Over the past 20 years or so, the number of stand-up comedians who are eager to do anything to make it big has skyrocketed, yet so very few have managed to make a real dent, not only on the art of comedy, but on our contemporary society as well. Rarer yet are the comedians who dared to push the limits of their craft, the rare geniuses who are able to both outrage and provoke some actual thought in the audience’s minds. Those real groundbreakers, starting with the great Lenny Bruce, like every other comedian on the face of the earth, wanted to make us laugh, but in his case, not before he led us on a little tour of the seamy underbelly of our everyday lives. Part comedian, part monologist, part philosopher, and part crazed street corner preacher, Bruce spoke the bare-bones truth, satirizing the stuff we didn’t consider making fun of in public, and it would be some time until someone would come along who truly deserved to carry Lenny’s torch. Enter William Melvin Hicks.
The Georgia-born Bill Hicks took that torch and ran with it during his mercurial, and tragically short, career. A stand-up comedian since his mid-teens, Hicks honed his craft in the ‘80s, appearing on David Letterman’s TV show 11 times (and famously cancelled another time), touring incessantly, winning over audiences in Britain, while struggling for mainstream recognition at home. His following was gradually building, and by the time the ‘90s rolled around, Hicks had perfected his act, taking Bruce’s lead and veering off on a wild, profane, scathingly perceptive tangent of his own. By the time he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 (at the much-too-young age of 32), he had recorded four albums’ worth of material, as well as amassing a huge pile of personally-taped live recordings.
Love Laughter and TruthFlying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 - Pittsburgh, PA 6/20/91
US: 12 Nov 2002
UK: 11 Nov 2002
His first two albums, Dangerous and Relentless, were both released during his lifetime, while Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously by Rykodisc in 1997. In 2001, Rykodisc also released Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks, a compilation of the best moments from Hicks’ first two albums. With the 2002 release of Love Laughter and Truth and Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1, Rykodisc has begun mining the masses of live recordings, and in their own unique way, both CD’s deliver the goods.
Culled from Hicks’ own personal library of recorded performances, Love Laughter and Truth offers up 45 minutes worth of assorted routines recorded between 1990 and 1993. There’s some great material on this disc, such as Hicks’ thoughts on the different field sobriety tests the police use, with Hicks contending that even the most sober people can’t say the alphabet backwards (“I’m so used to that song, it’s like you’ve been practicing your whole life to fail the drunk test”). His hilarious description of “My One Man Show” satirizes the fact that he grew up in a healthy, loving, two-parent family, and “Drugs Are Bad” takes on the War On Drugs, with the former alcoholic Hicks sharply reminding the crowd that alcohol has a bigger negative impact on the populace, while the “untaxed drugs” are the ones the government wants to call “bad”. Hicks goes on to rail against anti-smoking bylaws, children (two topics Hicks attacked with unmatched ferocity), and the fact that he despises dance clubs (“Real men don’t dance. They sit, sweat, and curse”).
The CD lacks the rhythm of an entire set, but hits its peak near the end. When Hicks talks about homosexuality and the inclusion of textbooks in schools that address gay parents, his timing on the pay-off line is perfect. His rant about crusty politicians’ (including Jesse Helms) obsessions with things they’re convinced is pornography is quick, yet razor-sharp, while “A Question for the Ladies” morphs into an insanely graphic rant that has his audience howling.
It’s always best to hear a comedian during one single performance, and Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 is a fascinating choice for the first installment of classic Bill Hicks performances, in that the audience is terrible. The Pittsburgh audience on 20 June 1991 is worse than a hostile crowd, they’re just plain apathetic. Their complete indifference to Hicks’ material is so crickets-chirping-in-the-background bad, that 15 minutes into his act, Hicks remarks, “Y’all are about to win the election for the worst fuckin’ audience I’ve ever faced.” Hicks remains unfazed, however, and pulls out every ace from under his sleeve in an effort to elicit any kind of reaction from the crowd (he muses aloud at one point, “They stared at me like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick”), and the result is a virtuoso performance.
In front of the indifferent crowd, Hicks goes on profanely poetic riffs about the girl of his dreams, his 15-year-old girlfriend, Penthouse Forum (“Guys, we all know if that happened to us, we’d put our names on that letter”), the real causes of sexual thought, and the finer points of porn videos, yet the reaction from the audience is little more than a smattering of polite titters. His best work has always been his social commentary, and his bit about the Gulf War, which he describes his opinion of it as “for the war, but against the troops,” was topical in 1991. Always the Speaker of the Real Truth, Hicks mentions the Gulf War’s 150,000 Iraqi casualties versus America’s 79—mostly to friendly fire), and strangely enough, it’s still very relevant today. His depiction of George Bush can be applied exactly to George W. Bush in 2002. After over 80 futile minutes of some inspired, scathing material, Hicks closes things in typically acerbic fashion, saying, “I always do long shows in Pittsburgh, ‘cause I know for a fact . . . ” (pregnant pause) ” . . . there’s nothing else going on here.”
Although Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 is a great look at the master in action and Life Laughter and Love is a good compilation of some of his better moments onstage, these two albums are more suited toward the real diehard fans who own Hicks’ first four albums. People who are new to Hicks’ material are better off listening to Philosophy first (if only to hear his classic bits “Your Children Aren’t Special” and “Please Do Not Disturb”).
I came across a quote from Bill Hicks on the net, where he perfectly describes his comedic style, saying, “The best kind of comedy to me is when you make people laugh at things they’ve never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people’s minds, exposing them to the light.” Without Bill Hicks, there would be no Denis Leary HBO specials, no published collections of Dennis Miller’s rants. Hicks was not only a savagely funny man, but also a guy who was totally unafraid to talk about what was really going on in the world around him. It’s tragic how he died the way he did; these days, we need his satirical voice more than ever, but thankfully, his recorded works sound even more relevant today.