Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hicksville, USA

Yesterday I was reading Honky Tonk Parade, a collection of "show people" profiles by New Yorker critic John Lahr, and came across one of his most famous pieces, a 1993 article about the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, was the greatest comedian of my generation and probably my favorite comedian of all time. I think it's because Hicks was more than just a cheap "joke blower" (as he called one-liner stand-up comics); he was more a Philosopher King interested in The Message, and the message was about how screwed up America was. Comedy shouldn't be just a distraction, in his mind, it should be something that focuses our attention on life's hypocrises and absurdities and motivates us to act to change the status quo. Or as he told Lahr, he saw the comic's function to be "the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame—like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are."

Lahr's article opens in the aftermath of Hicks' 12th appearance on the David Letterman Show (October 1, 1993), a performance full of digs against the pro-life movement (he encouraged them to "lock arms and block cemetaries" instead of medical clinics), that was controversially cancelled - a first for Hicks. Though both Letterman's producers and the network denied responsibility for the cut, the reason appeared obvious to many during the following week's Letterman show when a commercial for a pro-life organization was aired. Hicks saw the censorship as another example of America being "sanitized and manipulated in the name of corporate sponsorship."

Or, as Hicks explained to Lahr, "The networks are delivering an audience to the advertisers...They showed their hand. They’ll continue to pretend they’re a hip talk show. And I’ll continue to be me. As Bob Dylan said, the only way to live outside the law is to be totally honest. So I will remain lawless."

Despite the Letterman setback, Lahr's New Yorker profile jettisoned Hicks into national prominence, sparking domestic interest in an "outlaw" comedian who previously enjoyed his greatest popularity as a cult comic playing to packed houses in England. In fact, his passing was even noted across the pond in the House of Commons:
"...this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on February 26th 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned a s being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers."
- Stephen Pound MP; Parliamentary House of Commons

Sadly, Hicks resurgent popularity came too late. Just months after his Letterman cancellation, he passed away. (Pancreatic cancer works fast like that, making it the NASCAR of lymphomas - remember how quickly Cars bassist Benjamin Orr, R.I.P., went from a rugged Rutger Hauer lookalike to an emaciated stick figure?) Better late than never, I guess. In Honky Tonk Parade, Lahr adds a postscript to his original article that puts this unfortunate ending into perspective.

I don't have much else to say about Hicks - or rather, I have (way) too much to say about Wild Bill than time or space would allow me to here. Read John Lahr's Hicks profile, "The Goat Boy Rises" (New Yorker, November 1, 1993). It says everything that needs to be said. Lahr "got" Hicks, nailed him you might say, and Hicks obviously agreed. Here's what he wrote to Lahr one week after the article was published:
"The phones are ringing off the hook, the offers are pouring in, and all because of you...I've read the article three times, and each time I'm stunned. Being the comedy fan that I am, I've ended the article every time thinking, 'This guy sounds interesting.' It's almost as though I've been lifted out of a ten-year rut and placed in a position where the offers finally match my long held and deeply cherished creative aspirations...Somehow, people are listening in a new light. Somehow the possibilities (creatively) seem limitless."

It's a great piece, one that got Hicks offers to write a book from seven publishers, an offer to write a column for The Nation, and TV and recording offers as well. If you don't know from Bill Hicks, it's a great introduction to Hicksville.

Related Links:
Bill Hicks Website
Wikipedia: Bill Hicks
American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story (biography by Cynthia True)
The Goat Boy Rises (John Lahr's New Yorker profile)
Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People (John Lahr)


Blogger Bill Chinaski said...

"Go back to bed, America, your government has figured out how it all transpired, go back to bed America, your government is in control again. Here, here’s American Gladiators, watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it, watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America—you are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!" - Bill Hicks

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