For those of you who are already drooling, hungry fans of comedian Bill Hicks you should be happy. For those who don’t know about Bill Hicks, prepare to become drooling, hungry fans. The recent release of the DVD Bill Hicks Live brings together over three and a half hours of outstanding material from one of the most acerbic and relevant stand up comedians ever. For years it has been terribly difficult to find much in the way of film or video footage, despite the overwhelming number of shows Hicks did. Due largely to the controversial nature of his material, the most available recordings came from Britain where his staunch criticism of American foreign policy garnered him a loyal following. Bill Hicks Live is a three-show disc containing blazing performances from Chicago, London and what many consider to be his breakout performance in 1991 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.
It’s difficult to convey the fury and power that he commanded on stage, but the biting, observational views found in Hicks’ stand up performances have secured him a rightful place as one of the most poignant and original comedians ever to tell it like it is. Beginning when he was just 14, his career came to an early end in 1994 when he died of pancreatic cancer at 32. Hicks never managed to break into the American mainstream, despite over eleven appearances on Letterman and almost 250 gigs a year.
A self-proclaimed cynical humanist, Bill Hicks was a stage-pacing, chain-smoking, every-man’s thinking-man — even after he quit smoking. Prowling from one topic to the next, his performances were like lessons, engaging the audience with questions and then leading them through a series of personal observations meant to challenge the sentiments of the status quo. But Hicks offered more than simple witty insights. His comedy carried a sincere philosophy: life is just a ride, enjoy it.
Beneath his bubbling rage was an underlying belief that we, as a race, are all inextricably linked. We are all part of one greater consciousness, and are capable of making the world a better place. In one segment, Hicks rips into the mind-controlling effects of contemporary media, examining how White House policies are set to keep the public in a state of fear and prevent us from finding a state of love. He remarks how there are no good drug stories in the media, despite the fact that millions of people around the world, including artists and musicians (and even Hicks himself), have all had good experiences with drugs. Offering an example of how one positive news story might sound, he mimics a news anchor announcing: “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 are the imagination of ourselves…and now here’s Tom with the weather.”
Like Lenny Bruce before him, Bill Hicks used comedy to explore relationships between people and to expose the hypocrisy he saw everywhere in American life. With stinging commentary on everything from religion to politics to oral sex, he harnessed an anger and frustration that only seemed to grow as he developed as a performer. Though comparisons to Bruce and Sam Kinison are inevitable, Hicks was a unique talent. He managed to entertain, offend but ultimately enlighten, all in the same routine. Using a variety of voices and characters to represent different perspectives, his performances were viciously intelligent, flipping from side to side in a seemingly eight-way conversation. His comedy came fast and hard, but always from the heart. Hicks dared to ask the dangerous questions, then brilliantly offered us the dangerous and often simple answers.