American: The Bill Hicks Story

“The world is like a ride at an amusement park. It goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question: Is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, “Hey – don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride…” But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. Jesus – murdered; Martin Luther King – murdered; Malcolm X – murdered; Gandhi – murdered; John Lennon – murdered; Reagan… wounded. But it doesn’t matter because: It’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”

Bill Hicks – Revelations

 Premiering last year at SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival, American: The Bill Hicks Story is an excellent documentary about the late comedian. It explores his life through interviews with his mother, his brother and sister, and his closest friends, taking these interviews and combining them with 3-D rendered photographs which create a narrative and a sense of movement. I haven’t really seen much like this before and directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas did something imaginative with the animation at their disposal, taking old images of a man dead for almost 20 years and animating it, making Hicks and his companions come to life. Also featured is a litany of live performances showing Hicks from his beginning all the way up to the end of his career shortly before he passed away. Although I’ve seen little pieces on Hicks in the past, American is one of the more complete investigations of his short life; it doesn’t belittle Hicks and although it comes across as Hicks worship it doesn’t do it to a fault.

What can one say about Bill Hicks that hasn’t been said before? He was truly a man ahead of his time; a comedian whose material was one step laugh away from being philosophy. I once saw it said he’s, “Noam Chomsky with dick jokes,” and I’ve seen him referred to as a prophet. I’m not sure the prophet bit is true but I feel Hicks’ material goes beyond the conventions of traditional stand-up and delves into issues normally avoided. Everything from the first Gulf War to the ATF’s slaughter of the Branch Davidians receives attention and Hicks’ observations aren’t forgiving; he actually calls Janet Reno and Bill Clinton mass murderers at one point, saying their lying about what happened at Waco either makes them stupid or responsible for the murder of over 20 people (including five children).

The most fascinating aspect of Hicks’ professional career is his material shortly before he died. Knowing he had pancreatic cancer (and hiding it from everybody but his family), Hicks’ material was relentless in those last months and he held nothing back. Bits which were subversive before became even more biting, probably because he didn’t care anymore. What can anybody do to you when you’re dying in a few months? Hicks had a platform for discussion and took advantage of it, imparting his views on America with his fellow Americans without a filter – I commend the man for this action. Here’s Hicks’ last recorded show from Igby’s from November 1993; it’s a great set. Unfortunately Youtube pulled the video version but I found this audio only version.

When comparing Hicks’ material from a few years earlier to this stuff, it’s obvious that he stopped caring what institutions thought about his act. Knowing he had cancer and was dying makes it all come together. I’ve heard dozens of recordings of Hicks’ stand-up and this set from Igby’s (which I’ve heard twice before) is amazing. A good amount of this material appears on his posthumously released CD Rant in E-Minor (which also features more material than what’s here) but it’s Hicks’ concept disc Arizona Bay that’s his masterpiece. On Arizona Bay Hicks incorporates his own instrumental music into the act, hanging in the background during bits and sometimes tying one segment to another. I was actually amazed how good Hicks’ music is (at least on this disc) and it’s another reason his untimely death is such a shame.

American covers just about everything in Hicks’ life, starting from his birth and ending with his death. However, unlike a great deal of biography pics, American doesn’t delve too deeply into his last moments, instead looking at his life and celebrating what he did while here. The documentary does explore Hicks’ earlier problems with drugs and alcohol, demonstrating how his sobriety really changed his outlook on life and his material – it’s obvious sobriety refined his comedy, changing him from a shocking performer into an intellectual one (who still kept the dick jokes for good measure). From the perspectives provided, Hicks comes across as an animated, intelligent young man who was the product of a Southern Baptist upbringing in the suburbs outside Houston – an environment which shaped his outlook and provided him countless material.

I felt the animation used for the film was intriguing and seeing all these pictures of Hicks which are probably from the personal archives of friends and family added to the intimacy of the film. If they just used images which appear frequently on the internet the book wouldn’t have the same impact, instead coming across as a mediocre piece of flash animation by some broke college students. Instead, American is a well crafted narrative about the best stand-up comedian in history (at least in my opinion). My only complaint is that it was so short. I felt there’s more the film could’ve covered but I understand the film wasn’t made only for those familiar with Hicks but with those who aren’t, trying to make them aware of his work.

Shortly before Hicks died he appeared on the David Letterman show, only to find his segment was cut. Hicks speculated the advertisers, some of who were pro-life activists, didn’t approve of his material and Letterman and company kowtowed to private interests. Who really knows why it happened but right-wing activist groups disagreeing with his material doesn’t seem farfetched. However, in 2009 Letterman had Hicks’ mother Mary on, officially apologized for cutting the segment, and played it in its entirety. It was fifteen years after Hicks’ death. There’s a part of me which thinks the censorship added to Hicks’ mystique, since I didn’t see the segment until about a year ago but I think it’s not filthy or too subversive. Hicks cleaned up his material for Letterman and delivered a stellar performance, proving his material stood on its own and didn’t need vulgarity to succeed. Below are the clips from the David Letterman Show:

I highly urge you, dear reader, to see American: The Bill Hicks Story. It chronicles the life of a truly innovative comedian whose material reached out further than any other comedian of his time and is still influential today. I also have a sinking suspicion Hicks’ work will remain relevant for years to come (unless the system we all live in changes for the better in the near future). Below is the trailer for the film and a great deal of links to stand-up performances and interviews featuring the great Bill Hicks.

Bill Hicks links:

Bill Hicks: Revelations (I’m only including a link to the first portion; you can find the rest on your own).

Bill Hicks: Relentless (Once again, I’m only including a link to the first part and you can find the rest through that).

Bill Hicks from Chicago where he loses it and chews out a drunk woman in the crowd. Incredible stuff.

Bill Hicks debating a Christian in 1993. It turns into a phone interview with him at the end and it’s a little weird.

Here’s one of the last interviews with Hicks. It’s a little on the low quality side but the material is excellent. As before I’m only linking to the first portion and you can find the second part yourself.

A Bill Hicks interview from The Word.

Another Hicks interview from the U.K., where he sold out places. Sadly, he played to half empty rooms in the States.

Here’s a Bill Hicks routine from 1988. It’s not as innovative as his later material but it’s still great.

Here’s a website featuring a great deal of Bill Hicks bootlegs. Although the quality doesn’t match the officially released records many of these contain material not on any of those discs.

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