[13 January 2006]
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Like the best stand-up comics, Bill Hicks wasn’t a joke teller in the traditional, cue-the-rimshot, badda boom, Don Ricklesian sense. He was a preacher of logic, a profane pragmatist, a professor of common sense. His act was flustered, enraged, a representation of that muscle-popping moment immediately preceding an existential catharsis. And no wonder: Hicks aimed to re-balance a common good that had been threatened and undermined by paranoia, falsities, and fundamentalism. To quote Eric Bogosian, Hicks’s comedy was “an exorcism of the evil shit inside us”. Hicks conducted this ritual 250-280 nights per year, with a cocksure strut and wounded psyche. His fury was the way to peace and enlightenment, like Paul Revere sweating under the stage lights, waking the unsuspecting masses from their zombified slumber.
Whether or not audiences wanted to be shaken awake or merely experience a guffaw fest can be argued (Hicks’s popularity was biggest in England and his relationship with American audiences was tenuous at best); Hicks himself would often comment mid-act on how everyone would leave remembering his dick jokes and forget the more biting pieces of social satire. As the tragedies of posthumous revelation always unfold, Hicks’s place in the comedic canon has skyrocketed only after his untimely death ten years ago, when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 32. Since then, ripples of Hicks’s style—a visceral concoction of friend Sam Kinison’s rage with a pensive philosopher’s grace—have seeped into the acts of his contemporaries, including Denis Leary, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, David Cross, and Eddie Izzard.
But nothing can substitute for Hicks’s iconic method, as more archival reissues from Rykodisc attest. On the heels of 2004’s DVD collection Bill Hicks Live are two new releases: Sane Man, a DVD of a 1989 performance; and Salvation: Oxford—November 11, 1992, a two-hour set, unedited, spread over two CDs. (The latter presents the entire performance that was partly released on 2003’s Shock and Awe.) Sane Man is the least essential of the two, as it contains an earlier incarnation of Hicks’s standup. It’s along the same lines as the set delivered for HBO’s One Night Stand, offering a first glimpse of Hicks’s rock star swagger and logical confidence. He subjects the small Austin club crowd to an unleashed consciousness, even sending some of them running for the door while graphically acting out the procreation of Satan’s spawn. But his rhythm had not yet been perfected, and as a result, Hicks seems to be experimenting with the length and attack of the segments of his set.
Salvation is an entirely different story. A better moment in time for a Bill Hicks show might not have existed: Recorded one week after Clinton beat Bush to the White House, Salvation benefits from Hicks’s commentary on the end of a 12-year Republican reign. “It’s not that I disagreed with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy,” Hicks deadpans, “it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan here to destroy the planet Earth.” The truly eerie thing about it all, and part of Hicks’s perpetuating brilliance, is how relevant it all is, more than 12 years later. Hearing Hicks lament Bush’s actions, the war in Iraq, the so-called “coalition of the willing”, and the U.S.’ likeness to Jack Palance in Shane (throwing guns in front of smaller countries and then daring them to pick them up) is to hear commentary on our own current affairs.
Much of Salvation echoes the streamlined focus of Hicks’s other shows from the same time period, including Relentless and Revelations. 1991 is widely considered the year that Hicks broke, at least in Canada and Europe, and Salvation continues to highlight his most searing and accessible peak before the cancer that claimed his life worsened and his stage act darkened. He riffs, with nimble fearlessness and economy, on dirty cops with big balls, conspiracy theories, capital punishment, creationism, and the war on drugs, which he points out as really a war on civil rights. Either Hicks was impossibly prescient or people continue to engage in the same hypocrisy and ignorance.
Hicks was funny because he was right; his act exposed politically and personally motivated façades as fraudulent and, ultimately, unhealthy for our psychic and emotional wellbeing. He resurrected truth through comedy, perhaps when it was least expected, retiring the meaningless poisons that would obscure our independent visions. Whether you laugh or nod your head knowingly while listening to Salvation or watching Sane Man, you’re reminded of a day-to-day choice between love and fear; the sad punch line is that most of the world opts for the latter.
Would Hicks just give up if he were still alive today? Would the insurmountable deficit of déjà vu be too much to take? Not likely. The unrelenting, inevitable cycle wouldn’t surprise him, to be honest. It’s what makes the world go ‘round, what satisfies the conglomerates and officials who feed on others’ freedoms. Hicks would be on the case, like he always was, berating the fearmongers and irreverence peddlers. As Salvation proves, he’d be ten years ahead of it all.