As people turn on the bankers they blame for the financial crisis, it’s difficult to say whether Patrick Combs captured the moment or the moment captured him.
Since 2002, the once-struggling San Francisco-based author has taken his one-man show -- about how he cashed a junk-mail check for $95,093.35 and the ensuing fight with his bullying bank -- to audiences from Dallas to Dublin.
With every year that’s gone by, bankers have given Combs’s “Man 1, Bank 0” more legs and made it more lucrative than the check.
Combs has now arrived at the annual Fringe festival in Edinburgh, the Scottish city that was also an epicenter of Britain’s financial crisis, and whose biggest bank, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc (RBS), still ranks as the world’s largest banking bailout.
“Their behavior has been immaculate for my show,” said Combs, 46, who was originally from Oregon and now living in San Diego. “While I’m packing, Barclays runs off and creates the perfect environment. I’m like, ‘Thank you Barclays!’”
The 75-minute performance starts with how Combs, saddled with $45,000 of credit-card debt, decided to play a joke on Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp by depositing the phony check he’d received in a mailer about a get-rich-quick scheme.
He endorsed it with a smiley face on the back and placed it in the automated teller’s deposit box.
To his astonishment, it cleared.
The rest of the show recounts how Combs waited for the bank to rectify its mistake, withdrew the sum as a cashier’s check, put it in a deposit box, and then was tracked down by a bank official who threatened him with jail.
After months of back-and-forth, Combs returned the money and kept the knowledge that the bank was in the wrong, all told at a rat-tat-tat pace with the help of two key props: a telephone and a projector screen. The show’s title came from a headline in the St. Jose Mercury News once the story hit the media, Combs tells the audience.
“It resonates anywhere,” said Robin Lawson, 59, who saw the show in Edinburgh while on vacation from Massachusetts. “People just resent banks.”
That wasn’t always the case, said Combs.
Although he began performing the show in 2002 in schools before starting it formally in Dallas the following January, the story of the check dates back to 1995.
At that time, Combs was beginning to make a living as a motivational speaker after publishing a book on the ingredients for a successful college career. “Man 1, Bank 0” began as a book, amassing 140 rejections from publishers over the eight years before it hit the stage.
“In 1995, at best, people were complaining about paying to use ATMs, or when I bounce a check they charge me,” Combs said in an interview. “There was a seismic change in the landscape. Now they talk about how they ruined their country.”
The visit to Edinburgh follows Combs’s tour of Ireland, home to the largest banking crisis in the euro region.
Royal Bank of Scotland had to receive 45.5 billion pounds ($71.4 billion) of rescue money from the British taxpayer to avoid going under, with the first sum roughly a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
By March 2009, protesters were stoning the windows at the Edinburgh home of Fred Goodwin, the RBS chief executive officer who became the lightning rod for public wrath against bankers.
The flyer for “Man 1, Bank 0” talks of “a comedy adventure that will appeal to anyone who has ever wanted to get one over on the bankers.”
The show is playing until Aug. 26 at the 150-seat Gilded Balloon Wine Bar, one of 279 venues ranging from pubs to ballrooms in the Edinburgh Fringe. Combs says dates for London are still being finalized.
“Doing the smallest, most inconsequential thing ever literally took over my career,” he said. “It’s been a rocket ride. My intuition and what I’m observing tells me that the show is about to get presented in a much bigger way. The banking environment says it must.”
To contact the writer on the story: Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at email@example.com