I have been on a Bill Hicks tear for the last two weeks, ever since deciding to see - and then being pleased and impressed with - a new documentary about him called American: The Bill Hicks Story. It was the North American premiere of the documentary made by two British men. Hicks was more famous and celebrated in the United Kingdom than in the United States for reasons I'll get to shortly.
While somewhat familiar with this cerebral comic who used to describe himself as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes" I wanted to get to know his work better before pronouncing a judgement on the documentary.
You can read some of his material directly here. A personal favorite:
* You never see a positive drug story on the news. They always have the same LSD story. You've all seen it: "Today a young man on acid...thought he could fly...jumped out of a building...what a tragedy!" What a dick. He's an idiot. If he thought he could fly why didn't he take off from the ground first? Check it out? You don't see geese lined up to catch elevators to fly south; they fly from the fucking ground. He's an idiot. He's dead. Good! We lost a moron. Fucking celebrate. There's one less moron in the world.
Wouldn't you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstition?, perhaps? Wouldn't that be interesting? Just for once?
"Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."
I decided to see what I could find of Hick's performances via Netflix and the Austin Public Library and, Austin being Austin, the library had more of a selection than Netflix. Both had two DVD's by him but the library also had some of his cd-only releases.
So in recent days I have been watching these dvds and listening to these albums while pondering
I have struggled with how best to present this piece and have decided to provide a mini-bio followed by mini-reviews.
Part of the problem is he only had four years from the time he was getting quite popular to the time he died, killed by an illness almost nobody knew he had. He was still touring in between chemo treatments
Who was Bill Hicks?
For those of you under 30 your first exposure to Bill Hicks may have came last year when David Letterman made a big deal of apologizing to Bill Hick's mother for refusing to air a Hicks comedy routine he did in 1993. Had it aired it would have been Hicks final tv performance before dying of pancreatic cancer. Hicks had been on Letterman on 11 prior occasions.
The controversy is explained well here
and you can see the Letterman apology about it all starting here. They show the routine and Letterman said he does not know why he blocked it looking back. Some suggest it did not help that Hicks material was so risque. I often think of Hicks when I see crucifixes because of a bit he did, included in this famously censored routine, where he wonders if crosses are really what Jesus Christ would want to see if he were to actually return.
I also found a youtube of Hicks talking about the censorship here
But let me begin at his start.
Hicks grew up in Houston and started experimenting with comedy as a teenager. He and a friend
- and this is depicted brilliantly in the new documentary about Hick's life - snuck out of their
homes to perform at a nearby Comedy Workshop.
Hicks moved to L.A. where he perfored alongside then unknown comics including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Gary Shandling. He would later mock mercilessly Jay Leno, something skipped over in the documentary; He felt Leno had sold out by doing commercials for Doritos - his rant about it is here. Ironically it was Leno who first helped Hicks get on Letterman. Another comedian starting with L (Denis Leary) would later cause another rift in Hicks life.
The documentary illustrates, both with clips of Hicks performance and interviews with friends and colleagues, problems Hicks had with alcohol and drugs over the years. Some of his later material would make fun of the media portrayal of people on drugs.
He made the difficult decision to go drug-free and to do so he needed to get away from his friends and colleagues who were still using. He moved to New York City and it was at this point when he really become good. As one person in the documentary said the "real" funny Bill Hicks first occurred around this time.
This is when he began getting even more serious and political.
His first comedy album was called Sane Man. The album, recorded live in Austin in 1989 included early variations of some bits he would finesse. Sane Man is one of the two dvds available via Netflix. His first comedy album, Dangerous, was recorded in 1990. Mini-reviews of both are below
He toured during the 1990s, often playing 250 to 300 shows.
In 1990 he performed at two big comedy events, the "Just For Laughs" Festival in Montreal and the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. This latter event is what led to him becoming well known in the United Kingdom.
He recorded his second album, Relentless, in 1991. In 1992 he filmed the "Revelations" performance. That and other performances were hard to get for years but is on the other dvd I found via netflix titled Bill Hicks: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian Live. This also includes the Relentless show. This dvd also includes a featurette titled "Just a Ride" (the name taken from one of his most famous and oft referenced rants) and this includes testimonials from Brett Butler, Jay Leno, David Letterman and others.
It is hard not to listen to this material and think of Denis Leary who he and others believe essentially stole some of his material regarding smoking. They had been friends but after Leary's No Cure For Cancer album Leary ended that. He once told an interviewer, "I have a scoop for you. I stole his [Leary's] act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did."
This is from Wikipedia:
During a 2003 roast of Denis Leary, comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes backstage from Bill Hicks with the message, "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." This joke was cut from the final broadcast.
In a 2008 interview, Leary said "It wouldn't have been an issue, I think, if Bill had lived. It's just that people look at a tragedy and they look at that circumstance and they go, oh, this must be how we can explain this."
In 1993 his popularity was growing - he was even opening for the band Tool - and he was getting closer to finally making it big in American and THAT is when he was diagnosed with cancer. He didn't tell anyone right away and kept on touring despite weekly chemotherapy treatments. It was during this time that he went on Letterman the last time and even though his comments had been approved ahead of time he was called later to be told his performance would not air.
He died in Feb 1994 at age 32.
American: The Bill Hicks story
During a question and answer session after the screening of this movie in Austin his brother, Steve, was asked if Bill ever speculated to him on why he never made it big in America.
Steve said he preferred to turn the question around to ask why he was a success in England but not in the United States. The difference, he said, was that in England they would show his entire 90-minute show uncut whereas in the United States he would have to work in six minute or less segments on shows. That fragmentation just did not do his type of performance and style - full of intricacies and momentum - justice. After watching these performances, I agree.
Steve said Bill's family (their mother was also at the premiere) answer his fan mail and are sitting on more than 100 hours of video footage and another 100 hours of audio footage of materials. More will come out in the fall, Steve promised.
This documentary did an impressive job doing two difficult things at once: telling Bill's life story while also showing clips from performances. I'm sure it would have been easy to do too much of one or the other but this balanced it perfectly. The directors used fascinating techniques to tell about his life without making it too traditional, perfect for such a non-traditional comedian.
I would definitely recommend seeing this documentary when it is officially released. I'll return to post details as it gets closer to a real release date.
Sane Man - This performance includes a few of my favorite jokes that were also in the documentary, from a great rant about the anti-intellectual movement in American to jokes about being pulled over while high, along with many other items.
Here is his anti-intellectual joke
I've noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country; since about 1980, oddly enough. … I was in Nashville, Tennessee, and after the show I went to a Waffle House. I'm not proud of it, but I was hungry. And I'm sitting there eating and reading a book. I don't know anybody, I'm alone, so I'm reading a book. The waitress comes over to me like, [gum smacking] "What'chu readin' for?" I had never been asked that. Not "What am I reading?", but "What am I reading for?" Goddangit, you stumped me. Hmm, why do I read? I suppose I read for a lot of reasons, one of the main ones being so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress.
Very funny material. After one particularly dark rant he added, "I AM available for childrens' parties."
Oh and he suggests Dick Clark is the real Satan. But there are jokes and stories that just don't work too.
Dangerous - He tells the Wafflehouse story again.
* We live in a world where John Lennon was murdered, yet Barry Manilow continues to put out fucking albums. God-dammit! If you're gonna kill somebody, have some fucking taste. I'll drive you to Kenny Rogers' house.
Some parts are funny but it's clear he's still not gotten a rock solid performance
Bill Hicks: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian Live - This dvd is a must have if you like Hicks. It includes his Revelations performance, his Relentless performance as well as the alluded to featurette with testimonials.
One bit on the dvd
They tell us "Rock'n'roll is the devil's music." Well, let's say we know that rock is the the devil's music, and we know that it is, for sure... At least he fuckin' jams! If it's a choice between eternal Hell and good tunes, and eternal Heaven and New Kids on the fuckin' Block...I'm gonna be surfin' on the lake of fire, rockin' out.
People say to me, "Oh, Bill, leave them alone. They're so good, and so clean-cut, and they're such a good image for the children." Fuck that! When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don't care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! "Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose." SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO HIM PLAY!
If you are not familiar with Bill's style of comedy these performances are a great starting place.
However, the best part of this dvd is the "It's Just a Ride" feature, a documentary about Bill that includes comments from a variety of folks. New Yorker writer John Lahr refers to Hicks as an "ass-kicking comedian," the most important type, which is spot on. Bill's mom said she told him his style is close to preaching and he corrected her and said he IS preaching.