I have three comedians on my iPod: Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. All of them evolved as much into prophets as comedians, and all of them died younger than they should have from maladies that probably had something to do with the stress of being a live performer on the road in corporate America.
Hicks died the youngest, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 in 1994. Perhaps his pancreas had had enough of his drinking, which started later than usual at the age of 21 but got excessive quickly. Or maybe it was road food from all that driving to comedy clubs around the country. He looked puffy by his mid-20s. If Hicks came back from the dead, he could do a good routine about government agents slipping some carcinogen (white sugar?) into his food because his routines had come too close to the truth.
That was one of his best joke constructions, taking some dark conspiracy theory lurking in the collective unconscious and validating not so much the theory as the paranoia that got the imagination fired up in the first place. In a routine called “The Elite” on his album Rant in E-Minor, Hicks speculates on what happens to a new president. “When you win, you go in this smokey room with the 12 industrialist/capitalist scumfucks who got you [elected]…And this screen comes down?whrrrrrrr?and this big guy says, ‘Roll the film.’ It’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before. [Big laugh.] And it looks suspiciously off the grassy knoll. And the screen comes up and they go to the new president and say, ‘Any questions?'”
Hicks did believe the Warren Commission was a lie, but you can have any theory you want about the Kennedy assassination and get the joke there. He’s describing a fictional situation, and in literal reality, it doesn’t happen like that. Long before anyone is elected president, they are vetted for obedience. Nobody has to tell politicians to obey, or what the consequences of disobeying would be. New presidents want to obey, and that’s why they got the nomination. What Hicks is getting at is not so much conspiracy but the deeper truth that inspires so many grassroots conspiracy theories. It really is a tiny number of industrialist/capitalist scumfucks who control everything. They will tell any lie and commit any crime to keep their power. Hicks not only understood that, he could make phenomenal jokes about it.
I saw the recent documentary about Hicks, American: The Bill Hicks Story. As a coming of age story about a teenager who figures out that he’s funny, becomes fascinated by the mechanics of humor, and is performing in nightclubs before he can drive, it’s compelling and even triumphant. Growing up talented in the Deep South always has its element of heroism. The story is not so much about finding himself, which he did by his late teens, but finding a place to display what he found of himself. That was a struggle until the end.
The documentary half-clarifies the infamous incident where David Letterman censored Hicks’ routine in a 1993 appearance, just removed the whole bit from his show, which demoralized Hicks toward the end of his life. In 2009, Letterman decided to clean up his karma, inviting Hicks’ mother on the show and apologizing for his poor judgment as an editor. The documentary shows the apology, which was gracious, but leaves out the actual routine, which Letterman did run in its entirety for the first time on the show.
Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, it is possible to see the segment (Hicks’ mom and the routine), which is revelatory. I have four albums and two documentaries on Hicks, and the censored Letterman bit is one of his least funny. The guy is flailing, trying to maintain his shock value while staying inside the line of corporate television, which means he goes after lame targets like Billy Ray Cyrus. The joke that purportedly got him censored was a suggestion that the right-to-life movement blockade cemeteries instead of abortion clinics. Hicks picked a worthy target but missed it with a weak joke. Letterman was apparently afraid of offending a large group that gets offended easily, but the real problem with the routine was that Hicks’ heart wasn’t in it. His humor depended on crossing the line?not the line of good taste, which is easy, but the line of taboo truths?while Letterman has always stayed safely and lucratively within the line.
It has been said that Hicks’ influence lives on in the comedy of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Not really. Stewart and Maher are both, at heart, GWOT Democrats. They have grown steadily more unfunny as Obama has steadily revealed himself as a tool of the usual industrialist/capitalist scumfucks. Even during the Bush administration, both Maher and Stewart were careful not to insult the military, which is way past the taboo line anywhere on corporate television.
On Rant in E-Minor, Hicks had this to say in a routine about integrating gays in the military: “Anyone DUMB ENOUGH to want to be in the military should be allowed in. End of story. That should be the only requirement. I don’t care how many pushups you can do. Put on a helmet. Go wait in that foxhole and we’ll tell you when we want you to go kill somebody. You know what I mean? I get so sick. I’ve watched these fuckin’ Congressional hearings, and all these military guys, and all these pundits saying, ‘Ohhhh, the espirit de corps will be affected and we are so moral…’ Excuse me! Aren’t you all fuckin’ hired killers? Shut up! You are thugs! When we need you to blow the fuck out of a a nation of little brown people, we’ll let you know. Until then…’We are the military. Is that a village of children and kids? Where’s the napalm? Boooooom! I don’t want any gay people hanging around me while I’m killing kids.'”
Compare that with Maher’s orgasmic cheerleading for assassination on the most recent Politically Incorrect: “Barak Obama is one efficient, steely nerved, black Ninja, gangsta president.” He went on to congratulate Obama for out-Republicaning the Republicans.
There’s a modern prophet for you, like it takes nerves of steel to have hired killers shoot an unarmed man in the face on the other side of the world. Somehow I think that if Bill Hicks were alive, he’d be pointing that out. And he’d be pointing it out in little nightclubs (or in the UK, where he had more freedom to talk about America), not on Politically Incorrect.
As for Stewart, he jumped the shark on Obama’s inauguration day, and he got eaten by the shark with his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” It should have been called “Mass Self-Deprecation as a Show of Deference to the Industrialist/Capitalist Scumfucks.” His guest list is tamer than PBS News Hour, and the endless routines about cable news inanity and Tea Party anti-logic have become a biteless snore.
Here’s what Hicks had to say about the new Democrat who took office a year before Hicks died: “‘Ohhhh, that Clinton. Don’t you have hope for Bill Clinton?’ There no fuckin’ hope in that guy. They’re all the same. 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. Here’s Love Connection, watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer, you fuckin’ morons.'”
Hicks had no mercy on his fellow comedians, especially a simpering demagogue like Jay Leno: “It all started when he did the Doritos commercial. Here’s the deal, folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. Okay? You’re another corporate fuckin’ shill. You’re another whore at the capitalist gangbang…If you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect. Every word that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.”
Has that little piece of humorous commentary aged one minute since 1993? Everyone else is just following Leno to the bank. They don’t even think about it anymore. I mean, who cares if Leno “betrayed” Conan O’Brien when Leno came back to the Tonight Show? They both betrayed themselves first. What O’Brien stands for is Bud Light, iPhone, American Express and whatever else he’s endorsed. What’s to betray? O’Brien even tried to make fun of himself for taking the money in his Bud commercial, as if Ivy League snark immunizes you from being thrown off the artistic roll call forever. Nope. It’s just another turd in Bill Hicks’ drink, and that’s where the industrialist/capitalist scumfucks want their corporate comedy.
CHARLES M. YOUNG is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-(sort of)-supported online alternative newspaper.