Artwork by Will McConnell.
With the recent release of the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story I was tempted to write something about Bill for Bandwidth. I was hesitant though, thinking I may not be worthy, and also concerned that there just might not be anything left to say about him. Then Will went to see the movie too and, being a big fan himself, suggested I write something. And who am I to argue with the boss? At worst this will be a long winded movie recommended. At best, I might introduce you to not only one of the funniest stand up comics ever, but one of the best thinkers of our time.
[Editor’s Note: Derisive scoff.]
[Bill Hicks’s spirit: Shut the fuck up!]
Stand up comedy requires some serious balls. There’s just no place to hide. No backing music, no second takes, no fellow performers to feed you lines. Just a microphone, a spotlight, and a pair of balls bigger even than those of Officer Nigger-Hater from Bill’s Arizona Bay CD. And that’s probably why so many stand up comedians suck. From the pathetically offensive Jim Davidson to the offensively pathetic Patrick Kielty, a lot of these motherfuckers just aren’t funny. Even the good ones – Peter Kay, Ricky Gervais and Michael McIntyre – are joke blowers at best. Those guys are good at what they do, and what they do is make people laugh, but comparing modern stand up comedy to what Bill Hicks did is like comparing Joe Satriani to Jimmy Page. Joe is a goddamn blistering guitarist, but he didn’t change rock n roll music like Jimmy did. Like Bill Hicks changed comedy. His act wasn’t just about making people laugh, it was about spreading truth, no matter how controversial that truth may be. It was about saying what he wanted to say and not giving a shit what anyone thought about it. In fact, Bill said it best, when he demanded of musicians: ‘PLAY IT FROM YOUR FUCKING HEART!’
This was not just entertainment. Bill was not interested in letting you zone out or giving you a cheap chuckle. In fact, he waged war against the sort of television that did just that. Bill wanted you engaged, ready to re-evaluate some of your thoughts on life. And Bill wanted to save our souls – from the government, from religion, from the media, and from ourselves. But as well as being the thing that set him apart from so many other comedians, this is the very thing that critics of his work deride. Some people dismissed his philosophy as leftist, acid-induced liberalism. And some people just don’t like being told that their way of life is fucked. These people are commonly known as ’Americans’. Just kidding. I know a few Americans and they’re all way smarter than I am. But it’s true that, at least while he was alive, Bill never really found a mainstream audience in America. He had much more success in the UK, where audiences were (perhaps understandably) more receptive to his America-bashing. I think he was misunderstood though. He sure as shit wasn’t a patriot – he made his thoughts on patriotism very clear – but he didn’t hate America. He didn’t hate people, either, despite often coming across as a cynic and a misanthrope. He was just disillusioned with how things were going and had his own brand of medicine for it called ‘the truth’. The problem for most people is, his medicine didn’t come with a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. It did come with a few dick jokes though.
You know who Socrates was, right? Yeah, that Greek philosopher dude. But do you know how Socrates spent most of his days? Not in his study, staring at the clouds and writing down vague, abstract ideas. He walked around the agora, talking to the public and asking them open ended questions like ‘What is justice?’ Not because he wanted an answer, but because he realised that most people just don’t think about this stuff. We’re content to let others worry about that shit and tend to just buy whatever they tell us. Socrates was having none of that shit. He went out and challenged people; made them think.
[Readers: You’re not really going to compare Bill Hicks to Socrates, one of the most influential philosophers of all time, are you?]
You’re goddamn right I am. Sure, Socrates probably didn’t have an alter ego called Goat Boy, who had a penchant for underage girls, but who knows? The fact is rather than walking the streets talking to strangers, Bill was pacing around a dark little stage, chain-smoking and offering up some new perspectives on life. He believed, like Socrates did, that people should lead an examined life. Question things. In Bill’s own words: ’evolve ideas’. It might be a little rough and ready, but it’s pure philosophy, and the fact that he made everybody laugh shouldn’t diminish that.
When Hunter S. Thompson came along they coined a phrase. Okay so they coined a lot of phrases for Hunter, but the one I’m referring to is ’outlaw journalism’. Well if Hunter was an outlaw journalist, Bill Hicks was an outlaw comic. He was an outlaw because he just was not afraid. He wasn’t afraid to choose a life that meant scratching out a living travelling the county to do shows in tiny comedy clubs and bars. And he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. Whether it be the truth about the Gulf war – when no other comedian would touch it – his under voiced opinion on drugs, or just his ‘sucking your own dick’ bit, never mind getting on stage and saying this stuff out loud, most of us would never get past ‘Jesus, what would my mum think?’
Bill’s mum didn’t really know what to think, but even she told him he wasn’t too far off being a preacher. His answer, ‘I am a preacher.’ He preached his own gospel, and used language you’d never hear in church, but I agree – he was a preacher. There’s a reason that every time someone mentions the best stand up comedians of all time the same names crop up: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks. It’s a brand of comedy that resonates with you long after the laughter dies down, because there’s a point to it. An honesty to it. Bill Hicks was a preacher, and he practiced what he preached. He never sold out. Never did an advertisement. Never censored his own material to reach a wider audience. This level of integrity is very rare, and that’s what makes him special. Even if you don’t agree with everything he had to say – he wouldn’t ask you to – you can trust that Bill Hicks would never bullshit you. And if he’s a little harsh with you, it’s for your own good. American: The Bill Hicks Story wouldn’t be a bad place to start with Bill. A sort of ’easing in’ approach. Or you could do it like I did and jump in the deep end with his Rant In E-Minor. Bill’s not with us any more – which is shame because something tells me 8 years of George W. would have brought about some good material – so it’s important to keep his word alive. If you’ve never seen or heard one of Bill’s shows I urge you to do so. You might find you don’t even need the mushrooms – your third eye will be quite cleanly squee-geed (Damn, I never thought I’d have to write that word) just listening to him. But a warning for those easily offended, and those too mired in their own self-belief to even want to think differently – Bill’s a divisive guy – so some of you probably won’t like him. Well, there’s always Lee Evans, right?
Of course I couldn’t do this thing justice, so I’ll let Bill close the show…
Suggested Listening: The Bill Hicks Discography
Arizona Bay (1997)
Rant in E-Minor (1997)
Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks (2001)
Love, Laughter and Truth (2002)
Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 (2002)
Shock and Awe (2003)