Lauded comedian Bill Hicks’ full works are being released on demand for the first time. The comedian, who was, and still is, by many viewed as controversial for his worldview standpoints will soon be available for a whole new generation. Hicks’ comedy was often intermingled with what he believed to be the “truth” of the world – he would often point out things he believed were part of a greater agenda that riled many viewers and fans alike.
According to The New York Times:
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Years ago, the comedian Bill Hicks began one of his stand-up specials with a video of himself riding a white horse and wearing a cowboy hat while talking about fighting corruption and evil. In another, he walked onstage in a black turtleneck sweater, arms extended like a guru welcoming his acolytes. He called himself a “dark poet” and an artist trying “to illuminate the collective unconscious and help humanity.”
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Mr. Hicks regularly attacked the marketing of artists, but he was also pretty good at it. The theater critic John Lahr was one of his first and most committed champions in the media, celebrating his “messianic mission to attack America’s unrelenting refusal to think.” Mr. Hicks, he wrote, was “the real Dionysian deal.”
But it was only after Mr. Hicks died of cancer at the age of 32 in 1994, the year after Mr. Lahr profiled him in The New Yorker, that he joined the comedy pantheon, thanks in part to a steady stream of hagiographic documentaries, books and essays. Comedy Central ranked him 19th on its list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time. And in a 2012 broadside on the state of political satire, The Baffler compared Mr. Hicks favorably to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, arguing that he “understood that comedy’s highest calling is to confront the moral complacency of your audience.”
This week, Mr. Hicks’s entire body of work is being made available by Comedy Dynamics on video and on demand — and his special “Relentless” will receive a one-night only theatrical release on Monday. Now is a good time to assess his artistic legacy with some distance. Emerging in an era defined by brick-wall-backed observational humor, he brought a rock ’n’ roll swagger to political comedy, and his influence can be seen in operatically aggrieved comedians like Bill Burr and Lewis Black. Yet Mr. Hicks never made a seminal album (his best was the ferocious “Rant in E-Minor,” released posthumously), and while he had about a dozen great bits, his voluble jokes, fueled by ire and bile, can be hit or miss. His sledgehammer comedic sermons had an undeniable force, but his much-mythologized reputation as a renegade has been wildly overstated.
Mr. Hicks grew up in Texas during the Reagan era and, as a liberal who was deeply skeptical if not loathing of government, his comedy had a politics that has become increasingly rare. Bill Maher comes close, since they both share a biting critique of religious dogma and a disgust for the war on drugs. Skewering Christians for wearing crucifixes, Mr. Hicks said, “Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus comes back, he’s really going to want to look at a cross?” He told that joke in a set that was deliberately cut from “The Late Show With David Letterman,” burnishing his image as a martyr for dangerous comedy. Mr. Letterman later apologized, showing it over a decade after Mr. Hicks died.
Mr. Hicks had a more fevered sensibility than Mr. Maher’s, gravitating toward the violent and conspiratorial. He thought the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy and decried “all governments as liars and murderers.” His comedy was full of killing and evocations of the Devil, but his expressive face had an endearing goofy warmth at odds with his severe jokes. Early in his career, he raged against antismoking advocates (while puffing on a cigarette) and mainstream pop music in diatribes that have the nostalgia of a balding hippie playing songs on his air guitar.
That the singer George Michael would sully the pure image of rock music by doing a Diet Coke commercial enraged him. “Why don’t you put a skirt on and get on a swing set?” he said, a casually homophobic gibe that was typical of his macho posturing. Mr. Hicks did one ugly bit whose entire premise involves confusion when women won’t perform oral sex. In another, he imagines a baroque bit of sexual violence committed by Jimi Hendrix against Debbie Gibson, tapping into the darkest and dumbest id of the rock snob.
Mr. Hicks reserved his greatest rage for capitalism, the government and musicians; issues of race, gender and sexual orientation didn’t animate him, except when using them to beef up his honest-tough-guy credibility. His take on gays in the military: “Anyone dumb enough to be in the military should be allowed in,” he said, before straining to explain the hypocritical stance by performing one soldier’s perspective. “I don’t want any gay people hanging around me when I’m killing kids.”
His later work generally picked bigger targets than bubble-gum pop. He raged about overpopulation (a subject Mr. Burr and Doug Stanhope would address in their stand-up), and his savage takedown of Jay Leno has never been equaled. What remained unchanged was his uncompromising attitude toward commercialism. “You do a commercial and you’re off the artistic roll call forever,” he said.
His material on the first gulf war is inevitably going to seem like a period piece. Angry political comedy often ages poorly — who cracks up at Lenny Bruce anymore? — but what’s most striking is how Mr. Hicks’s reputation for challenging audiences doesn’t hold up. He just as often pandered to them.
How much courage does it take to tell a comedy audience, “Not only do I think marijuana should be legalized, I think it should be mandatory”? It’s not exactly a risk to take on Vanilla Ice and Carrot Top. And ending two specials by proposing to give the military budget to the poor is about as uncontroversial an applause line as it gets in comedy.
None of this is to suggest that Mr. Hicks is disingenuous. When you present yourself as a righteous cowboy, challenging the moral complacency of your fan base requires creativity. George Carlin was a master of it, and Mr. Stanhope, an inspired irritant often compared to Mr. Hicks, works tirelessly and anxiously to keep his crowd uncomfortable. The intelligence of those comics matches their anger, which is necessary, because capitalism co-opts its critics as effortlessly as it creates markets. No one articulated this, oddly enough, better than Mr. Hicks.
“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself,” he said in his finest rant, on his “Revelations” special. After repeatedly assuring his audience that he was being entirely literal, Mr. Hicks added: “I know what you marketing people are thinking: ‘Very smart. Oh, you know what Bill’s doing now. He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. A lot of people are doing that. Huge market. He’s doing a good thing.’ ”
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