my hand. I said, “Dude, are you alright? What happened?” He goes, “Yeah. I’d been laughing so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath and passed out.” In life, we’re all here to make some difference. I’m so happy I can do this. I always try to look at the good in things and think, “It’s not over yet.” Some people have called me a dreamer, but that’s not bad. There’s always a choice of how to think. So why not think the best? This crazy business of comedy is like buying a lottery ticket. But if you don’t play, you have zero odds. Until it stops being fun, I will keep having fun.

1/22/24, 6:38 PM Beyond Mr. Big Stuff: A Q&A with Harry Hickstein –