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The ARF Hall Of Fame: Bill Hicks
february 26 2004, 03:13 am
10 years ago today, one of my heroes died. At the time, I didn’t know who he was and would have dismissed him as a Denis Leary rip-off, a negative hack, the worst kind of liberal ‘druggie’ there was. What a difference a decade makes.
I’m always a bit gun-shy to throw the word ‘hero’ around haphazardly. The word itself seems to imply some sort of super-human effort was given, a life was saved, a disease cured or a game was won. I guess it means different things to different people; there is no set definition we can all agree upon. My current definition of hero is this: anyone who challenges me to examine my beliefs, anyone who inspires me to better myself and anyone who’s will and philosophy is resolute, steadfast and unwavering, perhaps in the face of constant scorn and ridicule.
Bill Hicks is my hero. Bill Hicks has proved to me that these dark thoughts I harbor do not mean I am alone in this world. He has taught me that any emotional attachment to a belief structure, issue, etc., in the face of mass apathy, is a breakthrough… even if that emotion is hate. Bill Hicks will remain atop my personal pantheon of philosophers for the rest of my life; he has shown that social commentary and humor can mix and coexist without it being partisan. Comics – a term universally preferred by those in the trade, as opposed to ‘comedian’ – play an important role in our society and culture. For most of us it’s all about escapism. We watch a comic, laugh for a half-hour or so, and leave… with the same neuroses, problems and such that we had when we walked in. Not saying that is a bad thing, we obviously can’t expect every bit of entertainment we enjoy to better us, to challenge our ideas and help us evolve... But that’s not to say we shouldn’t expect that every once in awhile. That’s what you get with Hicks – a cup of strong black coffee, with a few spoons of sugar, bittersweet at it’s core.
Bill Hicks – while far from being overly cerebral – is the smartest comic I have ever heard. His mastery of the language, his knowledge of far-ranging subject matter (religion, history, popular culture, medicine) far surpass anyone I can think of. He’s no Dennis Miller though; you know what he’s talking about even if you don’t know. At the same time Hicks is drawing us in with his ‘am I the only one who thinks this is bullshit?’ routine, he never held back if his crowd wasn’t getting it.
Raised Christian, Hicks' attacks on organized religion come from a knowledge base most comics can’t claim. His belief is strong, but the jokes are too good to pass up. Fundamentalists who can’t explain why there are no dinosaurs in the bible, Jesus not wanting to see all these crosses when he comes back, God leaving pot everywhere… it’s smart, relevant and hilarious stuff.
You ever noticed how people who believe in Creationism look really unevolved? You ever noticed that? Eyes real close together, eyebrow ridges, big furry hands and feet. "I believe God created me in one day" Yeah, looks liked He rushed it.
An abuser of mind-altering substances, Hicks is unapologetic for the good times he had on drugs. His attacks on the law in relation to his body and his choices are some of the most well-thought, literate arguments for decriminalization one could expect to hear from a stand-up. His rationalizations are bullet-proof. The pithier one-liners from his smoking material were lifted almost verbatim by Denis Leary, who unfortunately I discovered before Hicks. Imagine my shock when realization hits – my comic hero is a thief! Thankfully, I’ve let it go.
‘No, I don't do drugs anymore, either. But I'll tell you something about drugs. I used to do drugs, but I'll tell you something honestly about drugs, honestly, and I know it's not a very popular idea, you don't hear it very often anymore, but it is the truth: I had a great time doing drugs. Sorry. Never murdered anyone, never robbed anyone, never raped anyone, never beat anyone, never lost a job, a car, a house, a wife or kids, laughed my ass off, and went about my day.’
If you have any love for bubblegum pop, do not listen to Bill Hicks. His contempt for the George Michaels and Tiffanies of the world, his rage against the ‘third mall from the sun’ mentality shows us a man who desires absolute honesty from his artists. A decent guitarist in his own right, many of Hick’s stand-up bits were augmented with some New-Age noodling for CD release. It’s an interesting counterpoint.
Material about The Gulf War, fundamentalist Christians and Republicans – while over 10 years old now – is still frighteningly relevant today. Always the champion of the little man, Hicks managed to stay above really choosing ‘sides’. His liberal attitude regarding the arts and drugs ran parallel to his Southern Baptist upbringing. And while he always stayed angry and alienating to some due to his foul mouth, he always fought the good fight; his latent optimism showed up just in time.
I’ve seen comedians bomb (witness me at the bar), and seen them leave with their tale between their legs after being met with a tough crowd. Bill Hicks did not suffer these bad crowds, he’d turn on them. One infamous occasion, in Chicago in ’89, Hicks was heckled from the outset by on obviously drunken female patron. Her ‘You suck’ was met with ‘You fucking cunt, get out right now! You are everything about America that should be flushed down the toilet!’ It is absolutely frightening, not only in its unmerciful vulgarity but it’s spot-on righteousness. After peppering her liberally with the word ‘cunt’ about 10 times in just over a minute, Bill completely alienates half of his crowd while winning over the other half just as immediately.
‘I want you to go find a soul!’
On the video of the performance, you see people start to leave. ‘I dug a real hole on this one, didn’t I?’ he asks, with zero sarcasm. Back to his stool to continue the show…
After a few minutes of basking in his own ugliness, Bill makes a deal – she can stay if she doesn’t yell ‘you suck’. It hurts his feelings, apparently. When another male heckler yells ‘you suck’ he lets it go because he waited for a pause in the material and he obviously ‘thought it out’. ‘You’ve sat here, haven’t interrupted, made your decision. I’m fine with that’. He was being fair. A few minutes later, after being heckled by some who knew his material (some were shouting out requests -
I’m not a fucking jukebox, I’m not taking requests
- then shouting for ‘Freebird’), Hicks takes a few minutes to scream at the top of his lungs about the crowd mentality that allows one to heckle.
‘Hitler had the right idea! He was just an underachiever!’
The ‘peon masses’ who feel the need to take an active role in his show, it’s stupid,
what does it accomplish by yelling ‘Freebird’
he wonders. The hecklers mentality is based in fear and jealousy, he’s right about this. He prays aloud, onstage, for God to kill the crowd and wash away their sins. Your inability to be funny and perform, your lack of intelligence that prevents you from spinning the dense webs of scathing social commentary/dick jokes gives you no right to ruin it for everyone else. It’s his way of telling us all don’t hate me because I’m right. After this energetic, loud, foul tirade, someone yelled ‘Freebird’. Bill fell to the floor in a heap, taking the pratfall… always the comedian. He threatens to go, realizes he has nowhere to go, and the crowd literally begs him stay…
‘Let’s talk about abortion, whaddya say? Clean the whole room out…’
’We gotta come to some new ideas about life folks ok? I'm not being blasé about abortion, it might be a real issue, it might not, doesn't matter to me. What matters is that if you believe in the sanctity of life then you believe it for life of all ages. That's what I hate about this child-worship syndrome going on. "Save the children! They're killing children! How many children were at Waco? They're killing children!" What does that mean? They reach a certain age and they're off your fucking love-list? Fuck your children, if that's the way you think then fuck you too. You either love all people of all ages or you shut the fuck up.’
He continued the show, turning sure defeat into comic magic… self-deprecating shock at his own behavior, a run through of his older material and off-the-cuff quick wit. Hicks at his best. With about five minutes to go, he asks if anyone has any questions…
’How long you been doing comedy?’
‘This is my second show. You shoulda seen the first crowd, they fuckin’ hated me!’
Bill was a work-a-holic, playing upwards of 200 shows a year right up until his diagnosis of cancer. In the early 90’s, Hicks began playing overseas in the U.K. It seemed the foreign crowd had the proper distance from the American bullshit Hicks was wailing on about to actually laugh. No longer was he attacking his people right to their face. One particularly brilliant performance was a TV special for the BBC in England. ‘Revelations’ is a marathon tour-de-force. Hicks is reserved yet urgent, insistent and apathetic, filled to the brim with pure, white hatred… and hopeful.
A final taping of Hicks on the Late Show with David Letterman was scrapped at the last minute. The CBS brass objected to material that had already been cleared prior to the show… at least that was the word from the ‘Late Show’ camp. The situation remains fuzzy to this day. Hicks, never a fan of censorship or the marketing and advertising camps (which all seem to run in the same circle in TV land), felt cheated. He wrote a 39 page letter to The New Yorker’s John Lahr, explaining his plight.
By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. Thank you, thank you. Just a little thought. I'm just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they'll take root. I don't know. You try. You do what you can. Kill yourselves. Seriously though, if you are, do. No really, there's no rationalization for what you do, and you are Satan's little helpers, OK? Kill yourselves, seriously. You're the ruiner of all things good. Seriously, no, this is not a joke. "There's gonna be a joke coming..." There's no fucking joke coming, you are Satan's spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and you are fucking us, kill yourselves, it's the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show.
You know what Bill's doing now, he's going for the righteous indignation dollar, that's a big dollar, a lot of people are feeling that indignation, we've done research, huge market. He's doing a good thing." Godammit, I'm not doing that, you scumbags, quit putting a god-damn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!
After his last live show in January of 1994, Hicks moved home. He did not respond to the chemotherapy, and wanted to complete his life-death circle the way he began it – with his parents. He re-read ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Huck Finn’ and tried to get his father to share mushrooms. He was just making it big it seemed – a development deal for a show in the U.K., some CD’s on the shelves, an HBO special, Rolling Stone had proclaimed him just months before as the ‘hot’ comic at the time and he was nominated for an American Comedy Award for best male standup… which was given to Carrot-Top.
‘The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it's very brightly colored 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.’
comment no. 1
You either love all people of all ages or you shut the fuck up.
Here here! Great article Norm.
comment no. 2
Norm let me borrow a CD of Bill Hicks on my drive back home after winter break. It was really, really good. This guy really has a good understanding of what is really going on in the world.
However, my question is this: If Hicks were alive today would we think of him in the way we do now, or would we put him into the self-serving-lying-asshole category along with Michael Moore?
comment no. 3
Probably the Michael Moore route. Martyrdom does wonders for inflating an image. You even dare to try to say something along the lines of "Kaufman really wasn't that good," and people
get all Farley on you
Heh, using Farley as an adjective is fun, it's like Smurfy.
comment no. 4
I think he'd fall shy of Moore-esque-ness... sinply because unlike Michael Moore, he doesn't need everyone to like him. and he didn't take contrary opinions on issues because they fit a niche market, a la Moore.
I'm going to catch hell for that one, let me have it, readers...
stooly van cropduster
comment no. 5
Your pretty much nailed it. I can only take so much Moore. uh'.. yeah. Hicks is truly a legend.