lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 13 08:02:40 MST 2002
Bill Hicks, the black-humored articulator of doubt
One of America's best and darkest comedians is six years gone, but with a
new biography and a new CD, his career shows no signs of stopping.
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By Jack Boulware
March 13, 2002 | It's October 1991, inside the brass-and-ferns Punch Line
comedy club in San Francisco. The sound system is blasting Stevie Ray
Vaughan at top volume. I'm here because a friend has pestered me for weeks
about a comedian named Bill Hicks, whom I've never heard of. He's performed
in the city several previous nights, and I've finally made it down to see a
show. I'm busy editing a satirical magazine called the Nose, and writing a
similar column for SF Weekly. There's funny all around me. I have plenty of
friends who are cartoonists, writers, comedians. And the country is already
full to bursting with comedy clubs and lame comics. So who the hell is Hicks?
He walks onstage wearing all black, thanks the crowd, and says it's really
great to be here, wherever he is. Pulling out a cigarette, he asks a guy in
the front row how much he smokes. A pack and a half a day, the man answers.
Hicks snorts. "You little puss -- I go through two lighters a day." He
lights his cigarette, the flame adjusted to a ridiculous height, flaring
like a blowtorch, and delivers a message for all the uptight, whining,
prissy little nonsmokers: "Nonsmokers die ... every day." He pauses and
exhales up to the ceiling. "Sleep tight."
Bill Hicks died of cancer in 1994. But here in 2002, his career is doing
quite well. A greatest hits CD, "Philosophy." A brand-new Harper Collins
biography, "American Scream." Bill Hicks tributes at comedy festivals in
Aspen and Montreal, another tribute in London, Hollywood screenplays in the
works, all of it eight years after his death. The timing is weird, but not
surprising. The specter of Andy Kaufman waited 15 years for his film
treatment, and 17 years for the biographies. America often overlooks its
own best resources, especially in the marginalized subculture of stand-up
The "Rant" album opens up with Hicks saying hello to the crowd, and
immediately going off on the stunted intellectual behavior of Americans,
about how the nation operates on an eighth grade mentality. A woman in the
crowd shook her head no, and Hicks took the opportunity:
"Please don't debate me, it's my one true talent. I have 23 hours to
develop this web of conspiracy theory, so please, just relax and enjoy your
hair ... Your little cracker spawn are back at the hotel choking down the
mini bar contents, probably fucking each other and producing more little
crackers to come fuck with my life, you inbred redneck hillbilly fucking
tourist, you. Good evening, how are you tonight? Welcome, welcome to 'No
Sympathy Night.' Welcome to 'You're Wrong Night.'"
This new material was his darkest yet. He was furious over how the
government handled the David Koresh/Branch Davidian episode, and kept
repeating that Janet Reno and Bill Clinton were liars and murderers. "I
fucking hate patriotism," he spat. "It's a round world last time I checked."
Hypocritical right-wing Christians were always prominent targets, but now
the tone was even more poetically cruel. He envisioned the day when Sen.
Jesse Helms finally snapped and committed suicide. Afterwards, authorities
would find the skins of young children hanging in his attic, and we'd see
his wife on CNN, saying, "I always wondered about Jesse's collection of
This phase was some of his best writing, crafted for the hair-raising joy
of live performance. His impersonation of a sell-out Jay Leno was
devastating. But it bugged me that he kept insulting the audience. If we
didn't react properly to something he said, he'd call us a bunch of sleepy
cows, following each other blindly, and do a quick impression of a lazy cow
chewing its cud. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, Who are
you calling a cow? I came here to see you because I'm not a cow.
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