Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Who Was Bill Hicks?

“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.”

Bill Hicks

After writing yesterday’s list of the greatest comedians, it has occured to me that a lot of people just don’t know who Bill Hicks was. To those of you who don’t, let me assure you that it is worth your time to seek out his work and I’d like to start you off in the right direction. This will be a more complete introduction to Hicks and his comedy, along with links to the volumes of it that are available online.

Hicks began doing comedy in Houston when he was only 16 years old. He wasn’t even old enough to get into the club, but he was performing at that age. His biographer, Cynthia True, said of him, “In studying Bill Hicks’ life, one of the most unusual and fascinating things about him was his sense of purpose, his understanding from a very early age that he was born with a gift and put here with a task to do. He wore that awareness lightly, never in a pretentious way, but it was a constant in his life and something he definitely carried onstage with him every time.” As he grew older, his comedy expanded and became at the same time more personal and more worldly.

Hicks had some beliefs about the world that will shock a lot of people. He firmly believed in UFOs, and in fact was convinced that he’d been taken aboard a UFO and taught secrets about the world and the nature of reality. It should probably be noted that he had taken a large dose of psilocybin mushrooms before this happened, but he really did believe that. He thought that God had left hallucinogenic drugs growing naturally on the earth in order to facilitate human evolution, allowing us to advance toward a world free of violence and exploitation. He believed that we were destined to be a part of God and that by evolving mentally and spiritually we could overcome our human limitations and join the one universal consciousness that is God. Now, all of this may sound very much like a bunch of new age hippy crap, and frankly it probably is, but this perspective fueled his comedy and drove him to heights of brilliance that are, in this day and age of homogenized, middle of the road TV-driven plastic comedy, nothing short of astonishing. Or as he put it, “Think of me as Chomsky with dick jokes.”

In the fall of 1993, Hicks found out that he had pancreatic cancer, the most deadly form of cancer. He knew he had very little time left and he had a lot of things left to say. In October of that year, he taped his 12th appearance on the David Letterman show, his first appearance after Dave had moved to CBS and an earlier time slot. His set went very well, the best he’d had on the show, but after the taping, despite having approved his set word for word twice before the taping, they decided to cut him out of the final show. Hicks was livid. He wrote a passionate letter to Jim Lahr of the New Yorker, which he turned into an article. An unauthorized version of the article is available here. But the best introduction to him that I’ve read is this article in GQ about him.

His best CD is called Relentless, and that’s exactly what Hicks was. He’d begin his shows by deadpanning:

Hi folks. I’m very tired of, uh, doing comedy. Very tired of traveling. Very tired of staring out at your vacant faces looking back at me, wanting me to fill your empty lives with humor you couldn’t possibly think of yourselves…..good evening. It’s good to be back, wherever I am, and I always love it when I’m here. I’ve been doing comedy for 11 years, folks, so bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plow through this shit one more time….I’m kidding folks. It’s magic every fucking night.”

Relentless takes you on a tour of his psyche, from sex to politics to smoking to drugs to stupid people. First he takes on the Clarence Thomas hearings, noting that with his enormous pornography collection, he doesn’t stand a chance. Then he’s on to the Persian Gulf War, which he eviscerates with a flurry of anger:

Remember when the war started, how the media kept talking about the Elite Republican Guard? Like these guys were the fucking boogeyman or something. Like they were 12 feet tall desert warriors who’ve never lost a battle. Yeah, well, after a month of continuous carpet bombing and not one reaction at all from them, they became simply the Republican Guard – hahahahahaha – not nearly as elite as we may have led you to believe. And after another month of bombing they went from the Elite Republican Guard to the Republican Guard to, the Republicans made this shit up about there being guards out there. We hope you enjoyed your fireworks show.

“It was so pretty, and it took our mind off of domestic issues”

The Persian Gulf Distraction.

People say, “Nuh uh, Bill, Iraq had the 4th largest army in the world”. Yeah, maybe, but you know something, after the first three largest armies there’s a real big fucking dropoff. The Hare Krishnas are the 5th largest army in the world, okay. And they’ve already got out airports.

You can hear most of this bit here. Then it was on to smoking. If you’ve ever heard Denis Leary’s bit about smoking and Jim Fixx, he stole it almost entirely from Hicks, who did it long before him.

I realize now that I smoke for only one reason and that reason is spite. I hate you non-smokers with all of my little black fucking heart. You obnoxious, self-righteous, whining little maggots. My biggest fear if I quit smoking….is that I’ll become one of you…(short pause)…Now don’t take that wrong.

The tag line on that kills me. Then it was on to drugs, one of his favorite subjects. He skewered the hypocrisy of anti-drug public service announcements followed by Budweiser commercials and does an absolutly hysterical sendup of the “this is your brain on drugs” commercial that simply has to be heard to get the full effect, then drops a verbal bomb on rock stars who join Rock Against Drugs and do diet coke commercials. (You can hear part of his take on the war on drugs here)He’d blister rock stars and celebrities doing commercials, calling them “whores at the capitalist gangbang”. In fact, he hated advertising more than anything else in the world. He’d stop in the middle of his shows and say:

Oh by the way, if there’s anyone here tonight who is in advertising or marketing….kill yourself…okay, back to the show. What? No, you’re laughing like you’re expecting some kind of joke. It’s not a joke, kill yourself. There is no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers filling the planet with filth and bile, kill yourself. I don’t care how you do it. Suck on a tailpipe, swallow some pills, borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, but kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. It’s the only way to save your fucking soul….

You know what bugs me the most? I know that if there IS anyone here tonight in advertising, right now they’re thinking, “Ooh, Bill’s going for that anti-marketing market. That’s a huge market.”

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Quit it, quit it! Don’t everything into a dollar sign, please!

“Ooooh, the plea for sanity dollar. Huge market in times of recession. Look at our research.”

Seriously, kill yourself.

After Hicks found out he was dying, he recorded his last 2 CDs, Arizona Bay and Rant in E Minor. They captured HIcks in all his contradictions, anger mixed with hope and understanding. The GQ article captures the last months of his life:

In January 1994, he moved into the room of his parents’ house in Little Rock that was always meant for him. He was losing weight, growing weaker, in pain, but the mind was fine. He turned his mother on to Course in Miracles; he played her Elvis, John Hiatt, Miles Davis; showed her documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles; burned incense and explained the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He told her that death would be his greatest adventure. That he was like a drop of water reuniting with the ocean. He sat on the back deck and talked to his dad about the lawn, about the trees and the crickets, about the year’s new line of cars from GM. And he tried to get Jim Hicks to take mushrooms. He bet Steve $500 that Dad would do it. Mr. Hicks asked a lot of questions and took it under consideration.

Bill set about reading Huckleberry Finn again, then went to work on The Hobbit. He spent a lot of rime with Steve, who shared his memories of their youth, dragged out photo albums, pictures of the Hickses and their cousins at the family farm back in Leakesville, Mississippi.

Bill called all the friends he’d ever had–gave his advice, said his good-byes. On Valentine’s Day, 1994, he finally got in touch with Laurie Mango, now a pathologist in New York.

Then he stopped speaking.

“I’ve said all I have to say,” Bill told Colleen and his family. Though he lived for two more weeks, walking around the house, going for drives with Steve or his folks, those were his last words.

If you want to read more about Hicks and hear or see some of his comedy, go to Kevin Booth’s webpage, Sacred Cow Productions. There are links to audio and video files as well as articles about him.

Comments

  1. #1 DS
    May 11, 2004

    I often find myself to this day wondering how Hicks would go about skewering various public personas as events go by. From Micheal Jackson to Donald Rumsfled, I’m sure he would be having a ball right now.

    ~DS~

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    May 11, 2004

    I often find myself to this day wondering how Hicks would go about skewering various public personas as events go by. From Micheal Jackson to Donald Rumsfled, I’m sure he would be having a ball right now.

    Oh man. I believe we would call this a “target-rich environment” for Hicks’ venom.

  3. #3 Lynnie
    May 11, 2004

    Another great stand up comic is Eddy Lizzard as you know Ed. I listened to several of his routines late last night. I couldn’t find anything about him on the internet but he certainly loved entertaining here in the USA. I would love to see a picture of him LOL

  4. #4 Lynnie
    May 11, 2004

    Sorry Ed, that last comment of mine should have been under your list of 10 Greatest Stand Up Comics.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    May 11, 2004

    Another great stand up comic is Eddy Lizzard as you know Ed. I listened to several of his routines late last night. I couldn’t find anything about him on the internet but he certainly loved entertaining here in the USA. I would love to see a picture of him LOL

    Oh, it’s because you had the spelling of his name wrong. It’s Eddie Izzard. His webpage is here. And yes, he’s incredibly funny. Although Kevin saw him the other day on HBO and just stared at the screen, not even the smallest chuckle. Ah, what does he know?

  6. #6 Enea
    June 2, 2004

    I’m from UK and love Izzard, but there is no way one can compare the two. Izzard, you either love or hate.
    Hicks you will love, hate, adore and despise, all at same time.
    I do, still.

    All the best,
    E.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    June 2, 2004

    I’m from UK and love Izzard, but there is no way one can compare the two. Izzard, you either love or hate. Hicks you will love, hate, adore and despise, all at same time.

    Interesting point. It has also long fascinated me that Hicks became such a star in the UK while remaining almost anonymous in America.

  8. #8 Enea
    July 3, 2004

    I never understood the mentality of big US stations like CBS, where they would get Hicks to perform, being “so funny”, only to ask him to be something else but himself and wash the routine down.
    Over here, we fell in love with the Goat Boy as rude and silly as he was, we didn’t mind.
    We donít mind anyone making fun of our PM, we donít mind jokes about sex, war, death, parents, women, men, kidsÖ itís all life and itís all so desperately sad and so desperately funny; as life itself is.
    And we donít get easily offended.
    Thatís probably why Hicks was so big over here.
    Think Iíll go and watch one of my Hicks videos; havenít done that for ages.
    All the best,
    E.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    July 3, 2004

    Enea-

    I’m with you. They would put him on the show, but not let him do his act, so everyone saw a neutered Bill Hicks. When the Letterman show cut him out of a show, Robert Morton, the show’s producer, told Hicks that he didn’t understand their audience. Bill replied, “Your audience is made up of people, right? I know people. I play in front of people every night.”

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