Though he only lived 32 years, comedian Bill Hicks packed a lot into three quick decades, going through multiple transformations. He started out as a likeable smart-ass making fun of small-town small-mindedness, then became a reckless, unreliable libertine, before ending his career as a snarling political commentator with a thick streak of self-righteousness. Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection features two CDs worth of highlights from Hicks’ albums, all of which were recorded after 1990, well into his third phase. So the real prizes here are the set’s two DVDs, which contain hours of video of Hicks, dating back to 1981, when he was a teenage stand-up in Houston.
Hicks was funny from the start, telling lighthearted stories about high school and suburban family life that were true to life—with a lot of “Hey, remember this?” prods to the audience—and expressive of a deep frustration with conformity. The Hicks of ’81 is sweet, ingratiating, and distinctive from the Hicks who appears on the rest of The Essential Collection’s first DVD, which features sets from ’84, ’85 and ’86. In ’84, back at Houston’s Comix Annex, Hicks does a lot of the same kind of material that he did as a 19-year-old, about his judgmental parents and fucked-up friends. But the tone’s a little meaner, and he’s started to work in jokes about drinking, smoking, and drugs—three vices he didn’t take up until he turned 21. By ’85 and ’86, his delivery had gotten more rambling, though he continued to anchor his sets with a few tried-and-true routines. The ’80s DVD adds a couple of brief TV appearances and interviews in which Hicks cuts right to the hits, and the contrast between “any given night in Indianapolis” Hicks and “this could be my big break” Hicks is striking. One’s a seeker; the other is desperate to be thought of as a pro.
The Essential Collection’s second DVD kicks off with the 30-minute short “Ninja Bachelor Party,” a drug-fueled goof that Hicks made with his Austin musician pals over the course of several years. Then it moves on to four sets taped in Austin between ’91 and ’93, both before and after Hicks had been diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that led to his death in February 1994. This is the era in which Hicks found international fame. He kicked drugs and booze, and began writing material that skewered American consumerism and war-mongering. In front of big crowds—in Europe, for example, where he was adored—Hicks could come off as sour and smug, as though he considered himself the last intelligent man on Earth. But in Austin, in a more low-key setting, he was self-deprecating and conversational, and not as prone to deliver pronouncements from a mountaintop. Hicks’ fans and detractors alike owe it to themselves to see him in these different contexts, to get away from the common “he spoke truth to power” and “he was an unfunny asshole” reductions of his work. Hicks was far more complex, both as a comic and a person.
Key features: Those two CDs of stand-up material, plus a code to download an album-length collection of Hicks’ music.