Reviews

Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian

Michael Sandlin

Shocking and mocking his way through the mid-'80s comedy scene, Bill Hicks invited controversy with his dark, explicit sexual humor.


Bill Hicks Live

Cast: Bill Hicks, Brett Butler, Eddie Izzard, Jay Leno, David Letterman
Subtitle: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-up Comedian
US Release Date: 2004-10-26
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Think of me as Chomsky with dick jokes.
-- Bill Hicks

Bill wanted to be Christ at his angriest.
-- Brett Butler

Shocking and mocking his way through the mid-'80s comedy scene, Bill Hicks invited controversy with his dark, explicit sexual humor. What made this Texas-bred scofflaw an icon in Great Britain -- and a target in Heartland America -- was his willingness to lampoon the redneck Southern culture he knew so well: "Ever been to Oklahoma?" begins one favorite Hicks gag, "It's the only state Arkansas can look down on." And of course, there were flag jokes, a definite no-no in Ronnie Reagan's America: "'Hey, mah Daddy died for that flag.' Oh yeah? I bought mine. You can get 'em for three dollars at K-Mart." At a time when most comedians' populism took the form of "don'cha hate flying?" jokes, nasty nursery rhymes, or trendy xenophobia, this was dangerous material.

Although Hicks may have applauded the demise of Bush/Quayle, he didn't benefit much from 1992's regime change, when militant nationalism was overtaken by Clinton-era political correctness. The rise of wholesome PC humor -- Seinfeld's long-running network show about "nothing," Pauly Shore, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, and 1994 Comedy Award winner Carrot Top -- would overshadow Hicks' last years on earth. In October of 1993, Hicks' controversial appearance on CBS' newly acquired Late Show with David Letterman was cut for fear of offending viewers. A few months later, Hicks died at 32, succumbing to cancer in February 1994.

Rykodisc's compilation, Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian, is a fine primer. It features three historic performances: 1991's One Night Stand HBO special, a less brilliant but welcome warm-up to the near-flawless set captured on Relentless, his breakthrough appearance at the 1991 Montreal Comedy Festival. And Revelations, filmed in late 1992 at London's Dominion Theater, contains some of Hicks' most ambitious material. The DVD also includes Just a Ride, a 45-minute British mini-documentary, featuring the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Brett Butler, Eric Bogosian, Richard Belzer, and Richard Jeni salivating over Hicks' courage and genius -- and never saying much that couldn't be deduced from watching five minutes of Hicks in action.

What many Hicks admirers fail to emphasize is that behind the pissed-off rants there lurked a sincere love-thy neighbor humanitarianism. He also had a sense of the natural depravity of human beings, and the evils of superstition-based fundamentalist Christianity, even as his act owed a lot to the fiery sermonizing of evangelical preachers. Hicks helps us imagine the Faustian bargains of talent-free celebrities like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice (the consummation of said bargains being, of course, performing oral sex on the Dark One). In Hicks' judgment, Satan craps out "piece of shit" movies like Basic Instinct; advertisers and marketers are "Satan's little helpers" and can only "save their souls" by killing themselves. George H.W. Bush is a "demon man" sent from Hell to destroy Earth, and dudes who play rock LPs backwards trying to hear secret messages "are Satan."

In the tradition of media critics like Noam Chomsky and Neil Postman, Hicks smartly diagnoses the somatic effects of corporate TV as a Huxlean, not necessarily Orwellian, problem: "Go back to bed, America... watch this... here's 56 channels of American Gladiators." Today, watching Hicks act out his satiric vision of the manipulative mind-control of commercial TV is almost too frighteningly prophetic to be funny. Admittedly, the boob tube's then-prominent engines of manufacturing consent seem quaint compared with today's Murdoch-dominated empire of burlesque journalism.

Relentless also yields some of Hicks' most incisive, informed riffs on the Gulf War. He mocks that conflict's laughable one-sidedness by stating simple facts rarely heard on network news: "Iraqi casualties 150,000; U.S. 79. Does that mean if we sent over 80 guys, we would've still won?" He distills American foreign policy down to a perfectly chosen pop culture reference: "I'm sick of arming countries and then sending troops over to destroy those arms... We're like Jack Palance in Shane throwing the pistol at the sheepherder's feet: 'Pick up the gun!'"

It's no surprise that Hicks had the blessing and curse of being a bigger star in Great Britain and Canada than in America. Hicks coaxes the biggest laughs from his merciless trashing of American anti-intellectualism and his harshly funny criticism of the U.S. Government's post-WWII global policing. In both the Montreal and London gigs included on this DVD, he projects an almost inconceivable sense of ease onstage. He sustains an improvisatory feel throughout these two performances, while his One Night Stand in Chicago is arguably more workmanlike. His comfort in front of non-American audiences seems reasonable: Hicks could fill 2500-seat arenas in England, while in the States, even at the height of his critical acclaim, he drew modest crowds at best. And he had occasional violent run-ins with hecklers.

In these three performances, Hicks also reveals a largely unsung aspect of his genius -- a Pryor-esque gift for visual and physical comedy, and expert use of microphone-enhanced sound effects (Satan's roars during a blow job are particularly frightening). There are a fair number of nimble sight gags, expert impressions of the archetypal "dumb hillbilly," and facial expressions reminiscent of a young Jonathan Winters. In Relentless, he wears a black turtleneck and irreverently puffs a cigarette, his animated eyes peering over round spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. The Hicks of the later Revelations has clearly embraced the "outlaw hero" encomiums of the press. He emerges onto the stage from a backdrop of licking flames, in a black cowboy hat and black overcoat, with an elaborate twilight-in-the-desert scene behind him, the spectacle a bit of understandable pandering to American West-obsessed Britain.

The One Night Stand, Relentless, and Revelations segments are presented here in their entirety -- which means that many themes, ideas, and routines are repeated throughout the DVD. His most-recycled core material focuses on Christ and the Cross, the dubious Kennedy Assassination myths and subsequent "totalitarian government takeover," smoking, Evangelical Creationists, the indefinable nature of pornography, and drug libertarianism ("Not all drugs are good. Some are great").

Only in the darker, progressively bizarre Revelations do we encounter the "Goat Boy" alter ego, Hicks' cunnilingus-obsessed pagan satyr run amok. And his hilariously surreal acid trip recollections do for LSD what Pryor's sick sense of humor did for freebasing. Hicks' Swift/Malthus side resurfaces as he rails against global overpopulation and questions life's sanctity, claiming childbirth to be a "miracle" on par with taking a dump. As if that example isn't enough, he continues with an impression of a trailer-park mother mass-producing babies like a hen laying so many eggs.

It's tough to envision Hicks' place in Patriot-Act America's conservative comedic culture: Larry David's joyless sub-Woody Allen schtick, Jeff Foxworthy's hayseed caricatures, Colin Quinn's highly marketable Angry White Mook persona, comic-for-all-seasons Dennis Miller's neo-con brain-farts, and the hokey middle-class warmth of Ray Romano. Even if Hicks had survived cancer, he would've probably met an unnatural death of some sort: destroyed creatively by the impossible expectations of his peers and the liberal press corps that lionized him, ignored to death by a reality TV-drugged public, or silenced by the ultimate form of censorship, much like his heroes John Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

Luckily, though, much of Bill Hicks' legacy has been preserved and released on the adventuresome Rykodisc label -- this compilation of well-chosen footage being as good a place to start as any. Watch and lament the lost potential of stand-up comedy. Imagine the cultural force it might have once again become, if other talented comedians had his stubborn principles. With Hicks' guidance, stand-up comedy might have been more than simply a prelude to crappy cable talk shows, cancelled sitcoms, or a role in Hollywood's latest Dysfunctional-Family Christmas flick.

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