Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition: Bill Hicks and Bill Maher

Freedom of speech is far from an absolute right in America, and it often takes dissenting comedians like Bill Hicks and BIll Maher to test, stretch, and reveal its reaches and limitations

Reactions are rarely ambivalent or lukewarm to either Bills Hicks or Bill Maher (the “Bills of Rights”), and nor are these wits’ comedic routines built for such impassive responses. Indeed, through their often incendiary, invariably controversial, and inevitably shocking humor, Hicks and Maher have established themselves as premier critical comics of the contemporary era, and as worthy successors to a dissenting tradition that runs through Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. Like these forerunners, the Bills are uncompromising and combative, armed with antennas set to pick up on any and all instances where America has failed to live up to its ideals and promises. As such, they offer an implicit counter-critique to those pseudo-patriots that traffic in such reactionary postulations as “shut up, be happy” and “love it or leave it”.

Leave it they will not, nor will they leave it alone, for the essence of Hicks and Maher is their persistence in picking at their nation’s open sores of injustice, hypocrisy, and superficiality. Here are patriots of the most traditional kind, dissenters and questioners that refuse to settle for national underachievement at any social level. Moreover, their respect for principles laid down by the founding fathers have established these comedians as advocates for democratic ideals and as defenders of fundamental rights.

The Bills’ brand of wit is “superiority humor”, a satirical approach that seeks to burst the bubbles of those over-inflated by power and ego. It mocks self-delusion, stripping bare the emperors of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction. Usually, power-brokers serve as the natural targets for such satire, but everymen and women, too, are often implicated for their willful ignorance and lack of socio-political vigilance. Superiority humor plays with stereotypes, exaggerating recognizable flaws such that absurd caricatures are presented for our collective scorn. The kernels of truth we discern in these types elicit involuntary laughs, the markers of our perception, recognition, and presumed sense of “superiority” to them. Such comedy is valuable for any aspiring democracy, for it functions to highlight social realities in environments where truths are often obfuscated or sublimated. Thus, while Carrot Top and Gallagher may—by some—be tagged alongside Hicks and Maher as “comedians”, clearly the latter are operating within a very different art form.

Although both Bills are political satirists in substance, their styles, approaches, and delivery are markedly different. Whereas Maher is sharp and taut, pragmatically tackling the up-to-date topics of the day, Hicks often carries his themes into surrealistic territories via extended metaphors and subconscious delving. The latter’s more free-form meanderings held particular appeal for alternative rockers and alienated youths, many of whom flocked to his concerts in droves. The comic sought out these connections, too, increasingly developing a heightened rebel-rock persona as his comedic profile grew. By the early ’90s Hicks was embracing a “Dark Poet” identity, complete with all-black outlaw attire, as he performed alongside kindred spirit rock mavericks like Tool. Even his album title, Rant in E Minor, suggested Hicks staking a claim as a leader of the new sonically-charged stand-up zeitgeist (alongside Sam Kinison, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Dennis Leary).

Maher, likewise, has always appealed to a large young adult demographic, though his more rationalist comedy has enabled him mainstream access and success, as well as a broader age range appeal. Such accessibility is underscored by his more restrained voice. Like Mort Sahl, Maher is deadpan yet scathing, his weapon of choice vocabulary rather than volume of delivery. His snide, sometime smug demeanor has earned him detractors as well as followers, though that arrogant style serves the short, sharp missives of his content material.

Hicks, conversely, underscores his rock-rebel bravado with a voice to match. Unlike Maher’s jabs of reason and logic, Hicks dances punch-drunk about the ring, offering up a collection of upper-cuts, swings, hits, and misses. His voice oscillates violently between whispers and screams, scaling emotional highs to lows with barely controlled dexterity. The microphone for him is more than a simple communication device; it’s a prop and tool to evince feelings and frustrations, a portal for his preternatural animal noises and guttural emissions. If Maher preaches from the pulpit, Hicks speaks in tongues, less adopting the voices of his characters than wholly and exaggeratedly inhabiting them with whatever the house sound system will provide. The resulting sketches exude the kind of power, pace, and passion that remind one of Richard Pryor in peak form.

Two sides of the same coin, Hicks and Maher offer, respectively, the heart and mind of comedic dissent. Both have little time for limits or compromise, but a lot for truth-seeking and questioning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their indictments of American citizenry in relation to the lures of mainstream popular culture. Here, they appear to share the same thesis: one should never underestimate the stupidity of the American people.

The calls of Hicks and Maher are of the wake-up kind, somewhere between Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you” kind and the protestations of the recent Occupy movement. Apathy, escapism, and mediocrity are preventing full expression of citizenship, cry their satirical sirens. “I would just like us to be a nation that thinks more”, bemoans Maher (“Irish America, October / November 2008, Bill, while Hicks, more succinctly, commonly addressed his audiences as “sheep”.

National states of ennui and inaction have their causes, of course, and much of Hicks’ comedy consists of digging up those roots. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Gil Scott-Heron once proclaimed, adapting to the TV age the Marxian maxim that religion functions as an opiate to keep the masses passive and inert. Hicks similarly rages against the media machine, envisioning TV as a serial distracter and propaganda machine that serves the interests of the “big brother” corporate state. Some of his later performances had him promising (with tongue-in-cheek) a new show on the upcoming CBS Fall line-up called “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus”, to be followed at its conclusion by a sequel with replacement Michael Bolton. The boob tube works to spellbind society, to enchant it, and Hicks’ role, he felt, was to break that spell.

Maher’s calls for active citizenship are often couched in the context of post-9/11 America, as illustrated with his book, When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism (Beverly Hill, CA.: New Millennium Press, 2002). Here, Maher recalls images and ideals from the World War II era, a time when citizens and authorities were activated and willing to personally sacrifice in order to defeat the common enemy. The book’s title alludes to a slogan of the period (with “Hitler” replacing “Bin Laden”) that encouraged car pooling as a necessary act of conservation in a time of scarce national resources. The empty gestures we see in the midst of our current so-called “War on Terror”, like putting a flag decal in your car, are just not enough, Maher scornfully argues.

This and other sentiments within the book echo those that Maher has been making on the stand-up circuit for over a decade now, namely, that we need to educate ourselves out of ignorance if we are to defend our values and way of life. He points out that people confusedly asked “Why do they hate us?” after 9/11; Maher responds to this by quoting John Powers of LA Weekly, who wryly suggested, “They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us” (Qtd. in When You Ride Alone, p.23). Political correctness, what Maher calls “the elevation of sensitivity over truth”, needs to be checked by honest realism, too, he argues, and moderate Muslims the world over need to end their reticence and confront the bullies in their own (religious) neighborhoods (p.53). “Somebody has to do Chris Rock’s act for Arabs”, Maher quips suggestively (p.47). Such views are certainly contentious, but unlike Hicks’ sometimes easy pickings, Maher here courageously strikes at mainstream liberals, his core constituency, charging them with naivety and complacency.

Politics—of both the large and small “p” variety—have always been Maher’s go-to zone for comedy, and he has parlayed this interest into two successful TV series, first Politically Incorrect (from 1993 to 2002), then Real Time with Bill Maher (from 2003 to the present). As with his stand-up, Maher integrates into the talk show forum—via his introductory monologue and closing “New Rules” segment—uncompromising critical commentary on the topical concerns of the day. Calling his own politics “practical”, Maher mostly oscillates between liberal and libertarian positions, advocating on behalf of health care, animal rights, the environment, and the legalization of marijuana, and against positions he perceives as impinging upon personal liberties.

Maher particularly specializes in eviscerating corrupt politicians, exposing their moral hypocrisy and special interest biases wherever they rear their heads. The gap between what they say and what they do—that’s where the funny lies”, he says of politicians (Capitol File, Spring 2008, Bill of Rights, Bill Not surprisingly, victims of his verbal scolding have often sought to silence this town crier. Such was the case with Alabama Congressman Spencer Bachus, who in 2005 labeled Maher treasonous and called for him to be taken off the air after the comic presented a segment questioning why the military had not been reaching its recruiting goals. Maher’s response was for the representative to do something about the problem rather than wasting time criticizing the messenger.

Politics in the dramatized comedic world of Hicks tend to be played out in more theatrical fashion, with gesticulations, sound effects, and narrative deviations all employed in the illustrations. In one legendary skit introduced in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm (when popular support for the Gulf War ran at about 90 percent), Hicks offered an alternative perspective, inventively envisioning US foreign policy by acting out the actions of gunslinger Jack Wilson (played by Jack Palance) in the film Shane. He then proceeded to mock the slanted media coverage by scrutinizing coded slogans like “the ‘elite’ Republican guard”, an expression used ubiquitously by news sources to describe and dramatize what proved to be the inept Iraqi army. Such rhetorical hysteria and fear-mongering keep the citizenry uninformed, distracted, and malleable to manipulation, posits Hicks. The same is true of “wedge” issues like flag burning, which featured as the hot button distraction during the 1992 Presidential election campaign. “My daddy died in the Korean War for that flag”, the comedian whines in “hick” mode. “What a coincidence; my flag was made in Korea”, he replies in Hicks mode.

Religion today is a fashionable topic on the stand-up comedy circuit, but not too long ago it was deemed off-limits, a no-go zone. Hicks and Maher, thanks to the trailblazing of Bruce and Carlin, changed that. Of course, there is hardly a shortage of satire-ready material available here, such as the Televangelists of the ’80s provided for Hicks, and the Catholics, Scientologists, Mormons, Christian right, and Islamic fundamentalists have since served up for Maher. Religion has long been a subject in the latter’s comedic arsenal, and he is indiscriminate in his tongue lashings.

A board member of Project Reason and writer/producer of his own Religulous documentary film, Maher fervently promotes science, reason, and secular values, all of which he sees as under threat from institutionalized religions. An avowed “apatheist”, Maher claims to “preach the doctrine of ‘I don’t know’” (“Irish / America October / November 2008”, Bill, though such agnosticism hardly tempers the critical comedy he incessantly inflicts upon organized faiths. Pope Benedict is a former Nazi who heads a “child-abusing cult” (Bill Maher: Pope ‘Used to be a Nazi’; Compares Church to Cult, Bear Stearns”,, 14 April 2008) , Mormonism is “by any standards… more ridiculous than any other religion” (“Group lists Top Ten Anti-Mormon Statements of 2011”, Deseret News, 8 January 2012), and Islam, amongst its many repressions, forces women to wear “beekeeper suits” (When You Ride Alone…. p.131).

Maher often jokes that he has no need to mock religion because it “makes fun of itself” (Interview Magazine, Bill, yet there is a level of irony to the missionary zeal with which both he and Hicks “preach” their own secular gospels, complete with ethical dos and don’ts alongside commandments for a more just, enlightened world. “Part comic, part preacher, part philosopher” GQ magazine declared of Bill Hicks (‘The Gospel According to Bill Hicks), while fellow Southern wit Brett Butler once opined that he “wanted to be Christ at his angriest”(29 June 2010).

The two Bills, though both staunch defenders of freedom of speech, were themselves subject to career-altering experiences of censorship at the heights of their respective careers. Hicks had long been an acquired taste, sometimes marginalized on the comedy circuit within the US, such that he enjoyed most of his popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, where he was often hailed as the second coming of Lenny Bruce. Southern US audiences, however, rarely took kindly to being harangued, berated, and caricatured—especially by one of their own. However, the comedian was both shocked and saddened when the strong arm of censorship descended from such an unlikely source as Late Night With David Letterman, a program he had performed on 11 times before.

Disagreements still exist as to why or at whose behest Hicks’ routine for his October 1993 scheduled appearance was ultimately wholly excised from the show. Was it because of the religious sketch that joked that Jesus would hardly want to see a bunch of crosses if he returned to Earth? Was it the accompanying analogy that it would be “kinda like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on”? According to Hicks in a 39-page letter he proceeded to write about the incident to John Lair of the New Yorker, the censorship came as a result of pressures put on the show from its pro-life sponsors (“The Goat Boy Rises, 1 November 1993).

Pressure from advertisers was also partly responsible for Maher losing his ABC show Politically Incorrect in October 2001. Maher had committed the offense of expressing an independent opinion in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. Well, actually, he was merely agreeing with a point conservative guest Dinesh D’Sousa had just made that whatever one could say about the terrorists, they were certainly not cowards. The ensuing critical backlash (against Maher, not D’Sousa) became so intense that Maher had to hire additional personal security; to this day, he still continues to receive regular death threats (though often for other reasons, too).

Such is the price of freedom, some might quip, though it’s apparent from these incidents that freedom of speech is far from an absolute right in America, and it often takes dissenting comedians like Hicks and Maher to test, stretch, and reveal its reaches and limitations. One might note how few comparably daring voices we hear from our other cultural outlets. Hicks and Maher, alongside their subversive predecessors and (yet-to-be-known) successors, remind us that humorists can perform socially-conscious roles beyond mere entertainment and escapism, just as the licensed fools of medieval times once did when providing frank and funny correctives to their aristocratic and monarchic employers and “superiors”. One should not take such jesters for granted, for their humor is not only rare but it’s always played for much more than mere laughter.