America’s outlaw comic

July 25, 2011

Alessandro Tinonga looks at a new documentary about legendry comedian Bill Hicks, who used his comedy to challenge the wealthy and powerful.

"BY THE way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing...kill yourself."

In the shadow of the Reagan years, Bill Hicks was one of the few comics who could utter such a line and be met with thunderous laughter. Hicks is arguably one of the most important stand-up comedians in the last 30 years. However, due to censorship, his refusal to bend his act to appease mainstream media and his untimely death due to pancreatic cancer in 1994, his comedy is virtually unknown in the U.S.

That's why the new biographical documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story is a welcome tribute to the life and comedy of a forgotten comic.

Hicks was not only a comedian but a social critic and satirist. His material covered a wide range of issues, from drug use to music, philosophy to sex. He railed against televangelists, imperialism, politicians and Corporate America. In the end, Bill Hicks was America's outlaw comic.

The documentary was produced by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, and features archival footage and interviews with family and friends. To tell the story of Hicks's life, the filmmakers ditched shots of talking heads and used a cut-and-paste animation technique to add movement to a large collection of still pictures. The result is wonderful visual recreations of episodes in Hicks's life. At many points, it's easy to forget that you're watching a documentary. Instead, you are following Bill Hicks through his life as he grows and evolves.

Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks

FROM A very early age, Bill Hicks knew that he wanted to be a stand-up comic. During high school, he and his friend Dwight Slade would spend hours listening to Woody Allen and Richard Pryor. Together, they developed characters and sketches. At the age of 15, Hicks performed in front of an audience and had the crowd rolling on the floor.

After Dwight was forced to move away by his parents, Bill became a solo act. He quickly became a favorite among a growing number of comedians in Houston. For long-time Hicks fans, it's a real treat to watch rare footage of Bill performing as a teenager, utilizing caricatures of his parents and teachers to mock the despair of high school years in suburban Texas.

When Hicks graduated from high school, he moved to Los Angeles in the pursuit of stardom. In almost no time, he was a featured performer at The Comedy Store, which was seen by most comics as the stand-up Mecca. Before he was in his 20s, Hicks was performing on the same stages as David Letterman and Jay Leno.

When Hicks turned 21 in 1982, he began to feel that his career was growing stagnant, and he moved back to Texas. After Jay Leno watched one performance, he arranged an appearance for Hicks on Late Night with David Letterman.

Hicks' first appearance on the Letterman show was successful. However, he had his first run-in with censorship. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he caused a serious accident that left a classmate using a wheelchair. NBC had a policy that no jokes about handicapped people could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as "wheelchair." Hicks was disappointed that the television audience didn't get to experience the uncensored Bill Hicks who people saw in clubs.

It was during this time that Hicks started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Experimentation with mushrooms affected him deeply in a spiritual and psychological way. A common joke during his performance was a rant against the bias in the media against drugs and his own idea of a possible pro-drug news story: "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 is no such thing as death. Life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather!"

Unfortunately, Hick's addiction to alcohol began to harm his performances. Audiences would hand him trays of drinks and challenge him to consume all the contents, which he did frequently. It got to the point that many club managers would no longer ask him to perform because he was so out of control.

On his album Dangerous, Hicks commented on his drinking: "Embarrassing drinker, I was. I'd get pulled over by the cops. I'd be so drunk, I'd be dancing to their lights, thinking I'd made it to another club."

Despite the negative impact on his career, the drinking did seem to harden Hick's daring to cross lines. The mainstay of his career was his complete contempt for curbing his performance for what was considered "safe" or "acceptable" in mainstream culture. Hicks wanted to challenge his audiences to hear a truth even when it was uncomfortable.

For instance, Hicks regularly condemned nationalism and patriotism (ironic, considering the choice of the documentary title). When commenting on the Supreme Court decision to not outlaw flag burning he mimicked the political Right:

"Hey buddy, my daddy died for that flag."

"Really? I bought mine. Yeah, they sell 'em at K-Mart."

"He died in Korea!"

"Wow, what a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea."

No one--and I repeat, no one--has ever died for a flag. See, a flag is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also the freedom to burn the fuckin' flag.

HICKS' RELOCATION to New York City in 1987 marked an upturn in his career. He left the destructive lifestyle brought on by drug abuse and binge drinking. He appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special, continued to make appearances on Letterman's show and, for the next five years, performed about 300 times a year.

In 1990, Hicks got a major break when he performed at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival and London's West End in November. Hicks was a major hit in the UK and Ireland, and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to the Just for Laughs festival and filmed his second video, Relentless. In the documentary, his friends commented that perhaps one of the main reasons why Bill was so successful outside the U.S. is because of his many jokes and social commentary about American politics.

Hicks was one of a handful of American comedians who spoke out against the Gulf War. In a brilliant satirical rant about the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy, Hicks said:

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 check clears, we're goin' in. What time's the bank open? Eight? We're going in at nine. We're going in for God and country and democracy, and here's a fetus and he's a Hitler. Whatever you fucking need, let's go. Get motivated behind this, let's go!"

Despite his overseas success, Hicks was frustrated by his virtual anonymity in his home country. On October 1, 1993, Hicks was scheduled for his 12th appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast--then the only occasion where a comedian's entire routine was cut after taping.

Allegedly, the routine was removed from the show because Letterman and his producer were nervous about a religious joke: "A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think when Jesus comes back he wants to see another cross? Ow! Maybe that's why he hasn't come back yet?"

Additionally, the producers accused Hicks of gay-bashing. Hicks' routine does come off as homophobic, but in the aftermath of the controversy, he maintained that he was making fun of a double standard that deemed sexist views of lesbian sex as acceptable while rejecting legitimate relationships of gay men.

Hicks said he believed his act was censored due to a pro-life commercial aired during a commercial break after he made fun of anti-abortion protesters in his act: "If you're so pro-life do me a favor; don't block med clinics. Lock arms and block cemeteries. Let's see how committed you are to this idea."

Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker. Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again. The full account of this incident was featured in a New Yorker profile by Lahr and the censored routine can be viewed on YouTube.

Tragically, while his international success and the controversy on Letterman's show brought him lots of offers for shows and tours, Hicks was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1993--the disease spread to his pancreas. Unknown to most of his friends and the public, Hicks continued to perform while undergoing chemotherapy. He died in February 26, 1994, at the age of 32.

His genius as a comedian and social commentator continues to have an impact. Nearly two decades after his death, Bill Hicks is still gathering new fans and influencing comedy. In a 2005 poll to find "the comedian's comedian," fellow comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks number 13 on their list of "The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever." In the 2004 special Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time, Hicks was ranked at number 19. In March 2007, another poll, "The Top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time," put Hicks at number six.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is a great film that tells the life and times of a powerful comedic renegade. For old fans and those just discovering Hick's work, this documentary is a wonderful and insightful journey, with lots of laughs along the way. Moreover, audiences will get to experience the truth and vision that Bill Hicks always tried to put forward at the end of his set.

In his own words, "You know all that money we spend on the military ever year--trillions of dollars? Instead, if we use this money to feed and clothe the poor of this world, which it would do many times over, then we can explore space, inner and outer, together, as one race."

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