Today marks 20 years since the death of comic Bill Hicks.
It's tough to describe the impact that Hicks's humor, insight and general brilliance -- to say nothing of his special brand of optimistic misanthropy -- had on a good portion of my generation. Thankfully, Patton Oswalt has been able to put the feelings of many into words through his own personal take on the legacy of Bill Hicks.
By the time Bill Hicks started doing stand-up comedy, the form itself had calcified into the comfortable, brick-wall-and-two-drink-minimum that all of America saw on basic cable all through the 80’s. The feats of derring-do that Bruce and Carlin did with language in the 60’s and 70’s had become crass wordplay. Dick Gregory’s gentle yet explosive racial truth-telling had soured into facile “white people/black people” comparisons. Cosby realized, to his horror, that his opening the door for comedians who just happened to be black created a generation of comedians who only talked about being black. The same fate befell Pryor – he’d opened a door that led to a deeper emotional freedom for performers who followed him, yet most of them never went deeper than saying, “motherfucker” constantly. And Steve Martin’s meta-textual commentary on smarmy, shallow comedians created a new breed of…smarmy, shallow comedians. Barrier-breaking, darkness, risk and danger had all been co-opted, and any taste the audience had for the new had been dulled by a thousand baskets of mozzarella sticks and an ocean of over-priced blender drinks.
Which is what makes Bill Hicks’ achievement all the more miraculous, when you put his comedy into the context of the time he did it. Lenny Bruce had to punch through an icy wall of Eisenhower-era repression. But Bill Hicks had to make his voice heard through the amorphous, ever-shifting fog of Reagan-era comfort and complacency. Comedy club audiences in the 80’s actually thought they were being revolutionary and dangerous, listening to a sport-coated, sleeves-rolled-up comedian railing against the absurdities of airplane food, the plot holes on Gilligan’s Island and the differences between cats and dogs. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, laying down world-saving truths in the pages of disposable stroke magazines, Bill Hicks was trying to light the way into the 21st century – on the stained-carpet stages of strip mall chuckle huts, usually following a juggler...
None of us is ever going to hang out with Bill Hicks, ever again. I never did, not really. Does this desire for closeness to Bill come from the gut-wrenching fact that the frenzied lead-up to and vertiginous arrival of the 21st century happened without Bill Hicks commenting on it? The O.J. trial, the Lewinsky scandal, the explosion of the internet, the 2000 election, the collapsing of the Towers. Everything.
Luckily, Bill Hicks’ influence and legacy is more focused and active than what Bruce, Carlin, Cosby, Gregory, Pryor and Martin wrought. Because even now, on countless, stained-carpet stages, and a galaxy of grainy YouTube channels, the same righteous, exasperated wonder with this new millennium – and the same weary love that Bill Hicks had for all of humanity – is making itself heard. We can’t ever have Bill Hicks again, but there’s time enough, and talent enough, to walk through the doors he opened.
Hicks was one of a kind.
Do yourself a favor and carve out an hour of your day and watch this: Bill Hicks's 1993 HBO special "Revelations," live from London.