It’s been 17 years since the great Texas comedian Bill Hicks died. To get a sense of how long that is, imagine all the things that have happened in America that Hicks would have satirized, lambasted, mocked, maligned or mourned onstage: Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, 9/11, the Patriot Act, WMD, Facebook, Glenn Beck, etc. Angrier than Jon Stewart and more visceral than Stephen Colbert, Hicks was social satirist as avenging angel, ready to burn down the world to save it.
We can only dream of what Hicks would have said about our twisted little age had he lived. This month, a documentary about Hicks’ life, American: The Bill Hicks Story, introduces a new audience to the comedian and proves how potent and unsettling comedy can be when it’s performed by someone intent on waking people up, not signing movie deals or making commercials. “The comedian is the one guy society pays to talk,” Hicks says at the beginning of the movie. He wasn’t about to waste that opportunity on jokes about airline food or the quirks of married life.
The price Hicks paid for being a comedy visionary was self-enforced solitude. Not that he was without friends: To the contrary, American is narrated primarily by Kevin Booth and Dwight Slade, Hicks’ best friends and creative collaborators for nearly 20 years. But Hicks realized that to be the kind of artist he wanted to be, he would have to go far out on a limb, alone, be confrontational and take the kinds of risks he couldn’t expect anyone else to take with him. Watch him dress down an audience member for daring to interrupt him with a banality, or listen to him criticize American troops for being bloodthirsty “hired killers.” You realize that performing comedy was a life-or-death proposition for Hicks. It was his mission to report on the slow death of the American Dream—no matter the personal consequences.
One routine shows perfectly the tightrope Hicks walked as a comedian, aiming to make people question their deepest inherited assumptions while still making them laugh. Criticizing the media and American drug paranoia, Hicks wonders why the nightly news never reports positive drug stories. “Wouldn’t that be newsworthy just once,” he asks, “to base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstitions and lies?” At which point Hicks begins impersonating a buttoned-down local newscaster: “Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively; there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.”
“Here’s Tom with the weather.”
American, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and comes to theaters this month, is the perfect name for a movie about Hicks because he was one of those few brave souls who dared to test drive the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The movie is a look inside the mind of a humanist curmudgeon so in love with the world and so convinced of the inherent decency of people, that he couldn’t stop tearing into both for failing to live up to his expectations.
Read an essay on Hicks from the Observer archives.