Performer Dines Out on Fake-Check Tale for 10 Years

Courtesy Patrick Combs

As people turn against 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, the banking community’s problems have given Combs’s Man 1, Bank 0 more legs and made it more lucrative to him than the check.

Combs has now arrived at the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, located in the Scottish city that was an epicenter of Britain’s financial crisis and whose biggest bank, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS:LN), received the world’s largest bailout. Next stop, he says, is London, where fraud prosecutors are investigating interest rates after Barclays was fined by regulators for rigging them.

“Their behavior has been immaculate for my show,” says Combs, 46. “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 then-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 held onto 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 San Jose Mercury News once the story hit the media, Combs tells the audience.

“It resonates anywhere,” says Robin Lawson, 59, who saw the show in Edinburgh while on vacation from Massachusetts. “People just resent banks.”

That wasn’t always the case, says Combs. Although he began performing the show in 2002 in schools before launching 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 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 says in an interview. “There was a seismic change in the landscape. Now they talk about how [banks] 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 Group had to receive £45.5 billion ($71.4 billion) of rescue money from the British taxpayer to avoid going under, with the first sum coming roughly a month after Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. By March 2009, protesters were stoning the windows at the Edinburgh home of Fred Goodwin, the RBS chief 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 will play 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 being finalized.

“Doing the smallest, most inconsequential thing ever literally took over my career,” he says. “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.”

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