Perhaps no American comedian’s material has remained so relevant for so long after his death like that of Bill Hicks. Twenty-two years since he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, Hicks’ jokes slice through the bullshit of everyday reality in our country’s culture and politics with the brutality of a Maximilian Robespierre.
Hicks paraded the tyrant hypocrisy through the town square and past the gawking masses like the eternal enemy it is, kneeling it down in the guillotine and dropping the curved blade of his wit with an efficiency and finality that left the target’s head staring blankly in shock and rolling to the feet of those over whom it once held sway.
This morning, I somehow remembered today to be the anniversary of his death. Not long after, I was scrolling through YouTube, clicking and sampling his various routines. I’ve heard every one of them it seems like hundreds of times. The first times, I would double over, literally, with laughter, astonished that a man had existed who could so perfectly encapsulate my opinionated frustrations and render them hilarious.
Bill plied his craft masterfully. He treated his audience like the Big Fish, baiting out a tasty morsel, letting the bite come, setting the hook, and then the game was on: a slow reeling in that despite any resistance left you flopping helplessly on the boat of his worldview as he clunked you over the head with a club universal truth.
He knew when his audience was tugging away, when the braid mono might break, and he’d let the line out.
“There are dick jokes on the way, folks,” he’d assure. “That’s how it works. I editorialize for forty-five minutes, the last fifteen minutes we all pull our chutes and float down to Dick Joke Island together.”
Other times, after going on a particularly profane rant against mindless, established orders, Hicks would pause, and then… “I’m also available for children’s parties, by the way.”
In truth, Bill’s act would typically start with the dick jokes, not end with them. The old comedy wisdom is that you have to make your audience laugh in the first 30 seconds to drop the bait, before you can set the hook. Bill knew he couldn’t dive into existential musings, religious mockery and blistering political commentary right off the jump. ‘Better to butter everyone up with some dick jokes first.
He’d start off fairly innocuous.
“I saw a sign on the side of the road in Tennessee once that said ‘dirt for sale’…what a great country we live in. DIRT for sale. How would you like to get inside that guys mind and look around for a hour? That guy sees opportunity at every glance, doesn’t he? It’s a big world for this gentleman. ‘Oh my god, honey! Honey quit servin’ waffles and come here baby. I’m gunna sell dirt! Look it’s everywhere. You need it for our planet, honey!’ The place was called Land Land.”
Then he’d take it up a notch with an issue that could start to divide people.
“What I do, and I know all smokers do this. You know how every cigarette pack has a different surgeon general’s warning on it? How cool. Mine say, ‘Smoking may cause fetal injury or premature birth.’ …Fuck it. I found my brand! Just don’t get the ones that say, ‘Lung Cancer,’ ya know, shop around. Hell gimme a carton of them Low Birth Weights.”
Pretty soon the theme became obvious: Bill couldn’t stand stupidity, and he saw it everywhere.
“I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country; since about 1980, coincidentally enough. … I was in Nashville, Tennessee, and after the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, but I was hungry. And I’m sitting there eating and reading a book. I don’t know anybody, I’m alone, so I’m reading a book. The waitress comes over to me like, [gum smacking] ‘What’chu readin’ for?’ I had never been asked that. Not ‘What am I reading?’ but ‘What am I reading for?’ Goddammit, you stumped me. Hmm, why do I read? I suppose I read for a lot of reasons, one of the main ones being so I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress.”
Remember, this was his material in 1990. He could’ve done the same act today.
On Iraq: “Those guys [in the Persian Gulf War] were in hog heaven, man. They had a weapons catalog, ‘What’s G-12 do, Tommy?’ ‘Says here it destroys everything but the fillings in their teeth, helps pay for the war effort.’ ‘Well, shit, pull that one up!’ ‘Pull up G-12, please.’ [sound of a missile launch, several beats, then an explosion] ‘…Cool. What’s G-13 do?'”
On Bush, George H.W. Bush: “People often ask me where I stand politically. It’s not that I disagree with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy, it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.”
On Rush Limbaugh: “Speaking of Satan, I was watching Rush Limbaugh the other day. Doesn’t Rush Limbaugh remind you of one of those gay guys that like to lie in a tub while other guys pee on him?”
But then he’d break it down, and that’s where what Bill was really all about would shine through.
“Folks, it’s time to evolve. That’s why we’re troubled. You know why our institutions are failing us, the church, the state, everything’s failing? It’s because, um – they’re no longer relevant. We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs. You do know that, right? There’s another 90 percent of our brains that we have to illuminate.”
As I was listening to Bill’s routines (for the umpteenth time) this morning, this is what impressed me: His ability to inspire me over and over again with his philosophical prowess, not just his wit, 15 years after I first learned who he was.
“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people… But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love.”
It seems to me that in American in 2016 we are once again facing a very clear choice between fear and love.
The week before he died, Bill wrote a message that concluded, “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
In this pivotal election year, I’d like to invoke Bill’s spirit, and abide in truth, in laughter and in love.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.