I Don’t Get Bill Hicks

American: The Bill Hicks Story, a documentary about the late stand-up comedian, premiered a couple of weeks ago at South by Southwest. No telling when it’ll hit Minneapolis, where limited-release pictures often arrive without warning and sometimes don’t stay for more than a few nights. But by itself the film’s trailer provoked the same reaction in me that Hicks’ material has in the past–the slight anxiety you can feel after failing to appreciate an artist or work that you’ve repeatedly heard great things about. As American’s trailer makes clear, Hicks was a passionate, influential, and morally lucid performer. His unwillingness to compromise eventually made him a comedy legend, though it kept him on the margins of show business during his lifetime. I can appreciate all this. What I haven’t been able to appreciate is what exactly was so funny.

The most distinctly American thing about his act seems to be his belligerent delivery, which comes through even in pleas for kindness and reason. Hicks’ abrasiveness is part of what many love about his performances—he didn’t pander, posture, or otherwise make concessions. If that’s a sign of a great artist, or the greatest conviction an artist can have, I’m not willing to argue the point. Even so, watching Hicks’ routines is an exercise in cognitive dissonance for me. His stand-up is so widely praised that I almost take its excellence for granted, but still tend to mistake it for lousy comedy upon viewings—overly aggressive and overly direct. (Kurt Vonnegut, a humorist and truth-teller whose work meant a lot to me during late adolescence, could be as blunt as Hicks sometimes, but at least with Vonnegut we get time travel and humans evolving into seals.)

My issues with Bill Hicks might be generational, and his act something you just had to be there for. Comedy that’s tied very closely to its time, weak or strong, doesn’t always age well, and his bits often related to issues of the day. (Like with Lenny Bruce before him, it’s obvious that Hicks’ words once sounded dangerous, even if you don’t always laugh at them.) Still, Hicks clearly influenced many of his contemporaries and the comedians that came after him. David Cross’ act, with its animated, politically unambiguous diatribes, owes a lot to Hicks (so does Denis Leary, who seems to have stolen a lot of material from Hicks outright). So his stand-up at least ought to feel somehow familiar, right?

It might be that any appraisal of Hicks by people like me, who weren’t there, suffers most from what Bill Hicks reminds us of outside the realm of comedy. More people in the public eye seem to voice their opinions in shouts now than twenty years ago. Screaming to be heard doesn’t seem at all unique, and more to the point, it’s probably something we need less, not more, of. Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, or the mutants who verbally attacked Barney Frank and John Lewis last weekend aren’t a part of Hicks’ legacy, but the public discourse does seem less mannered than it was when Hicks was alive. Today, a performer like him wouldn’t seem like a rarity today—just another contributor to the static. Blame twenty-four hour cable news?

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