Just 20 years ago, to this day, American comedian Bill Hicks passed away at the age of 32. A fierce social critic often mentioned in circles like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, Hicks was popular throughout his stand-up career.
Born on Dec. 16, 1961, Hicks grew up in Houston, Texas when he was seven years old after moving a bit in his life. While in Houston, he didn’t enjoy the conditions there as he told John Lahr:
When I was about eleven, it dawned on me that I didn’t like where I was.
Hicks then discovered the work of Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and Johnny Carson to name a few. Hicks remarked to Lahr that Carson was “the only comic in the world, because I never stayed up later.”
He copied jokes of other comedians he watched, along with writing his own comedic routines too that he used in class. He teamed with friend Dwight Slade and went as far as to sneak out at night to perform comedy at a Jerry Lewis Telethon from 2 a.m. to 2:45 a.m. at one point.
Slade then moved to Portland, Oregon, leaving Hicks alone to form his future as a stand-up comedian.
He continued to perform in different comedy clubs and started to develop an addiction to different drugs early in his adult life. The documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, does a fabulous job of going into more detail on this dark period of his life, especially with Hicks drinking anything the audience would give him during his routines.
Thankfully, he decided to take a stand and stop his dependence on alcohol and other drugs. After that, his career took off with numerous specials and appearances in the U.K. and throughout the U.S., though the latter wasn’t as impressive as the former.
Then in 1993, after his popularity continued to rise with numerous specials, he starting feeling sick for months on end and decided to go to the doctor to investigate. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. As his manager and girlfriend Colleen McCarr placed it in American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story:
There was no crying. There was no going nuts…It was really, really calm…He’d known for awhile, I’m sure, that something was wrong. I mean people have indigestion for six months.
After deciding to spend his last days on Earth with his friends and his family, he passed away in their comfort on Feb. 26, 1994.
He has been praised by numerous comedians, figures and artists. Infamously, Denis Leary plagiarized jokes of Hicks, something well-known among comedians.
On the 10th anniversary of his death Hicks was even honored in the House of Commons (Feb. 2004) by Stephen Pound, a Labour MP (who voted for the Iraq War, but I digress), and given a great tribute with surprising comments from Pound:
That this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on February 26th, 1994, at the age of 32; 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 the one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.
He was in the news two years ago on Late Night with David Letterman when his mother was on Letterman’s show to reveal the Oct. 1, 1993 routine of his show that was censored by CBS and the Late Night show. Letterman apologized for the decision to not show it on television.
Brendon Burns wrote a piece on Bill Hicks on Feb. 19 of this year in The Guardian, where he discussed two myths about Hicks. He argued Hicks wasn’t an activist or an atheist. It’s true Hicks never stated he was an atheist, but the first myth is actually a fact as his routines can be considered activism. Burns writes in response to the myth:
No, he wasn’t. I don’t doubt he found the Iraq war utterly reprehensible, but if he was so against it, why was his response to head to the world’s largest arts festival to effectively preach to the converted? I’ll tell you exactly why: because he was a comedian and ultimately wanted people to appreciate his work.
I had to think about those words a few minutes because it went against my beliefs on what Hicks utterly taught (and still teaches) me with his routines. I looked up the definition of “activist” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to help understand what Burns had written. The definition of activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”
Burns writes Hicks wasn’t an activist and warns this is what is dangerous when we turn him into an activist:
And after he died, I did what I think a lot of people have done – I turned Hicks into a replacement messiah. Quoting his jokes as if they were gospel, quoting his routines to answer any of life’s questions as if they were a self-help programme.
I’m guilty of using quotes by Hicks before in a few pieces I’ve written, yet I don’t believe I’ve used them as answers to the problems of our times. I’ve used them as evidence for theories I advance on the state of society. This is where I find this statement by Burns to be incorrect.
It’s true using quotes by Hicks can be interpreted as the gospel to a few, but it still indicates the impact of his legacy in showing the charade of society.
We remark on the ideal society versus the realistic society so much that what’s lost in all of the discussion is Hope. One correction Burns should have pointed out, but didn’t, was Hicks wasn’t a fatalist at all, even though his routines would argue otherwise. Rather, as Love All the People points out, he really cared about being true to oneself and not turning into the people who control us. As he mentions during his Relentless special:
I do have a healthy skepticism, I think we all should. But I think if you listen closely enough, you’ll find that my message, if I as a joke-blower could be pompous enough to have one, is that we’re all alright and it’s gonna work out. I don’t find that cynical at all.
Why shouldn’t we use Hicks as a way of answering the questions of life? Often times, art is used to illustrate the pains of society, and sometimes, to offer a way out of it. Pink Floyd accomplished this with Animals, Radiohead accomplished this with OK Computer, The Coup accomplished this with Steal This Album (their entire discography really), George Orwell accomplished this with Animal Farm, Fritz Lang accomplished this with Metropolis, Etheridge Knight accomplished this with his poems, and so on.
It’s ridiculous to assume theories can’t be influenced by the realm of art. We currently live in a society where just 85 people on the planet have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. We also live in a world where 100 million people will die if we do nothing about climate change. Insanity is a feature in the system where we live and it’s an unfair assessment to prohibit Hicks’ words analyzing the situation we face.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had valuable words in his Letter from Birmingham Jail on those showing the problems in society through “direct action”:
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
By definition, according to Merriam-Webster, “direct action” refers to an “action that seeks to achieve an end directly and by the most immediately effective means.” Comedy isn’t your typically way to end anything in the world, but it exposes us to the “boil” in our society continually growing and growing.
We can’t suddenly exclude those because of their status. We are seeing a world where the marginalized are being policed for just being the marginalized. Truth by anyone can make us understand a whole lot in our world, sometimes it exposes war crimes or make us question the history of the nation we live in. Malcolm X once said on the issue of truth and justice:
I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
This concept of going for human beings is not an unknown concept to Hicks, as he once told journalist Jack Boulware he never found instances of mass murder to be humorous at all:
The best kind of comedy to me is when you make people laugh at things they’ve never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people’s minds, exposing them to the light. I thought the whole point of it was to make you feel un-alone.
It’s this part that makes Hicks into an activist in the abnormal sense. It’s okay that he isn’t a traditional activist because there are no strict rules for people to become activists. It’s just what a person or group says and does that makes them into an activist.
His work still feels relevant as his riffs on George H. W. Bush don’t feel much different than if he were talking about George W. Bush. His criticism of a materialist culture pushed by marketers (a routine of his was asking them to kill themselves) is just as relevant today with the bombardment of advertisements in all areas of our life that is reminiscent of the “No Space” phrase in No Logo by Naomi Klein.
In a Jan. 1994 interview with Hicks, he stated Congress was “an old boys club that is about as corrupt as it possible could get.” Moreover, it was “getting kickbacks and pay-offs from major corporations and the last thing they are doing is representing humanity.” It’s comical, 10 years later, to find Congress to be a millionaires’ club.
Again, the biggest mistake is how Hicks was interpreted as this vulgar cynical individual who once said humanity was just “a virus with shoes.” Near the end of his life, he really did care about humanity as his stand-up routine on Sept. 17, 1993 at Igby’s Comedy Club in Calif. reveals:
I guess I have to do the only thing I can do, acceptance and forgiveness. It’s the only tools that you’ve got left. And evolution, if you’re interested in it.
Arguably, his most famous routine, “Life is just a ride,” features this also in reminding us what it means to be a human being. We have the decision to make a life out of fear or out of love. There is no decision on what the elites in society want us to do, it’s only one made on our decision as a community. In fact, in his Jan. 1994 “Letter to John Lahr,” Hicks wrote on what occurs in our system:
The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers, and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems that they, and only they, might one day, somewhere in the nerve-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay sleep America, keep watching TV, keep paying to the infinite witnesses of illusion we provide you over Lucifers’ Dream Box — television. I find it laughable and pathetic.
What Hicks ultimately thought the most were a few instances where it seemed he acted as a “political philosopher,” as Pound had mentioned in his tribute. Hicks spoke phrases such as “the next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas.”
Just before Hicks passed away, he penned a letter with these touching words:
I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.
I can attest whenever I perform some form of activism (whatever that form may be), it’s partially is to uphold the spirit of Bill Hicks. Of course, there are other leaders out there in society who have passed too and one can’t rely overly on deceased heroes. However, the words of those who inspire us sow the seeds for how we react to what we do and that’s fundamental in understanding why Hicks is an inspirational role-model.
Image by Mitch Hell released under a Creative Commons license.