Bill Hicks. Bill Hicks. Two words that have always caused me some difficulty. You see, if you say the words “Bill Hicks” to some people (many of whom have beards) it has a peculiar impact. They talk, often at tedious length about how much they love him. They will tell you about his uncompromising standpoint on hypocrisy and advertisers and may refer you to a clip of him “destroying” a heckler (more of which later) and if you dare to offer a contradictory opinion to these comedy purists, it is as though you have launched a terrible assault upon their spouse or pet. It’s the same with Syd Barratt or John Lennon. If you point out that Barratt was a drug addled berk and that Pink Floyd did their better work without him, they look as though they want to throw acid on you, Yakuza style. John Lennon was a wife beating, self-important narcissist who released a string of quite dreadful records but, crucially, he didn’t wither on the vine like “Thumbs” McCartney. I have always suspected that this same type of deification has been ladled onto the career of Bill Hicks. Let us not forget that he died tragically early at 32, and although he began his career at 16, that still isn’t a huge career. My question therefore, before I dive in, is this: is his output deserving of the exalted legacy he unquestionably holds? Should he remain on the velvet cushioned throne in the comedy hall of fame or should he be quietly moved to a plinth near the souvenir stand?
The good people at Comedy Dynamics have duly sent me a handsome and comprehensive box-set which features his known recorded output. They have done a superb job of scrubbing clean some grainy eighties footage and the DVDs themselves are excellent. Should you already be a, presumably bearded, Hicksophile, probably best you just buy them and don’t read the rest of this. You will derive much pleasure from discretely sliding this box set into your collection. And why not? That said, there is no need, no need at all, to pop in the sounds of flames (and indeed footage of flames) at moments when he is particularly incensed.
Hicks then, having watched all three DVDs and re-read the complete works “Love all the people” is a hugely accomplished comedian. He makes sterling use of pause and repetition and is an undisputed master of the ludicrous example. He is also a gifted swearer. The word “fuck” in the hands of Hicks, serves as both punctuation and as an emphasiser. He is at his best when he excoriates ignorance or the mindless swallowing of bollocks. His routine on being discovered reading in a waffle house is particularly funny: “Well, looks like we’ve got a reader”. He systematically rubbishes the glorification of ignorance and the misinformation perpetuated by Governments of the time. He was uncompromising, fearless and a warrior. For these reasons, I am a fan of Bill Hicks.
But he was also human. In a pre-internet age. Many of the routines here are used in some form or another in other shows. He talks, brilliantly, about the conflict of the time in Iraq and the U.S’s policy of selling arms or, frankly, lying about the scale of the opposition. Unfortunately, he does this same bit several times. If he didn’t enjoy the level of prestige that does, I suspect this would be called on. I suspect, actually, that these wouldn’t all appear in the same box set.
My other criticism, and it is just my opinion, if you enjoy this type of thing then by all means crack on, is that he strikes me as being just a teensy bit sexist. It could be my taste, it could be a question of context – that this sort of thing isn’t ok anymore. It isn’t that I find him talking about his love of lesbians in films offensive, more that I don’t find it funny. When he does his “Goat Boy” routine, it isn’t a joke. It’s just a man saying what he would like to do to women, at length. The same is true of his drugs material. He likes weed. Tremendous, lots of people do. But again, trotting out tropes about how these people don’t want to have “jobs that don’t inspire them creatively” is giving too much credit to the perpetually apathetic. He ascribes recreational drug users the status of outlaws or visionaries and I just don’t think this is the case. I’m pretty sure we all have at least one friend that indulges, but they aren’t all creative geniuses any more than they all have Dominos on speed dial. Many of them just lie in bean bags and talk at length about Syd Barratt. Again, this is fine. I don’t care, but this does not make them fearless rejecters of a conformist machine.
To be honest, it’s this outlaw thing that troubles me the most. When Hicks strides onstage in head to toe black and cowboy hat, he gives every impression of being a man that has swallowed his own hype. I would dearly like to believe, that a man as fiercely intelligent as Bill was, would see this for the bilge that it is. I want to believe that there was some marketing man behind him trying to sell him as a prophet – but that would mean accusing Bill of hypocrisy which I also don’t think he was. So, why? If it was just vanity, that’s fine, but I worry that it might be that Bill was clearly a frustrated rock star. To be honest though, this does lead to some of the stuff that made me laugh the most; namely, his utter contempt for some of his audiences. Bill Hicks was a high status comedian in the truest sense of the word. He acted like he was on a pulpit and that it was his God-given right to proselytise as he saw fit, but this also leads him to scream the word “cunt” at a drunken arse of a woman who dared interrupt him. This isn’t funny. It demeaned them both.
Bill was clearly a complicated guy. He was also a funny one. I don’t know that this box set will convert the masses, but to the faithful, it’s a treat.
The Ultimate Bill Hicks collection is available now.