Monday, August 8, 2011

The Best Comedian of All Time

"Don't you think it's weird that Christians wear crosses?" my sister asked me one day after school.

"Why?" I wondered.

"Because that's how Jesus was executed," she responded.  "If Jesus lived today, we'd all be wearing electric chair necklaces instead."

I guess I'd never thought of that before; but I was only 10 at the time.  My sister was in high school -- high school! -- and told me that this is what they'd been talking about in one of her classes.  Is this what I had to look forward to in high school?  Philosophical discourse?!  Those aren't the words I would have used when I was 10, but it was a concept I grasped and was looking forward to engaging in when, someday, I'd reach the magical age where I too would be a high schooler.

As it turned out, the experience of high school was significantly different than what I'd extrapolated from my sister's anecdote.  College, if anything, would more closely resemble what I'd imagined; but even then, not so much.  As far as philosophical discourse goes, it was during college -- but outside of the college classroom -- that I met with the single biggest influence on my perception and comprehension of the world around me.

One night after classes were finished, I was hanging out with my friend Paul and his girlfriend (at the time).  My memory of how the night began is a bit hazy.  I think we'd been at a restaurant, made a stop at a liquor store, and were on our way back to his apartment.  I don't remember the CD beginning.  I don't remember Paul mentioning he was going to start a CD.  And I can't remember the definitive beginning of the standup routine.  It just faded slowly into my consciousness, like it had always been there.  I gradually became aware that I was listening to a comedian.  I really wish I could remember it better.  Because, as it turned out, these were my introductory moments to the best comedian of all time.  And you only get to have that once.

"Paul, who is this?"

"His name is Bill Hicks."

Bill Hicks.  I'd never heard of him before.  Granted, I wasn't the closest observer of the standup comedy scene at the time; but someone this good, how had I never heard of him before?

"I guess he's been dead for a long time now," Paul mentioned.  That explained why most of his references and premises were a bit dated -- Operation Desert Storm, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King riots.  But I'd been alive during those events, so I had the background knowledge I needed to get the jokes.  And despite the expiration date of the references, I was amazed at how fresh the material felt.  It didn't matter that he was talking about events that were almost a decade old (at the time); what I was hearing was a new, original take on those incidents that I'd never heard before.

Which is incredible, if you think about it.  When something cultural -- a painting, a movie, a novel, a song -- is so profoundly good, its influence and imitators are so widespread that the original tends to lose its power.  (Think of how every single frame of Pulp Fiction has been strip mined of all its originality.)  I hadn't been exposed to any watered-down, third-hand dissemination of Hicks' material.  It was all so thoroughly new and potent to me.

Until the CD spun to this point...

"You have to admit that beliefs are odd.  A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks.  You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fuckin' cross?"

On hearing this, my reflex reaction was: "Oh, rip off!  That's been done before."

Then I stopped to think about where exactly I'd heard it.  From my sister.  When she was in high school.  That may not have been the point of origin for this thought.

A teacher of hers had said that to her.  Granted, he'd tamed it down, and he'd added his own tag to it -- the thing about electric chair necklaces.  But Bill Hicks had managed to reach me before I'd "officially" heard of him.

That night began a Bill Hicks obsession in me and Paul that lasted through the remainder of college and beyond.  Paul bought up every Hicks album he could find and burned copies for me.  We read everything about him.  Learned about how he was bigger in England than he'd ever been in his homeland.  (Paul first heard of Hicks via a reference in the comic book series "Preacher," written by U.K. author Garth Ennis.)  Found the video of his breakthrough London performance, which was paired on a VHS tape with a documentary about him called "Just a Ride."  Learned about his beef with Denis Leary.  Learned about his final appearance on Letterman getting cut (more on that below).  Learned about his tragically early death at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer.  We sought out everything.

What remains so appealing to me about Hicks' comedy is that it seemed to go a step beyond.  He wasn't just making points; most standups are out to make points.  While there was a solid strain of misanthropy throughout his work, it came from a genuine confidence in humanity's ability to improve itself.  With Hicks, there was an implied call to arms, a belief that every single one of us has the power to effect change.  He seemed to be able to point the way to change.

"The reason our institutions ... are all crumbling is because they're no longer relevant.  So it's time for us to create a new philosophy and perhaps even a new religion, you see?  And that's okay cause that's our right cause we're free children of God with minds who can imagine anything."

The fact that this sentiment could be couched in the middle of a standup routine and performed in front of drunken nightclub patrons is astounding.  Hicks was a master of balancing heartfelt ideology with perfectly timed self-subversion.  "By the way, there are more dick jokes coming.  Please relax."

Hicks' early death is sad not only in and of itself, but also because it leaves us with a limited amount of material.  One is tempted to imagine what Hicks would say about some of the current issues we're facing.  But then again, he pretty much already said it.  In his time, Hicks was addressing an economic recession, war in the middle east, blustering talk radio hosts, and a strain of anti-intellectualism that seemed to be creeping into the culture.  It's sort of depressing how little has changed in the nearly 20 years since he died.

But occasionally, we get treated to new Hicks material.  (Or perhaps I should say new packaging of the old material with a bit of previously unseen footage added in.)  The latest is the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, which is currently streaming on Netflix and serves as a solid introduction if you don't know much about him.  The strength of this particular documentary is that it eschews the obvious route of interviewing other comedians and sticks with interviewing his family and closest friends.  If you want to hear other comedians talk about Hicks, there are numerous sources for that.  This documentary made a smart move in going a different direction.

The other recent unearthing of "lost" Hicks footage was the fantastic January 30, 2009 episode of "The Late Show" wherein David Letterman took personal responsibility for cutting what would have been Hicks' final television appearance from his show.  Letterman invited Hicks' mother onto the show to make a moving in-person apology for his "error of judgment" from 1993.

But for those of you interested in going straight to the source -- the unfiltered works of Bill Hicks -- the trifecta (in my opinion) would be the following comedy albums: Dangerous, Relentless, and Arizona Bay.  There are also several videos of his standup, including an HBO special; but it's all variations of the material in those three albums.

If you're a newcomer to Bill Hicks, I envy you.  You have ahead of you the opportunity to hear his stuff for the first time.  You may not agree that he's the best comedian of all time, but I hope you'll enjoy his work half as much as I do.

And now, I'll close the same way Bill so often did...

"The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are.  The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while.  Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, 'Hey, is this real, or is it just a ride?' ... It's just a ride. ... And we can change it any time we want.  It's only a choice.  No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money.  Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love."


  1. I enjoyed this. I believe the first cd we got that night was Arizona Bay. It would make sense because the reason I sought him out was not only Preacher, but the numerous references to him in Tool (another favorite of mine). It's pretty funny because they kept promoting that documentary on Comcast On Demand, so I kept hearing Bill Hicks while looking for things to watch.

  2. Awesome, Joe! I really DO have to listen to more of his stuff.



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