January 2005

Clayton Moore

nonfiction

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines by Bill Hicks

Is writing about comedy like dancing about architecture? I question the logic in collecting spoken word but I think in this case I’ll make an exception. Even in this format, discovering Bill Hicks is a shock to the system. The late comedian is often compared to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor but in fact had more in common with his own hero, Jimi Hendrix. Like Jimi, Hicks seemed to have been beamed down, did his incredibly bizarre and mind-blowing thing, and split for other parts of the cosmos.

The newly published collection of transcripts, interviews, and other miscellanea is probably not the best way to enter his twisted mind, but it isn’t a bad way to begin and it is not strictly a collector’s item, either. This is a guy who stood up for the disenfranchised, and the marginal and the outraged in America will feel his pain, regardless. A lone scream in a wilderness of mediocrity, he was dead of pancreatic cancer by the age of 32. It’s not much of a punch line.

Born in 1961 in rural Georgia, Hicks eventually hooked up with Sam Kinison’s “Outlaws Comics,” but unlike Sam, whose famous scream was aimed indiscriminately, Hicks was specific in directing his fear and loathing. He attacked not just easy targets like Rush Limbaugh, but also raged against rock stars who hawk soda, non-smokers, and the FBI’s handling of Waco. He was fascinated with UFO sightings, and government conspiracies. Much of the time, he was focused on the dumbing down of America, the machinations of the religious right, and the manipulation of mass media.

“You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. Jay Leno selling Doritos on television? You gotta sell snacks to bovine America now?” He railed against not only the encroaching commercialism of his chosen trade, but also one of his own early role models. This was heady stuff in a time when the most successful comedians of the day included Andrew “Dice” Clay and Carrot Top.

At his peak, Bill was doing more than 300 shows a year, not only in the states where he remained largely anonymous, but also here in England, where he is still hailed as an artist. Hundreds came together in late February to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his death and most walked away with copies of this book. It is surprising how shocking Hicks’s material when laid up against the typical Tonight Show comedians, whom he dismissed as “Joke-Blowers.”

Hicks’s comedy wasn’t sanitized for television, nor did he lease his obscenity for the sake of easy laughter. He was nasty, yes, but he was also darker than most other comedians in a much more disturbing way. “I’m a little dark poet tonight,” he liked to warn the audience.

“By the way, if there’s anyone here in Marketing or Advertising,” Bill said solemnly one night. “Kill yourself. There’s no joke coming. Seriously, kill yourself. There’s no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. I’m just planting seeds, folks.”

His entire act was censored by producers at the David Letterman show after the network said that he had pushed too many hot buttons in a set that included abortion (“Leave those unwanted babies on the steps of the Supreme Court. You said we had to have them? Then you guys RAISE THEM.”), children’s books about gay lifestyles (he kind of dug Heather Has Two Mommies,) and the absurdity of the Easter Bunny. The entire set is reproduced for the first time in Love All The People.

In spite of his confrontational style, Bill was also interested in expanding his mind. Although he became a recovering alcoholic in his early twenties, he endorsed the use of psychedelic drugs, and investigated meditation, psychic phenomena, and many other metaphysical techniques. He ended his Revelations shows in London by declaring, "The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds can be. It’s fun for a while. Some people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid, ever, because…it’s just a ride.'”

Bill Hicks died on February 26, 1994. Among his fans are widely recognized performers such as Janeane Garafalo, who narrates a new documentary on Hicks playing on Trio, and rocker-cum-poet Henry Rollins, who says of Hicks, “He was hilarious, brilliant, brave and right about everything.”

Denis Leary, who has gone on to television fame himself, has been widely accused of lifting much of the material from his first album, No Cure For Cancer, directly from Hicks’s sets. One of the last jokes passed around on Hicks fan sites goes, “Why is Denis Leary more famous than Bill Hicks?”

“Because there’s no cure for cancer.”

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines by Bill Hicks and John Lahr
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1932360654
384 Pages