The reissue of his comedy albums shows the late comedian's influence on our online discourse.
[Updated] The complete library of Bill Hicks’ comedy albums were recently released, and I’ve been listening to them trying to figure out why I don’t get the same buzz from them that I did when I first saw 1991’s Revelations stand-up special. Part of it is the curse of stand-up comedy. Once you know the joke, it will never be as funny again. But it has been a long time since I’ve heard Hicks, so while I knew the general contours of his comedy, I didn’t remember many jokes.
Hicks died in 1994 at the age of 37, and his early death of pancreatic cancer along with the mercurial nature of his comedy have made him a natural for canonization. Comedian Marc Maron has talked on his WTF podcast about Hicks' commitment to his point of view, regardless of the audience's reception. Maron remembers him emptying rooms, and told Esquire:
"Bill was very much in his own time zone," Maron says. "He went through his entire presentation, whether people were responding or not. There are a few guys who took his approach to details and description, but not many. It's hard. The stuff Bill wrote is positively Rabelaisian.
"If I could say anything about Hicks, it's that he was doing his best to destroy anything he perceived as hypocrisy," Maron concludes. "While also revealing stuff that was overly embraced by moralizers. He was a misanthropic moralist, who did his best to get to the bottom of religious hypocrisy, moral hypocrisy, and societal hypocrisy. But he also made you laugh when he did it. That's a tough trick. But it's what Bill did."
While listening to the posthumously released Rant in E Minor this weekend, I realized that he sounded familiar not because I’d been listening to it so much but because I read a version of him every day on Facebook. Hicks’ obsession with hypocrisy and his ability to surgically dissect it with dark humor has infiltrated our culture so thoroughly that it is the Internet default mode. Every outraged, ironic skewering of Trump and gun nuts and racists and cops and climate warming deniers has Hicks’ fingerprints on it, whether he said it or not. It’s also hard to imagine that The Daily Show or any of the Jon Stewart family of news and current events comedy shows would have existed as they do without Hicks’ hunt for the dark heart of our culture and the genuine emotional stakes he brought to his comedy. You can hear genuine anguish and outrage at that bullshit that Stewart railed against in his final episode.
Hicks’ comedy didn’t change, but you can hear his states of mind reflected in the albums. At times, his anger at stupidity—in the larger world or, you intuit, his personal—gets the best of him and the jokes flirt with meanness. But that’s part of what continues to give the albums electricity--that Hicks has something emotional riding on the show and even though he was a professional comedian, he was so engaged in the show that he had no detachment. One clip on YouTube shows him going into an over-the-top “fuck you” rage at a heckler who told him he sucked. He didn’t try to make the moment funny and deal with it comedically; he melted down. The clip isn’t funny, but it is real.
Parts of his humor have dated. Today it’s difficult to listen to oral sex and effeminate gayness construed repeatedly in negative, angry, demeaning terms, and he wasn’t much of a music critic. He teed off on easy MTV targets like George Michael, Tiffany, Michael Bolton and Billy Ray Cyrus and championed bulletproof heroes like Hendrix. In those sequences though, he's mourning the way our culture has traded the genuine for the pre-fab, so while they now seem cheap, there's still an optimist and a believer in America trying desperately to find a cause for optimism.
His comedy could be a blunt object, it could also be very precise, and never more so than in his take on the first Iraq War in 1991. In Revelations, we see evil in the banal form of generals ordering bomb launches out of a catalogue just to see what each one does, and the malignant darkness of America propping up an opponent to legitimize the exercise of power against it.
That material, like much of Hicks’ comedy in this 12- album reissue series, is hilarious, and his belief in the importance of being an unmistakably human voice railing against stupidity, evil, and poorly used power makes it resonant. The best of Bill Hicks explains why social media is the way it is. Hear him and you too want to bring common sense through withering satire to all the stupid shit around us. Facebook and Twitter made that possible.
Updated August 13, 2:47 p.m.
Bill Hicks: The Complete Collection brings together all 12 CDs, six DVDs and a photo book, and it will be on sale September 11. It can be pre-ordered now.