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Dead Man Talking

Why Bill Hicks is still funny.
by Published on
Bill Hicks: Nonsmokers die every day.

“Here’s the deal, folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call, forever. End of story. Okay? You’re another whore at the capitalist gangbang, and if you do a commercial there’s a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.” —Bill Hicks

On Friday, Jan. 30, The Late Show with David Letterman aired a routine by comedian Bill Hicks that Letterman himself had inexplicably axed from the program when it was recorded in October 1993. It would have been Hicks’ last major appearance. Three months later he was dead.

The anniversary repeat of a bit that never ran seems a reasonable occasion for wondering whether Bill Hicks, an Austin favorite who started his career in Houston, is still worth listening to.

Letterman seems to think so.

Hicks had been on the show before, 11 times, the first courtesy of a recommendation from early-days running buddy Jay Leno, who had an in. After Leno helped him get the Letterman spot, Hicks developed a savage bit called “Artistic Roll Call,” on the Rant in E-Minor album, in which “Dorito-shilling whore” Jay Leno, rather than waste the rest of his bought-and-paid-for life interviewing the likes of Joey Lawrence, swallows the barrel of a 9mm pistol and sprays a blood-and-brains mural of an NBC peacock on the wall behind his head, “a company man to the bitter fucking end.”

They call that biting the hand. No point in asking why Hicks was never invited on The Tonight Show.

The Letterman incident, on the other hand, was never satisfactorily explained until Friday, when Letterman apologized to Hicks’ mother Mary for his earlier timidity. Hicks’ routine was dated but spot-on, culminating in a riotous critique of pro-life hypocrisies that was probably the least profane bit Hicks ever did on the subject.

After getting cut Hicks wrote a long letter to New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, who immediately profiled Hicks in the magazine:

“What I realized was that they don’t want the people to be awake. The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems, that they, and only they, might somewhere, in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay asleep, America. Keep watching television.”

It was Hicks’ Lenny Bruce moment, the instant he became an officially sanctioned martyr to a cause. He sealed the deal by dying of pancreatic cancer in January 1994. He was 32, a year shy of Christ.

Legacy-wise, it’s probably for the best that he didn’t live long enough to become a hermit or a hypocrite himself. Watching Bill Hicks get and then lose his inevitable sitcom would have been much too much to bear.

For a certain sort of comedy fan, and for a whole subgenre of rock and roll fans who probably never listened to a stand-up act before Hicks, which is to say for the cult that survives him, his early death turned every word he ever spoke to gold.

When Bill Hicks was in his prime, in the early 1990s, the pornography business was conducted via VHS, George H.W. Bush was exercising what’s come to look like restraint in Iraq, and the now-obliterated notion that artistic integrity might bear an inverse relationship to commercial servitude could still draw a thin but appreciative crowd. Domestic terrorism was an FBI raid in Waco, which provided a close-to-home target almost tailor-made for Hicks’ Big-Brother-Lies-To-You sensibilities.

“I was in Australia, and the Australians had a big contingency at the Branch Davidian compound, and I’m from Texas so they were very curious, they were asking me all about it. Oh he’s so weird, isn’t he? This guy Koresh is so weird … And I was thinking, well, wait a minute [scratches chin]: frustrated rock musician with a messianic complex, armed to the teeth and trying to fuck everything that moves? I don’t know how to tell you this, but it sounds like every one of my friends in Austin. I don’t know if this is going to be an isolated incident …”

It wasn’t just Hicks’ Austin friends who shared Koresh’s Jesus Christ Rock Star trip. Hicks did too. You can hear it in his amateur guitar work, unfortunately layered onto the albums Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, released three years after his death. You can hear it in his master-of-the-universe riffs on Jimi Hendrix, and in the withering smackdowns he aimed at Madonna and “Rockers Against Drugs.”

Unlike rock stars, there aren’t many stand-ups that people miss even 15 years after they’re gone. Already nobody misses Jerry Seinfeld, and he won’t be dead for years. There’s Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. You could argue for John Belushi. You could make a case for Jello Biafra in this lineage, but Jello Biafra isn’t funny. Or dead yet.

Since Hicks, who knows? David Cross maybe, though his outrage seems more forgiving, a little on the Sedaris side. Mitch Hedberg had the charisma but his targets were too diffuse, and then he died young, too. Dave Chappelle is too fundamentally mellow. Hicks was the antithesis of mellow. Tina Fey is too eager to please. Hicks couldn’t have cared less.

Hicks liked to stand in front of a room full of people with drinks who’d paid to see him and ask invitingly if anyone worked in marketing or advertising, and then tell those people to go kill themselves. He wasn’t quite joking.

He thought it was hysterically funny—it was—to impress upon the smug nonsmokers in the crowd that they were going to die, too.

Bill Hicks didn’t think your children were special.

He would have had a field day with Hope and Change. He did, in fact:

(simpering): What about Clinton? Is there any hope in Clinton?

(dismissive): There’s no fucking hope in the guy. They’re all the same. I’ll show you politics in America, here it is, right here:

(thickly): “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.”

(idiotically): “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.”

(excitedly): Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding up both puppets!

(conspiratorially): Shut up.

(loudspeakerishly): GO BACK TO BED AMERICA, YOUR GOVERNMENT IS IN CONTROL.

(chirpily): Here’s “Love Connection,” watch this and get fat and stupid! By the way, keep drinking beer you fucking morons!

The obvious thing to wonder, on the 15th anniversary of his passing, is what Bill Hicks would have had to say about all the Hicksian horrors he died too soon to see.

There’s already a book out on Soft Skull Press called What Would Bill Hicks Say? There’s also www.whatwouldbillhickssay.com, where fans are invited to join the titular speculation. His official Web site invites followers to Twitter their own What-Would-Bill-Hicks-Say musings into the everlistening ether.

I suspect he would have made Michael Moore look like Dubya’s fiercest apologist, spun spiteful fantasies about Paula Abdul that would make Larry Flynt blush, and been scared to holy hell of Dick Cheney with the rest of us.

Imagine what Hicks could have done with Paris Hilton, or Alberto Gonzales. Lord forbid he notice Miley Cyrus.

What might Hicks have made of an iCulture in which seven different Facebook pages channel his memory through community-categorical interests in “philosophy,” “humor,” “beliefs & causes” and “religion & spirituality”? (And yes, there’s a “Bill Hicks is God” page.)

I never could tell how earnest Hicks was with the whole mushroom mysticism/squeegee-your-third-eye schtick. He did have some good drug bits, though:

(commercial voice): I lost my job, then my house, then my wife, then my car, then my kids. Don’t do drugs.

(normal voice): Well I’m definitely not doing ‘em with you!

Funny, yes, but in other words: screw that guy.

The flip side of Hicks’ disdain was his belief, apparently sincere if perhaps kind of facile, that humans might eventually evolve beyond their present pitchfork-jabbing incarnations into fully sentient beings, discarding fear and hate in favor of love and understanding.

But One-Love prophecy was never quite Hicks’ strong suit, to my mind (though the psychedelic bent of the fan art on www.billhicks.com tells me not everyone agrees). I think it was the anger that drew the laughs. I think it was the hate.

The 15 years Hicks didn’t just live through would have been a target-rich environment. There wasn’t much in those years to support the idea that humanity was evolving, or doing anything, really, aside from growing ever more greedily stupid. It’s too bad he wasn’t here to hate them properly.

Then again, Bill Hicks might not have come through those years funny at all. It wouldn’t have taken much to sidetrack him into the 9/11 “truth movement,” and it’s not hard to imagine him taking his act from Letterman to the Alex Jones show, or warming up crowds for Ron Paul. I can imagine him, in short, losing his sense of humor about the whole thing and turning into a crank.

Bill Hicks was pissed. It was all so messed up. He couldn’t see why everybody couldn’t see it. It was almost funny.

The view may be different from the vantage of 2009, but it can be hard to see still.

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.