Issue Date:

Dead 10 years, Hicks still makes us laugh

John Zwick

Issue date: 2/25/04 Section: Life & Arts
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If he were alive today, Bill Hicks would be howling in rage against our era of authoritarian excess. He would tear at our culture of fear until it bleeds. And he'd have to change scarcely a word of his work to do it.

His fans call him a social commentator, a satirist, and a genius. Never a dead comedian. It's not that it's untrue, but one doesn't keep a dedicated posthumous cult following by being a mere "dead comedian."

Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of his death, the work of Bill Hicks remains relevant, and perhaps more popular than ever. Credited as a "comic's comic," Bill made comedy that mattered, commenting on issues far deeper than the average comic's subject matter, earning comparisons to the most respected and memorable names in the industry, from Lenny Bruce to Sam Kinison. But Bill's politics were sharper than Bruce's, and his rage was far more sincere than Kinison's. He was one of the most important and overlooked voices of the '90s, memorialized by the band Tool, among others, whose album nema referenced Bill's concept album, Arizona Bay, envisioning a day when American culture would be purified by a cataclysmic earthquake sending California sinking into the sea.

Conventional wisdom puts the stand-up comic at the bottom of the pecking order, among the lowest of low artists. Comedy is never credited with the emotional power of music or the profundity of serious literature, yet Bill's following is as dedicated as any other artist's. Credit his message.

Bill was given the informal title of the "outlaw comic" in his early days in Texas, and though it was used to refer to three other Texas comics (Sam Kinison among them), nobody truly possessed the outlaw spirit like Bill. Religious extremism, corporate greed, and shameless self-promoters and "fevered egos" all spent plenty of uncomfortable time in Bill's crosshairs. And whether he was laying into the supposed dark, sinister secret lives of right-wing moralists or lampooning our treatment of the sick and elderly, suggesting we use the terminally ill as stuntmen in movies, he was wickedly funny.

He advocated suicide as the only possible redemption for advertisers and their work. He suggested our country embarrass would-be assassins by taking out Bush Sr. ourselves. He hit so many of our frustrations dead on, saying that any artist who does a commercial is "off the artistic roll-call forever, and that goes for everybody except Willie Nelson."

It was an act that had him censored from late-night TV multiple times and made him, as he said, "virtually unknown in America," despite releasing two albums in his lifetime and two more posthumously, not to mention still two more pieced together from other performances, his HBO video special filmed in Britain, and countless bootlegs traded among the faithful. It's a prolific body of work for a man cut down by pancreatic cancer at only 32 years old.

But prolific or not, Bill's message wouldn't have endured if it didn't strike a chord in people. And in the age of increased militarism and a society gone mad, it's no wonder people are digging through their records to hear how his message 10 years ago would play today. Not bad for a dead comedian.


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