Sixteen years after his death, the cult of Bill Hicks is as strong as ever, and now two British film-makers have made a documentary about America's most outspoken comedian
WHAT WOULD Bill Hicks have made of his current canonisation? It is now 16 years since the American comedian died of pancreatic cancer, but he has remained impressively ubiquitous in the interim. Angrier young comics cite his influence. His tirades against American foreign policy are replayed to comment upon the nation’s continuing experiments in inter-continental bellicosity. Hicks’s routines – furious, righteous, unrelenting – have become holy texts for a new generation of politically tuned-in comedy fans.
Now, two British film-makers, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, offer the faithful a documentary entitled American: The Bill Hicks Story . Featuring lengthy interviews with family and friends, the picture explains how an ordinary kid from Houston, Texas, the son of conservative Christians, managed to become one of the most influential entertainers of his era.
“He worked hard,” Harlock, an experienced TV director, suggests. “John Lahr from the New Yorker had interesting things to say about him in a famous profile. For years, he had done 300 nights a year and, as a result, he had that ability to be masterful with an audience. He had a confidence that you only get from playing thousands of gigs.”
Employing snippets of animation and featuring (too much) strumming from Hicks’s former musical collaborators, the film goes into great detail about the conflicts between the comedian’s values and those of his parents. It is interesting that his mother, an articulate and formidable character, was willing to participate in the making of the film. After all, much of Hicks’s early material poked fun at flyover-state Americans and their rigid Christian beliefs.
“I had sent her a tape of a tribute to Bill I organised on the 10th anniversary of his death,” Harlock explains. “Mary is the hub of the story. Immediately you meet her you notice her tenacity and strength of mind. She is proud of the fact that she raised three kids, all of whom made their own way in the world. I think Bill and she had the same arguments that all parents and children have – about religion and politics. The difference was he turned them into comedy.”
The sometime tensions between Bill and his folks – they were close chums again by the time of his death – helped generate material that makes even some liberal fans uneasy. Following his recovery from a serious booze problem in 1989, Hicks, up to then barely a cult, embarked on the series of international tours that secured his reputation. Cigarette pointing from a permanently clenched fist, he railed against what he saw as the ignorance and small-mindedness of rural America. British audiences cheered at his impersonation of supposedly moronic working-class yanks. Shouldn’t these gross caricatures of ordinary people make us feel a little bit uneasy (in the wrong way)?
“That is one way of looking at it,” Thomas says, slightly cautiously. “Yes. It’s a lot easier to laugh at somebody from afar. He often talked about moving to Britain and he might have pointed out our foibles. But it’s not the same. America has so much greater influence on the world that it must count as a genuine target.”
FAIR ENOUGH. Hicks’s attacks on US foreign policy and the nation’s futile drug wars were driven by sound research and a sure sense of purpose. It was the snide attitude towards the nation’s citizens that occasionally seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. Observe, for instance, the routine, replayed in the film, during which he ridicules a waitress for wondering why he was reading a book. I would understand if the poor, hard-working woman gobbed in his trifle next time he came in.
“It is very important to say that he didn’t shy away from confronting those audiences,” Harlock points out. “He didn’t just sit in New York or LA and deliver these routines. He went touring in the Deep South. A lot of his working life was spent in places like Oklahoma or wherever.
“There’s a famous clip where he tells an audience he hates Kenny Rogers and they go wild. It’s important to say that he was not pillorying people; he was pillorying an attitude: a lack of curiosity about the world. And, of course, extreme views are always more entertaining than grey areas.”
At any rate, Hicks filled a void that, acerbic comics such as George Carlin noted, had existed since the death of Lenny Bruce in 1966. Richard Pryor was almost as angry (and a lot funnier), but he didn’t devote quite so much time to the nuts and bolts of the political system. Like Bruce and Pryor, Hicks had to battle his way through substance addiction before finding his true voice. Of course, a history of boozing and drug-taking will only spur the development of a posthumous cult. Harlock and Thomas, perhaps surprisingly, buy into the notion that partying was an element of the creative process.
“Bill had his own troubles battling between knowledge and his restrictive upbringing. He got involved with a bunch of guys who got drunk and blitzed every night. That was all to free up his mind. But he rapidly realised that he just wasn’t himself any more.”
THE FILM-MAKERS relate that, though Hicks is still disproportionately more popular in the UK and Europe than at home, the US audiences for their film have been wildly enthusiastic. He is slowly, belatedly, becoming a prophet in his own land.
So, what would he have made of the canonisation? Well, one routine, quoted in the film, about rock music as death cult suggests that he rather bought into the idea of creative self-destruction. Then again, he wouldn’t have enjoyed the concomitant sentimentality one little bit.
One thing is for sure. He’d have got at least 20 minutes of fiery material from the strange phenomenon.
OLD JOKES THAT STILL RING TRUE
Hicks on Iraq and the war on drugs
(The Bush he was referring to was George Bush Sr)
I’m so sick of arming the world, then sending troops over to destroy the f***ing arms, you know what I mean? We keep arming these little countries, then we go and blow the s*** out of them. We’re like the bullies of the world, y’know. We’re like Jack Palance in the movie Shane, throwing the pistol at the sheep-herder’s feet.
“‘Pick it up.’
“‘I don’t wanna pick it up, Mister, you’ll shoot me.’
“‘Pick up the gun.’
“‘Mister, I don’t want no trouble. I just came downtown here to get some hard rock candy for my kids, some gingham for my wife. I don’t even know what gingham is, but she goes through about 10 rolls a week of that stuff. I ain’t looking for no trouble, Mister.’
“‘Pick up the gun.’ (He picks it up. There are three shots.)
“‘You all saw him – he had a gun.’”
“You know we armed Iraq. 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. But as soon as that cheque clears, we’re goin’ in. What time’s the bank open? Eight? We’re going in at nine.’”
“George Bush says we’re losing the war on drugs. You know what that implies? There’s a war going, and people on drugs are winning it. What does that tell you about drugs? Some smart, creative people on that side: they’re winning a war, and they’re f***ed up! A lot of you don’t even know you’re fighting, do you? You’re sitting there going ‘F***, I’m watching Saturday Night live.’ (Drags joint) ‘Are we winning? I feel like my flank is covered. Honey, bring me a beer, we got a war to win!’”
“How about a positive LSD story? Would that be newsworthy? Just once, to hear what it’s all about: ‘Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death. Life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves . . . Here’s Tom with the weather.’”
“People often ask me where I stand politically. It’s not that I disagree with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy, it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.”
Bill Hucks certainly made his mark what ever ones view
Bill Hicks was in his own category. if you think about it, he was intelligent, pretty dead on correct on issues, that sadly have not changed. I say Nietzche had nothing on Hicks!
Bill Hicks died, I consider, at the age of 31...1 month into age 32.
TruthSayer, TrailBlazer...I can't say enough GREAT thing he is so deserving of.
Unfortunately, I think Bill Hicks whole point is still not properly being received. People perceive him as this angry, chain smoking, random ranter romping, hateful man. He was so NOT that, completely anyway, LOL!
Hicks: "I just have one of those faces. People come up to me and say, "What's wrong?" Nothing. "Well, it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile." Yeah, you know it takes more energy to point that out than it does to leave me alone?"
" Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace."
""I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."
Not Satanic in my opinion, but certainly no saint!!! Love HIM!
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