Much of Bill Hicks’ renown is posthumous; he gained a good bit of respect, and notoriety, while he was alive, but after his death at age 32, he ascended to near-prophet status, cited as either a hero of modern stand-up or an overrated asshole. As with any artist struck down in his or her prime, the question of what Hicks would be doing if he were still alive and performing today has been asked again and again. I know I’ve been wondering about it a lot for the past month or so as I’ve been steadily making my way through his material for the first time.
I’d never heard much of Hicks outside of his appearance on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups Of All Time special (at No. 19) and the occasional quote on assorted comment boards, and my general impression of him—as a snarling, self-righteous malcontent usually grouped with names like Sam Kinison and Lenny Bruce—wasn’t that inspiring. But the reverent tones in which other comedians spoke of him and the divisive opinions he inspired in comedy fans made it apparent this was a blind spot that needed correcting. So the appearance of The Essential Bill Hicks—a two-CD, two-DVD compilation released in October—on my desk felt almost like an assignment: Hear this, know it, appreciate it. A month later, I’ve heard it, I know it, I appreciate it… but I don’t think I laughed once at it. And it’s not because Hicks wasn’t a good comedian—he was—but because of that sticky concept that has the ability to both elevate and bury the art of the past: context.
Hicks’ approach—impassioned, satirical social commentary that’s frequently cited as the foundation of “alternative comedy”—is often called groundbreaking, and considering I was about 8 years old when he was at the height of his powers, I’m not in a position to confirm or refute that. However, it’s difficult to be surprised by once-groundbreaking art when you’ve been standing on broken ground for your entire adult life. And the element of surprise is important in comedy, stand-up in particular: That turn, when a comic segues from chitchat to punchline, when he or she takes the conversation in an unexpected direction—that’s where the laughs come from. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, and those other elements—structure, timing, energy—are where I gained the greatest appreciation for Hicks. But the surprise is what makes you guffaw on the train, causing other commuters to look at you funny. Hearing Patton Oswalt talking about a “failure pile in a sadness bowl” for the first time made me guffaw; hearing Hicks talking about Taco Bell being “the Play-Doh of fast food” made me go “Ooooh, so that’s where Patton got it.”
Hicks’ influence on some of today’s best comedy is strong—Oswalt is an obvious successor, as is David Cross, and even aspects of The Daily Show, Lewis Black in particular—but in general the pendulum has swung away from his impassioned proselytizing toward a more personal, storytelling style. And this is why I’ve been wondering what Bill Hicks circa 2011 would sound like. Would he have transferred his ire toward Billy Ray Cyrus onto his daughter Miley? Or would he have realized that outlets like The Soup, The Daily Show, and—perhaps most significantly—the Internet have made mocking brain-dead entertainment, advertising, and politics as common a comedy trope as complaining about air travel, and moved on to more anecdotal/confessional material, something along the lines of Louis C.K.’s domesticated frustration?
The parasite-host relationship between comedy and the “fevered egos” of the vapid mainstream whom Hicks loved railing against has grown exponentially in the years since his death. Hicks may have been one of the first to call Jay Leno a “company man” and take him “off the artistic roll call,” but in the wake of a second late-night war that saw pretty much every comedian—not to mention bloggers, message-board commenters, and all your co-workers—parroting the same attacks on him, the truth-to-power impact of that statement has been significantly diluted.
Hicks’ disdain for shilling celebrities is both prescient and precious: Sure, nowadays you can’t turn on the TV without seeing Diddy yapping about Pro-Activ, and Julia Roberts can make $1.5 million for a 45-second clip of her sipping Italian coffee; but we also live in an era where The Who, who actually made an album mocking “sell-outs,” perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, sponsored by every product ever made. Martin Scorsese stumps for American Express, Bob Dylan for Victoria’s Secret. The Simpsons—a show Hicks loved—has lent its image to Coke, 7-Eleven, and Butterfinger. The battle for artistic autonomy has been pretty much lost in this constantly shifting new-media landscape, and nowadays, getting riled up over “sell-outs” seems almost quaint. Which once again raises the question: Would Hicks still be ranting about this stuff today? Or would he dole out the same sort of special dispensation he gave Willie Nelson and move on?
It’s unfair to judge Hicks’ subject matter when it’s a decade and a half past its prime, and not all of his material is specific to the cred-conscious early ’90s: Some of it is timeless misanthropy, such as his assertion that “your children aren’t special,” or his spittle-flecked love letters to smoking, drugs, and porn. And despite easy labels like “ranting” and “curmudgeon,” Hicks was, in essence, an idealist, which shouldn’t be dismissed even in our current age of lowered ideals. He expected more of the world and his audience; those expectations just happened to manifest themselves in the form of curmudgeonly ranting.
The above clip also demonstrates one of Hicks’ biggest assets as a comedian, one that can be appreciated regardless of subject matter: his energy on stage. Listening to The Essential Collection on headphones for the first time, I was a little put out by Hicks’ frequent yelling and tendency to swallow the mic for effect, such as on the track “Rockers Against Drugs Suck.” But a video of that same routine—from the Relentless album and accompanying DVD—throws it into much sharper relief, revealing the bounding energy and almost jovial physical presence that accompanied Hicks’ ire, making it seem significantly less grating.
This isn’t one of my favorite bits, but it does a good job of demonstrating that, like any good comedian, Hicks’ appeal extends beyond the sound of his words. Which isn’t to say his words are meaningless. It’s easy to brush off his vulgarities and repetitive cussing as crutches, but Hicks’ tirades were carefully crafted and sometimes borderline-poetic: His description of Billy Ray Cyrus as a “homunculus mongoloid” is “cellar door”-caliber wordsmithery. Although I may bristle at Hicks calling me a “sheep” for liking the summer, I will never again be able to go to the beach without thinking “it’s where dirt meets water.” (To be fair, Hicks’ willful antagonism of his audience was a large component of his contentious appeal; whether you’re amused or infuriated, it’s hard to not at least be engaged.)
Hicks wasn’t quite 30 when he filmed the set that would end up being Relentless, but he had already been performing stand-up for nearly half his life at that point, which surely accounts for his ease onstage—though judging from the DVD component of The Essential Collection, which includes video of Hicks performing as a teenager, much of that might just be natural ability. Whether you connect to the material or not—and I’ll admit, I had a hard time connecting to much of it—it’s hard to deny that Hicks was both a practiced professional and a fiery ball of potential that was snuffed out too soon. Listening to Hicks for the first time in 2010 isn’t necessarily a satisfying or cathartic experience, as it mostly serves to raise the sort of “what ifs” I’ve been pondering for this entire article; but it is an interesting, almost anthropological glimpse into the evolution of comedy, American culture, and how we talk about both. I think, as someone who was a philosopher at heart, Hicks would be satisfied with that legacy.