There’s an inherent difficulty in doing artistic impersonations. On the one hand, impersonators and revivalists are measured against the expressive strength and power of the artist they’re covering; and secondly, there’s an ever-present danger of kitsch and camp, as thousands of Elvii can attest. For every pedestrian Sinatra or Deano lounge-act there’s an equal number of Rocky Horror mimes and drag routines waiting in the wings. Or Judy Garlands or Patsy Clines. Or think of cover bands striving after absolute authenticity and the right look, no matter how extreme. I remember a documentary on a Nordic Elvis impersonator who had extensive facial surgery purely to boost his chances at an Elvis impersonator’s contest (which sadly, pathetically, he didn’t win).
So then, consider the difficulties of re-performing a stand-up comedian’s work. On the one hand you have to mimic a unique voice and expressive identity that might’ve taken the artist years to develop and perfect. You have to memorise every routine, movement, and physical detail of the artist’s performance. You have get on stage and engage an audience that is likely to know the material well and judge you by it; a difficult audience that’s likely to heckle, you to boot. And you have to be mindful of the contexts that spawned the original material and response: imagine an imitator doing a word-by-word rendition of a Richard Pryor performance today, or a white guy doing that. You’ve gotta be pretty committed to take all this to the stage and be confident enough to pull it off.
The good thing about impersonating or re-presenting the work of the late Bill Hicks is that the original context of his work is still extremely relevant today. For those who might not be familiar with Bill, he did some pretty devastating comedy on the first Bush/Republican regime and Gulf War, as well as the war on drugs, the state of the music industry, television and evolution generally. Bill was a genius of anger who died prematurely of cancer; and if you’ve ever seen a video performance or heard his CDs, it’s clear he was something rare amongst comedians: a total comedian—one whose every gesture and expression drips with biting humour and passionate, committed drive. His routines on abortion and Rush Limbaugh, for instance, recorded with the insane persuasion of the righteous and dying, are over-the-top thrashings of received opinion and perception. His concern was always for the truth on the one hand and the media-driven status quo of our abused reality on the other. Hence, he was never too popular in mainstream America, though he was a quintessentially American freethinker. Take this routine on Gulf War 1 from the Relentless album:
Remember how it started, they kept talking about the ‘Elite Republican Guard’ in these hushed tones, like these guys are the boogey man or something?
Yeah, we’re doing well now but we have yet to face the Elite Republican Guard . . . Like these guys were twelve feet tall desert warriors.
Never lost a battle! We shit bullets!
Yeah, well, after two months of continuous carpet bombing and not one reaction at all from them, they became simply “the Republican Guard”. 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.
When I first saw the poster for a Bill Hicks gig here in Dublin, I didn’t fully process the fact that another performer would want to stage Bill’s routines ‘Live and Exactly’. My first impression from the poster was of a documentary showing, not a stand-up gig. But like an old Hicks fan who had memorised a line or two in his late-teens/early 20s, I took a closer look at the poster and went along on the night to see how my early fandom stood the test of time. (OK, that’s a little lie. I love Bill’s work as much today as then. But that older fan inside me was also curious to see how authentic and exact such a performance could be: you know the type of purist fan, who only ever likes ‘the first album’ or the ‘original drummer’ and who crosses his arms a lot. Knowing how much nerve it takes to not only memorise an hour’s worth of material but also to get up on stage and perform it, I thought such a gig would either be a brave failure or a difficult achievement to get exactly right.
But the show, the material and delivery stood up very well on the night. Developed and organised by local Dubliners Jason Clarke and Emmet Quinn, the show began with a Steven Wright (Clarke) warm-up of quips and puns and then went straight into an hour’s worth of Bill’s finest performed by Quinn. From cigarettes to boy bands, the orgy of weapons technology and the sheer comedic hypocrisy of the War on Drugs, the performance was a consistent rendition of Hicks. The strange thing was that the gags originally meant for George Bush Senior’s Iraqi distraction didn’t even need to be tweaked for George Junior’s War. It’s still a war of unfair and umatched proportions and blatant misinformation.
Emmet’s memory was pretty much perfect and his delivery right-on. His accent didn’t quite have the Texas drawl that typified Hick’s delivery, but when a seriously stoned heckler went a little too far with his interruptions, Emmet unloaded onto him with the full fury of an angry Bill (whereupon the heckler left). Some gag-details were updated to factor in current pop mediocrity Westlife, but otherwise the material was uncut. Considering we’ve only got CDs and old videos of Bill in action, it’s great to participate in the performance of his material again and actually feel it happening as an audience. It’s good to be reminded of the power of his work and its continuing acuity for our times, despite its difficulty and richness of character. And since this was only the third time he’d performed it, I thought Emmet’s performance was remarkably spirited.
I posted a few questions to co-producer Jason Clarke to find out how they developed the idea (and the braveness) to put the show together, and he emailed forthwith. “I was sitting in my studio just having a ponder and I thought it would be a different thing to do; Bill Hicks had a message that should be spread around as much as possible. Emmet had been doing impersonations and performing for years so I gave him a ring (he has a night job singing with ‘The Bee Gees Experience’ and some other cover bands). We’d known each other a long time and both love what Hicks had to say and the way he said it. We got together and I wrote out the scripts; we went through them and then Emmet learned the whole thing off.”
I complimented him on Westlife twist and the continuing currency of the Bush comedy. Also, considering how Bill often improvised and rearranged his routines as the mood took him, I wondered if they considered dropping in their own gags to keep the audience guessing, to keep it fresh and extend Hicks’ lines of thought. Even if it only means playing with or modulating the gags on the fly, as Bill constantly proved on his various recordings (I must admit, my inner, demanding fan go the better of me in asking this).
“To be honest, mixing up the different sets like we usually do was nerve wracking enough. People came to our first night just to heckle (as they told us afterwards) so we just wanted to get the ball rolling properly and see where to go from there. I hear there’s a guy who has written a whole play based on Bill’s perspective on the world at the moment. Funnily enough, I reckon we started working around the same time on our respective shows. In the future we will evolve the show further but first we want to get a couple more gigs under our belt. There is a chance we may be going to America with it so that’ll give us a lot of time to work and try out different material. It takes nuts to evolve along the lines of that man, that ‘Man with big balls comin’ through’, so if the show takes off and we can ‘embiggen’ the message contained therein with our own garnishing, we most certainly will. Unfortunately I think a lot of what he had to say is and will remain extremely relevant to the letter for quite a while.”
And of course there was the issue of the heckler that night. Considering his annoying and intrusive raving at all the wrong moments, and the way he disappeared tout de suite after Emmet’s rant made him look the clueless moron, the episode almost had the air of a staged or planned intervention.
“We’ve been asked that so many time since the show and no is the answer, it was definitely unplanned. Emmet is just relentless when it comes to idiots heckling and that night was the best night we’ve done so far. Em was on a bit of a savage roll.”
Considering the sheer comedic power of Bill Hicks and the pervasive effect he’s had on stand-up comics like Dennis Leary and David Cross, and the difficulties of putting on a full impersonation, I’m secretly hoping that more performers will take Jason and Emmet’s lead and carry on his spirit and memory through impersonation. Just like listening to standards in modern jazz, the thrill often lies in perceiving how others attack and interpret the original and thereby bring new, extended currency and identity to the song. Bill’s material is still eminently serviceable and open to contributing enrichment. It demands further interpretations. I might even join up for a well-padded impersonation of Bill impersonating Elvis.