Bill Hicks and the Comedy of Wishing Things Were Otherwise


THE TRAILER FOR Matt Harlock’s and Paul Thomas’s 2009 documentary film “The Bill Hicks Story” begins with a quotation attributed by Charles Walker to George Orwell in a 2000 book called My Few Wise Words of Wisdom: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Orwell has provided us other and more readily attributable quotations for the current occasion. This, for example. “A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise.” This quotation, extracted from an essay entitled The Art of Donald McGill, discloses an instance of Orwell’s lifelong fascination with cultural detritus — the sea-side vendors of ribald postcards, twopenny papers, boys’ weeklies, the Ladies Home Journal, Yank Mags, detective stories, and so on. To the mass-produced and mass-consumed stuff of popular culture, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm applied his considerable skills of analysis and his power of facing unpleasant facts.

The American comedian Bill Hicks so far as I know did not consider Orwell either an analogy or a model for his own work, but he did once describe himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.” This is, I think, less absurd than it may at first seem.Whereas Orwell cultivated in his prose a detached and observational, and above all unsentimental, style, Chomsky is the leading contemporary voice of intellectual and moral outrage. Now well circulated is the story which has him visiting a dentist to uncover the cause of his loss of dental mass, suspected to be occurring as he sleeps, only later to discover that he grinds his teeth, not through the night, but only when he reads the New York Times.

Hicks was a comedian of outrage, much of his disillusionment and indignation founded upon and sustained by his observations of the many occasions and manners on and by which mediocrity, ignorance, bigotry, and hypocrisy are encouraged and rewarded. His comedic style was harsh, confrontational, and radical. By radical I mean that he undertook to identify the root from which American chauvinism took its nourishment, and when he thought he had found it, he lost no time in challenging his audiences to deliberate his conclusions. There is quite a good amount of archival film showing the results, one of the more infamous examples being a Chicago show during which Hicks attacks his audience with a force extraordinary even by his standard.

What then are the conclusions to which Hicks arrived? The principal one may be placed somewhere between Søren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, that the public relations and marketing industries had subsumed American culture under an abstraction called The Public. The study and manipulation of public opinion and the marketing of music and politics (and everything else) according to the dictates of the profit motive was, in Hicks view, a fundamental wickedness. In his routines he implored audience members employed in marketing to kill themselves and went to some effort to make it clear he was serious. His comedy was of the goat’s perspective, and when he sensed an audience was turning against him he would make sheep noises. Hicks loathed conformity, especially where it concerned support for bad music, bad art, bad politics, and bad politicians. He was an individual, and demanded of his audience an open mind which after sixteen years of performing in America he had rarely found. His final performance in 1994, on the David Letterman Show and only weeks from his death at age 32 (a result of pancreatic cancer), was kept off the air. A decade later, an apologetic Letterman acknowledged the wrongness of this and broadcast the recording with Bill’s mother in attendance.

Bill Hicks, as one might expect, did better outside of the United States. He was a commercial success in Britain and to a lesser degree in Canada also. There, his hostility toward the United States military, Reaganism, Christian fundamentalism, American popular culture, and the War on Drugs could be regarded from a distance. He could reasonably expect his audience to tolerate, and perhaps even share, his convictions. But in the up-close, down-and-outs environment of the small town U.S.A. comedy club, there was often no such reassurance. A “comedian’s comedian,” Hicks lived long enough to see the spread of his influence among his more commercially successful peers, and in some cases sizable portions of his routines were lifted without credit. Unfortunately, Hicks himself never received the recognition and credit given to those who took from his courageous and uncompromising work.

Uncompromising it was. It is difficult for me today to watch his recorded performances, aware as I am that his insistence on honesty was a social contract dooming him to obscurity. Precisely what makes his comedy brilliant and important is what ensured it would be esoteric. Marketing consists in determining what the people want and delivering to them the goods, whereas Hicks produced the goods as he pleased and to his own measure, insisting that the market come to him. This difference of approach is of course the conventional disagreement between the businessman and the artist, and it is possible that given a longer life Hicks would have earned success on his own terms.

Letterman claimed years later that a joke concerning the Christian habit of wearing crosses and the return of Jesus is what led to Hicks’s 1994 performance being removed from the broadcast. (The premise of the joke is that Jesus would probably not want to see any crosses when he returns.) That may be so. Offensive though they may be, however, the religious jokes are not the dangerous ones. Hicks is most at his Chomskyan task when he attacks the war on drugs, indicts consumerism, mocks military hubris, and ridicules the inflated and dishonest language of the technocrat which papers over the rot. A fellow of this sort, refusing to go along with the charade, is unemployable. The beauty of Hicks’s work is that he knows this, and says so too. But it also explains his moments of ugliness and his final bitterness, his having reposed all of his aspirations on uncompromising and intelligent comedy, only to find there were few buyers.

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