Bill Hicks would have turned fifty-one this week, you guys. I went on a little bit of a kick for his birthday and listened to all his albums again. Man, that’s good stuff. I’ve talked about Hicks a couple of times here on the blog but then realized in hindsight that I’ve taken it for granted that other people know who he was. So here I am to spew a lot of fangirl stuff about the greatest comedian who ever lived.
William Melvin Hicks was born on December 16th, 1961. He died of pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver on February 26th, 1994. And luckily there was enough awesome in between to make for some amazing comedy. I’m sure not all of it was great. The isolation and suffering of living on the road is a big theme in his work. And he wrestled with substance abuse quite a bit, but that’s not uncommon for great comedians. They’re damaged people. It’s part of what makes them tick. But some of his best material came from those experiences, both good and bad. To be able to see the difference between a useless drug experience and one you can learn from is a skill I think a lot of people don’t recognize exists. But it does, and that’s an important distinction. Hicks was controversial in that regard and in many others. He talked openly about his drug use, about sex and religion and politics. He cursed and screamed and crossed the line into the land of the intentionally offensive often and well. It’s hard to tell sometimes if he was doing it to be satirical or just to fuck with people. Either way, he was brilliant. And I probably think that because, by and large, I agree with what he had to say. Were I on the other side of the fence I doubt I would have ever listened to his points. That’s the problem with controversy, isn’t it? If you can’t even listen to an opinion or have a constructive argument with someone who disagrees with you, then you’re living in a self-made homogenized bubble. Kind of worthless.
I realize now that I’m writing this that it’s really difficult to sum Bill Hicks up without talking pretty extensively about his material. Should’ve seen that coming. “Why do we like what we like?” is one of those unanswerable questions, isn’t it? Without examples. Oh, good. Look at that. I just happen to have examples. A small disclaimer: most of these clips are from his 1993 show Revelations, filmed in London, which is why some of the references seem decidedly British. Anyway, in no particular order:
So, by the time I got around to becoming a big fan of Hicks, he was already dead. And he never achieved superstardom, which is sad but that’s how it goes in comedy. You’re either a household name or you’re not. He was huge in Europe, especially England, where their comedic sensibilities are quite unlike ours. They understand irony and satire differently (although I won’t say better) than Americans. But his status as someone obscure was fixed by the time I even found out about him. He was never going to do something new and big and become famous, even though his cultish following has continued to grow. Thanks, internet. You know those things that you start talking about and they pretty quickly polarize the conversation? Bill Hicks is one of those figures for me. You can always tell the temperature of a group by whether they A) know who he was and, if so, B) love or hate him. Because I’ve found that, in my experience, comedy is only easy to talk about with a pretty small percentage of people. And of that little group, surprisingly few folks have heard of Hicks. He’s a meter for how deep your comedy nerdism runs, basically.
Another downer about Hicks dying so young is that some of his material will always seem a little dated, as relevant as it may still be. But, if you think about that topical stuff as obsolete, remember that history repeats itself. There are a lot of things that he talks about that have come around again, right? Another Bush in the White House, another war in the Middle East, etc, etc. Or maybe he was just ahead of his time. Also, those things, those cultural touchstones, that make social commentary a useful tool have changed in really interesting ways since the early 90’s. Things like reality television and the internet have made the world a much weirder place and I often wonder what Bill would have to say about it these days.
So what’s so special about him? Why single him out specifically from all the other comedians that I adore? I don’t really know. Something about him just really struck a chord for me. Maybe it was the age at which I became a fan. You know that horrible mid-adolescent stage when you’re full of questions and scared to answer them? Bill had all the answers I needed. On top of which, he consistently spoke his mind and gave me the confidence to do the same. Eventually. After the bullies forgot about me, anyway. I think I related to him because he was an outsider of sorts. A rock star in a time when comedians were all aspiring to be Seinfeldian and sitcom-ish – clean, vastly wealthy, and universally appealing (read: gives you a chuckle but is overall pretty fucking boring). Hicks was doing alternative comedy before alternative comedy existed. He was also skeptical about the same sorts of things as I was. Politics, religion, sex, drugs, media, the human condition. These are the things that keep you on the fringes if you don’t conform in a small town. And he was Southern. Way more Southern than I am, for sure, rocking that whole Texan cowboy thing, but Southern nonetheless. I think it’s harder to be an oddball in the South. But that could be me overgeneralizing again.
What’s most interesting about Bill Hicks, I think, is not what he said but the conviction with which he said it. Political, religious, and social commentaries are a dime a dozen, right? But Hicks was hardcore about his beliefs and such an articulate speaker that, given a different set of circumstances and talents, I’m sure he would have been just as comfortable preaching from a pulpit as he was from the stage. The man is a wonder to watch. Which is pretty interesting for me, because I fell in love with him via audio. I started listening to his albums in high school and never actually saw one of his performances on film until I had already memorized all that material. To see it performed is so different from just hearing it, but I must say that his physicality and poise really add another layer of awesome.
Maybe it’s because he died young, or because he was so outside the mainstream media boundaries of the time, but Hicks has had an influence on popular culture in ways that are surprising for someone who achieved such a small degree of fame. He was a huge influence on the young comedians who looked to him for the inspiration to start the alternative comedy scene of the 90’s (people like Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho, David Cross, and Denis Leary, who straight up stole half of the set that made him famous from Hicks, word for word, as well as his delivery and his chain smoking/leather jacket wearing image). He was also a musician, and had some pretty famous fans in the hard rock community. He’s the voice at the beginning of Tool’s song Third Eye, as well as the “he” in their song Eulogy, and that album was dedicated to his memory. He was in the Preacher comics. He’s at the center of an odd set of cultural ripples in an increasingly strange pond.
Anyway, if you’re a comedy fan, or just a fan of sociocultural satire in general, check out Bill Hicks. Revelations and Relentless are my favorite of the longer specials. And his albums Philosophy and Rants in E Minor were revelatory for me as a young person and they still are, honestly, some of the most insightful and inspiring pieces of comedy I’ve ever heard. Because comedy shouldn’t just make you laugh. It should, ideally, make you think about why you’re laughing.