The life and art of Bill Hicks (2005)

This house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on February 26, 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.”
- Stephen Pound, British MP, 2004.

I’m watching a ghost – and a damn funny one as far as ghosts go. A pudgy-faced Texan, comic Bill Hicks puffs on a cigarette and paces the stage, launching into a tirade against his nation. Outrage building, the black-garbed comic berates his US audience for their inferior grade eight education, and spits venom about the Oz-like public relations machinery that fronted for the “fascist” Ronald Reagan.

Much of Bill Hicks’s late eighties and early nineties material has an eerie relevance today. “You know we armed Iraq,” he told the audience in a 1992 routine preserved on the CD Revelations. “I wondered about that too, you know during the Persian Gulf war those intelligence reports would come out: “Iraq: incredible weapons – incredible weapons.” How do you know that? “Uh, well...we looked at the receipts.”

“I’ll show you politics in America,” he added. “Here it is, right here. ‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ ‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!’ ”

Once describing himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes,” the motormouth Texan reviled comics who blunted their edge to become court jesters for the throne of commercialism. He hated the sell-outs who offered the rubes inoffensive humour about airline flights, cats and McDonald’s. Shills like Jay Leno came under his withering attack for urging “bovine America” to inhale more Doritos. He frequently pleaded with people working in advertising or marketing to kill themselves for the good of the species. Although his material was always blue and often misanthropic, it was more shock than shlock. The frequent comparison of Hicks to Lenny Bruce still holds. And like Bruce, Hicks would eventually outwear his welcome in his homeland.

How did I conjure up this clown? Through an online file sharing network, I found enough of his routines to burn onto disc – and “burn” is the best word to describe Hicks, a comic who lit a fire under the asses of comedy clubgoers expecting one-size-fits-all gags from a high-school- educated comic. He burned bright, and he burned fast. A drawling, brawling critic of all that white-bread America routinely blinds itself to, he lives on today on the Internet, a blackfly preserved in the amber of cyberspace. (A Google search of his name yields 251,000 hits.)

How big is his posthumous following? On the anniversary of his death last year, there were anniversary parties in London and Belfast, and comedy club salutes in his Texas hometown. A biography has been written (American Scream by Cynthia True), and the label Rykodisc is adding to the Hicks legacy with new concert CDs and rare material. New DVD material of past performances is slowly being released.

Born in Valdosta, Georgia, and educated in the Southern Baptist faith, the young Bill Hicks moved with his family to Houston, hometown of the Bush dynasty. He began doing comedy routines in his bedroom, repeating Woody Allen lines. By the age of 14 he was performing at a Christian camp – which gave him the interesting experience of self-censorship in his early teens. According to an article on Hicks on Wikipedia, “his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17, worried about his behaviour, but the psychoanalyst could find little wrong with him.”

In 1978, the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston, and Hicks started performing there while still in high school. In his first brush with the big time, the 23-year-old Texan landed an appearance on the talk show Late Night with David Letterman in 1984. Impressing the host, Hicks did 11 more appearances on the show, all well-received. As his star rose, Hicks’s drug consumption increased. By 1986, he was in bad financial straits, but an appearance on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special in 1987 revived his flagging career. Moving to New York City, Hicks performed nonstop and quit drugs, leaving cigarette smoking as his only vice, which figured prominently in later skits as he baited non-smokers in the audience.

Starting with an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe, Hicks became a fixture in the comedy scene across the pond, where he was hailed as a prophet of American excess. His British audiences had the benefit of cultural distance from Hicks’s topical targets, but his US audiences had no such chicken-wire for the soul. His take-no-prisoners routines were meant to shock the audience out of their media-mediated trance. He explained his comedic philosophy to the New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr in 1993. “The best kind of comedy to me is when you make people laugh at things they’ve never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people’s minds, exposing them to the light. I thought the whole point of it was to make you feel un-alone.”

Hicks didn’t suffer fools gladly, and the feeling was sometimes mutual. After one show in the early eighties, two unimpressed Vietnam veterans followed him outside and broke his leg. “Sufficiently provoked, he would fire rounds of invective, his soft Texas accent hardening with contempt,” writes Dennis Perrin in Flak magazine. The article quotes a standard Hicks response to hecklers: “Fuck you, you inbred, mouth-reading, American Gladiator-watching cracker piece of shit! Evolve!” Perrin adds that the comic “warned those who heckled him that he had 23 hours a day to concentrate on his arguments and “webs of conspiracy,” and so they would be no match for him during the 24th hour on-stage.” Hecklers rarely had comebacks to that.

Hicks frequently assailed television and the forces of mediocrity that offered up newly minted entertainers without talent or fire. In one scabrous Hicks routine, singer John Davidson is raped by Satan and spawns Debbie Gibson and The New Kids on the Block. By the time of his death in 1994, Hicks had honed his comedy into lethal sharpness, using it as much as a scalpel as a knife. The Letterman-friendly jokes were sidelined by material savaging the Bush 1 administration and corporate USA.

The drawling brawler questioned many of the comfortable middle-class beliefs of his audience about education, politics, television, and drug use. “I’ve had some killer times on drugs,” he once told an audience. After ingesting a “heroic dose” of psilocybin mushrooms, the Baptist-baiting comic understood why this fungus in particular is against the law:

“I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going ‘My God, I love everything.’ The heavens parted, God looked down and rained gifts of forgiveness, acceptance and eternal love from His unconditional heart, and I realized the true nature of my existence, of all our existence, is God’s perfect and holy sunship, that we are spirit, we are not bodies, we are mind, we are thoughts in God’s mind, his beloved children, and that has never changed, and anytime that you look through the body’s eyes you are seeing illusions… I’m glad they’re (mushrooms) against the law, because imagine how that would fuck up this country.”

Such psychedelic observations were the unexpected adjuncts to Hicks’s routines about hunting down and killing the singer of Achy-Breaky Heart, Billy Ray Cyrus.

If his material was exclusively critical or negative, the tough-minded Texan would have been remembered as a talented, if one-sided, footnote in comedy history. But a portion of his stage routine ventured into territory no nationally broadcast comic has covered before or since. The drug jokes shaded into routines about the human potential for love, transformation, and transcendence. A small but consistent part of Hicks’s routine, his belief in the unplumbed depths of our existence was based in part on his readings of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. The anticorporate, antigovernment rants were comic grenades tossed into the audience; but the real bomb was Hicks’s Gnostic nyuks about eternity and the soul. Though most of his material was dark, his “light” material was blazingly clear.

This wasn’t quite what the two-drink minimum crowd was expecting. According to an article in Stylus magazine, “right up to the end he was balancing the paradox of playing packed theatres in Europe and coming home and confronting 100-200 seat venues full of apathetic tourists.” Although his celebrity in the US had plateaued with all but a core group of rabid fans, the panjandrums of the US entertainment-industrial complex could not fail but notice this international artist in their midst.

On October 1, 1993, Hicks performed his twelfth appearance on the David Letterman Show, and achieved the distinction of becoming the first comic to be censored at CBS Ed Sullivan theatre, where Letterman held court and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. “Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down,” wrote New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr, “Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all.”

To Lahr, Hicks was “was no motormouth vulgarian but an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own.” Not ready for prime time, in other words, or late night television for that matter. Hicks had obviously done something to offend the illuminati at CBS, though his material had been pre-approved weeks earlier. (Hicks had to supply the CBS honchos with a script weeks before taping). Never broadcast, this part of Letterman's October 1, 1993 show was unseen by the huddled masses of late night television.

Letterman had been seen to laugh during the set, and the word in the green room was also good, writes Lahr. “A couple of hours later, Hicks was back in his hotel, wearing nothing but a towel, when the call came from Robert Morton, the executive producer of the Letterman show, telling him he’d been deep-sixed.” Although all his material had been previously approved, someone stepped in and deemed his routine offensive or problematic. Even up to the end – especially at the end – Hicks’s speech was far too free for the USA.

(The suspect part of his set may have been his routine about pro-life organizations, where he encouraged them to lock arms and block cemeteries instead of medical clinics. During the following week’s Letterman show, a commercial for a pro-life organization reportedly aired. This provided ironic support for one of Bill’s main themes, that America was being sanitized into mindlessness by corporate sponsorship.)

Within the year, the chainsmoking comic was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. In one of his last appearances, “he was frighteningly skinny, wore a patchy beard, tweed sport coat and saggy khakis,” according to Jack Boulware in Salon. “Three months away from dying, and he was going for it, still in the saddle, riding the horse all the way down.” The set included a scatalogical routine in a bathtub involving Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Bush and Reagan. At the show’s close, Hicks played Rage Against the Machine, singing along with the chorus, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”

But the dying comic’s best stage ending is preserved on the 1992 comedy album Revelations, probably his most famous routine:

“The world is like a ride at an amusement park. It goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question, is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, ‘hey – don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride...’ And we... kill those people. Ha ha ‘Shut him up. We have a lot invested in this ride. Shut him up. Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and my family. This just has to be real.’ It’s just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. Jesus murdered; Martin Luther King murdered; Malcolm X murdered; Gandhi murdered; John Lennon murdered; Reagan.... wounded.”

“But it doesn’t matter because: It’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings or money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace. Thank you very much, you’ve been great.”

And with that, Hicks turned to walk off the stage. He imitated three gunshots into the microphone, and pretended to fall down dead. The lights went out, and the show was over.

Geoff Olson