Aside from the litany of personal failures most of us carry around, one of the biggest particular disappointments of my life has been discovering comedian Bill Hicks a few years too late. When I came across his greatest-hits collection, Philosophy, in 1997, I was bowled over by the sheer nihilism of Hicks’s act–brilliant, antagonistic, and hilarious, but also harrowing. I read through the liner notes detailing his career with interest, only to be shocked by the abrupt, unpleasant ending: Hicks had died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer at the tender age of 32.
Hicks explained his comedic mission thus: “To me the comic is the guy who says, ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms. He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame–like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are.”
And Hicks has continued toppling from the Great Beyond. In the years since his death, Hicks’s friends and estate have culled material from the comedian’s vast archives and have continued releasing new albums. But no matter how ferociously funny the bits therein, the simple fact is that much of the nuance and timing of a stand-up act is communicated visually–how a comedian carries himself: e.g., facial expressions, hand gestures.
Now, a decade after his passing, fans reluctant to purchase badly dubbed tapes off of eBay are finally getting that visual element with the Rykodisc DVD release, Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian. The DVD includes three classic performances in their entirety, as well as the documentary retrospective, “It’s Just a Ride.”
Hicks could often be crass, but his routine was more about a general life philosophy than the occasional crude sexual joke. Hicks once told a reporter he wanted to be “the antidote” to base comics like Andrew Dice Clay. Hicks’s act was based on a different kind of shock; it gleefully made observations no one else would. He would ask audiences how many non-smokers were in the crowd, and then light his own cigarette as he dismissed them as “obnoxious, self-righteous slugs,” telling them he’d quit smoking himself, “if I wasn’t afraid I’d become like you.” He offered unsolicited advice to Reginald Denny for his next brush with a riot: Step on the gas. “They’re on foot,” Hicks said. “You’re in a truck. I think I see a way out of this.”
What constitutes the obscene was another bone of contention for the comic. “The Supreme Court says pornography is any act that has no artistic merit and causes sexual thoughts,” he said. “Well, that sounds like every commercial on TV.” He also bristled at the idea that “protecting the children” was a good enough reason for advocating censorship. “Children are much smarter than us,” Hicks said. “You know how I know that? Because I’ve never met a kid with a full-time job and kids.”
Hicks’s brand of confrontational comedy was not always well received. The comedian once so badly mocked a heckler that the man pulled a gun on him. Another time, some unhappy audience members met him in a parking lot and broke his leg. But Hicks refused to tone it down.
It’s true that in death Hicks has been claimed as a sort of champion of liberalism. It’s also true that, in the last year of his life, The Nation offered him a slot as a columnist. But it’s fairly arbitrary and simplistic to assign a full political agenda to a man whose greatest desire was to be an iconoclast. Certainly his most productive years were during the Reagan and Bush I administrations, and Hicks was highly critical of both. But he was no less scathing in his attacks on Clinton, going so far as to travel to Waco during the siege of the Branch Davidian complex and publicly call Clinton a “murderer.” There is no reason to believe that, had he lived, Hicks would have bowed before any party or president. His entire act was predicated upon rejecting any authority over his voice.
“I’ll show you politics in America right here,” Hicks told audiences, miming like a puppet master. “‘I believe the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘Well, I believe the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding up both puppets! ‘Go back to bed, America, your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection, watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer.’”
Doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of guy about to kowtow to any party line, does it?
Bill Hicks Live reinforces what a tragedy his passing was. But there is also a very real sense of closure, as his last bit ends with some of the philosophy he was prone to throwing in here and there.
“The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are,” Hicks said. “And it’s fun for awhile…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 and say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’”
This serves as a fitting addendum to a life lived fearlessly, and Bill Hicks can rest in peace knowing that from all his anger came a joy that will live into the foreseeable future. A small consolation when one considers what could have been–but a consolation nonetheless.