With the release of a new Bill Hicks DVD Boxset, Getintothis’ Mike Stanton relives some of the glorious moments in the tragically short career of Goat Boy.
“It’s great to be here. I thank you. Ah, I’ve been on the road doing comedy for ten years now, so bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time.”
With this Bill Hicks opened his spot at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival way back in 1990. It was the first time I saw him and I was blown away. I couldn’t quite believe what I was witnessing. As I discovered more of his stand-up over the following years I realised he tackled issues I’d only seen Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce dare take on. He was unlike any stand-up I’d seen before, searing honesty, unafraid to be disliked, sometimes complete and utter disdain for the audience, mocking them, sneering at them, ultimately trying to save them. This was Hicks’ manifesto, tough love. He held a mirror up to humanity and punched them through it. It was a form of shock therapy, slapping the realisation that conformity and apathy is a cracked path to silent submission.
He was just a man, not a prophet or the second coming, a man with hopes, fears and failings, so many failings. He was also funny, incisive and gifted in his way to deconstruct the undead apocalypse of idiocrasy surrounding all of us. People laughed because it was true, often shocking, sometimes unpleasant….but always true. He fought against what he perceived as ‘the noise‘; the blatherings of politicians, marketing and advertising executives, the homogenisation of the music industry, religious bigotry and the hypocrisy of the war on terror and drugs.
He died way too young, becoming instantly immortalised, almost or probably very actually martyred. His star would never fade; he got out before he could screw it up, if ever there was the chance of that happening. The integrity of his obituary remained intact; too young, too soon, too sad. He was about to breakthrough – recognition in his home country, adulation in the UK, his own show – it was all about to happen and then at 32 he goes and fucking dies.
He grew up mainly in Houston, Texas, the son of Southern Baptist parents. He was drawn to comedy and became obsessed with Woody Allen and Richard Pryor whom he tried to emulate, writing routines, performing them in school for the amusement of friends and classmates. His early material consisted of mocking his Baptist upbringing, his school classes and anything else a teenager deals with on a daily basis. However, it was his confidence, assuredness and swagger on stage that set him apart. His material was killer but he was performing in proper comedy clubs to audiences of adults and making his material relevant.
There’s Bill aged around 19/20 years old and already we can see how fully-formed he was. It’s incredible, the mannerisms, shrugs, delivery and the material. Instead of politics, war, commercialism, it’s school, parents, part-time jobs. The faucet of vitriol is tempered but the observation and incisive wit is there.
Few comedians get a DVD box set like Ultimate Bill Hicks released by PIAS Comedy on November 9. Fewer still get several but this is the latest in a long line of Hicks box sets. Consistently ranked highly in numerous ‘best stand-up’ polls and once described as “the most dangerous comedian in the world”, he remains as relevant today as he did in the late 80s/early 90s.
Nobody, it seems, has learnt from his lessons. There were no sacred cows with Bill, everything was a viable target. He burned with bilious scorn and outrageous anger. Going back over his material it is astonishing to see how relevant and prophetic his polemic explosions were. His Gulf War stuff is legendary and bang-on, his views on capitalism, greed, political and moral degradation, commercialism, the war on drugs, sexual politics, organised religion and philosophy all ring true today. I am not going to wander down the metaphorical alleyway of what would Bill have made of the current climate but I think we all have a good idea.
Ultimate Bill Hicks is the new 3 DVD box set that includes Hicks classics; One Night Stand, Sane Man, Relentless, Revelations and the documentary of his life It’s Just a Ride.
One Night Stand
This is Hicks’ infamous, provocative 1989 performance for HBO. It was a half hour show aired weekly and featured stand-up comedy specials from some of the top comedians.
Hicks’ celebrated, first full-length comedy special. Considered by many to be the best of his early years, Sane Man became the foundation of what would be become his signature material. The venomous attack on corporate America is fully formed. Drugs, commercial music and all out shock.
You can see and hear the shock of the audience. The familiar use of cut-ins, slow motion and audio distortion is here to punctuate and illustrate his points. His Jimi Hendrix impression is startling and he riffs off the crowd brilliantly, something that was often used to criticise him, that he couldn’t deviate from his script. He practically screams at people to think for themselves.
This was recorded at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. It was to be his penultimate special and finds Hicks in particularly caustic form. The material is familiar but it’s how he delivers it that makes it so compelling. Conducting imaginary question and answer sessions with the audience just so he can brutally slap them down. He was an adept actor, portraying different characters, inhabiting their world and framing it for maximum comedic value while remaining on message – “I’m the little dark poet, that’s who I am“.
Released in 1993 this was Hicks‘ last special. Filmed in London’s Dominion Theatre, it brings together his thoughts and philosophies and here he is at the peak of his powers. Hicks was never fully accepted in his home country and seems to revel in the adulation he receives from the UK audience. He always felt that the British ‘got’ his comedy and it shows here. His Gulf War material has passed into legend. Here he uses the film Shane as a harrowing metaphor to shattering effect. It is chilling, understated and emotionally devastating, “Pick up the gun“.
It’s Just a Ride
A tribute to Hicks, the documentary outlines the career of a man who became one of the most distinctive voices in comedy. Including interviews with Jay Leno, David Letterman, Eddie Izzard, Richard Belzer, Richard Jeni, Brett Butler and Eric Bogosian; we get to see the high esteem Bill was held in by his fellow performers.
His voice cut through the fog of complacency, mediocrity and deception and the vacuum left when he died has never really been filled. There are clips, interviews, anecdotes and insights from family and close friends. All in, this is a moving and joyful watch and a perfect introduction for those uninitiated in all things Hicksian.
I’m all in favour of the memory of Bill Hicks being kept alive and the re-visiting of his material by current and future generations, and this is a solid collection of some of his best shows, but these are already out there in one form or another.
There must come a point where it has all been said. It isn’t as if there is a rich seam of material to constantly mine, his act was still developing, being refined when he died leaving us with several performances with a lot of crossover of material. However I am a fan of the man rather than the packaging and it was a wonderful and poignant joy returning to these shows. If you have never explored Bill Hicks’ material go out and buy it, if you have, there are more extensive and definitive collections available.
“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.” Bill Hicks, February 1994.
File next to: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Doug Stanhope, maybe Frankie Boyle but I’m still thinking about that one.