Love All The People
by Bill Hicks
–Bill Hicks, in an interview, 1991
Bill Hicks defined the difference between good comedy and great comedy this way: “Good comedy helps people know they’re not alone. Great comedy provides an answer.” In sight of solutions, he delivered his answers like a prophet with a flamethrower.
The homeless? “Anybody could be a bum. All it takes is the right girl, the right bar, and the right friends, man.”
Gun Control? “England, where no one has guns; fourteen deaths. United States — and I think you know how we feel about guns; whoo! I’m getting’ a stiffy — 23,000 deaths from handguns. But there’s no connection, and you’d be a fool and a communist to make one.”
Pornography? “To me pornography is, you know, spending all your money and not educating the people in America, but spending it instead on weapons. That’s pornographic to me. That’s totally filthy, and et cetera, et cetera; down the line…you all in your fucking hearts know the godamn arguments.”
Hicks also resembled a prophet in that things he said seem to foretell the future. In this book (you were wondering when I would mention the book, weren’t you?), we learn that he said, in 1986, “Any organization created out of fear must create fear in order to survive.” That sound to anybody else like the Department of Homeland Security?
He always claimed to be more than a political comedian, so I should mention that he was also a perceptive critic of the arts. In 1992, he saw Lara Croft coming: “I wish they’d combine video and porno.” That same year, he had this to say on the subject of Joe Eszterhas’ screenplays:
“Flashdance…young girl shows titties.”
“That’s fucking brilliant, Joe. Can we give you a million dollars for that? Oh, that’s brilliant. Genius. But can you top yourself in Basic Instinct?”
“Young girl shows pussy.”
“He’s a genius. Can we give you three million dollars for that? Now, we’ll give you six million if you can top yourself…”
“Young girl shows titties and pussy.”
(whispers) “God Almighty, he’s a fucking genius.”
And three years later, Showgirls was released.
Then there’s Bill Hicks On The Fall Of Communism, written at least 10 years ago but filled with such trenchant criticism that it could have been last week.
What I’m saying is that Hicks, who died in 1994, was one of the last great comedians we’ve had in this country, and he was unquestionably the last one who mattered. I should define my terms. I love Jon Stewart and I’m thankful for his Daily Show, but he didn’t find his satiric voice as a stand-up; only when he sat down behind his “fake news” desk sponsored by Viacom. And Chris Rock has one of the smartest, funniest minds out there, but he’s made an explicitly commercial decision to temper his more insightful political material. Both have done and are doing good work, but both have sacrificed at least some of the emotional integrity of that work, in order to get where they are. Hicks never did.
Had he lived long enough to produce a larger body of work, he would have been on the comedians’ Mount Rushmore alongside Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. As it is, his bust shares space on the shelf with Peter Cook (the genius of Beyond The Fringe), and Michael O’Donoghue (trailblazer of the National Lampoon magazine and Radio Hour, and a shaper of the defining years of Saturday Night Live). Men who were no less great geniuses than the holy trinity of Bruce/Pryor/Carlin; and no less influential. But who were prevented, even moreso than Bruce, from sustaining their success by virtue of emotional wounding, a gritted-teeth refusal to be edited, and other natural disorders.
Hicks shared their curse even as he shared their gifts. Yea, in the spirit of prophets, Bill Hicks was not without honor save in his own country. In the UK, he was a star (“I’ve had to go pull a Hendrix thing,” he wrote to his sometime friend Jay Leno). John Cleese called him “brilliant, funny [and] tremendously intelligent.” How big a star over there was he? Well, the 10th anniversary of his death was recently noted in Parliament’s House of Commons. That’s how big a star.
But in America, he was a cult figure. Comics and comedy connoisseurs loved him — when you’ve got Pryor, Stewart, and Carlin (not to mention Dennis Miller) all giving props to the same guy, that’s when you know you’re talking about a heavyweight. Yet some audiences hated him, and networks and TV producers insisted on filtering him on his too-few appearances. When I speak of filters I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about ideas. Famously, Hicks was censored from the David Letterman show in 1993 for telling jokes about a “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus” TV show, double standards about homosexuality, “pro-lifers” and Easter.
Ironically, this banning was nearly the salvation of his career in the US when John Lahr wrote about it in an article about Hicks for the New Yorker, reprinted in an expanded form as the foreword to this volume. The profile made publishers, magazines, movie stars, record label owners and television channels listen to him “in a new light,” as Hicks wrote to Lahr in a letter quoted here. Unfortunately the morning had come too late. By that time, Hicks knew he was dying.
The lack of recognition he received in his lifetime even when he was at the height of his powers may be a reason why Hicks, when he was “bombing,” would push farther at a time when perhaps 98% of comedians would pull back.
William Goldman wrote in the book Peter Cook Remembered (AKA Something Like Fire): “[It’s] a terrible burden: To know you’re special before the rest of the world has heard.”
Bill Hicks began performing as a teenager in the late ’70s. At this tender age, he was already able to rile up a heckler so much that a gun was drawn. This would become a defining trait of his comedy; you either went with him, or you went down.
“I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here.
“I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.”
“I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.”
“Hey, wait a minute. There’s one guy holding up both puppets!”
“Shut up! Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control…By the way; keep drinking beer, you fucking morons.”
In Dennis Perrin’s Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, he quotes Bill Murray as saying that O’Donoghue taught “you how to hate. He hated the horrible things in life, and the horrible people in life — and he hated them so good.”
Hicks never backed down, he never pandered, and he certainly never tried to “win” an audience. By 1993, confronting a room that he didn’t think was “worthy” of him, Hicks’ voice became that of a brain recoiling against blows that offensive to its sensibilities.
“Please don’t debate me; it’s my one true talent, OK? I have 23 hours a day to develop these little webs of fucking conspiracy, so please…Welcome to No Sympathy Night. Welcome to You’re Wrong Night…You FUCKING morons!”
This book is not the place to have your close encounter of the first kind with Hicks. That’s in his taped routines, where you can see and hear him become his characters. These can only recently and at last be gotten on DVD, but there are several CDs available. Start with Relentless and then move on to Rant in E Minor.
What the book does do is provide an easily accessible reference guide both to Hicks’ comedy and his morality. And I hope the kids find it, just as they found Lenny Bruce’s books and George Carlin’s Class Clown album and Richard Pryor’s first “in concert” film. These touchstones became kickoff points for generations of skeptics. And Hicks should be the launching site of the next.
Soft Skull Press: www.softskull.com