Bill Hicks and the War Against Mediocrity
posted by Matthew on 6/09/02
(Thanks goes out to Cynthia True for her biography for quotes and biographical information)
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William Melvin Hicks was born in Georgia at the height of the racial conflicts of the 60's. The son of two fundamentalist Baptists, Bill was brought up in a family in which lawn care was a preeminent concern; his father would not only make him mow the law every weekend but would also take a yardstick to young Bill’s work to guarantee perfection. The Hicks’ lawn was so perfect that their neighborhood association awarded it a permanent Lawn of the Year Award. Meanwhile, Bill’s family hardly spoke about much of anything, and many nights were spent in perpetual silence.
Bill, from a very young age, thought that he was going insane, like he didn’t belong. Nothing made sense, everything seemed arbitrary and silly; he was often sure that it was he that was irreparably flawed, not the world around him. Fortunately, Bill was merely astute enough to see through the all-pervasive mediocrity of his culture; unfortunately, his lifelong struggle to prevail over that mediocrity would fail. But Bill sure gave it one hell of a shot.
“If you’re so pro-life, do me a favor–don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. Lock arms and block cemetaries.”
Bill found his inspiration in two, at first glance, very different types of artists: rock stars and stand-up comedians.
Bill was an Elvis Presley fanatic from the age of five, but he was a different type of Elvis fan than the average slavish admirer of Elvis, someone who made excuses for his herculean act of decay. Bill adored everything about Elvis, especially his Caligula From Mississippi meltdown period. Bill saw everything ignorant, backwards, and silly about the South somehow made beautiful, irresistable by Elvis’ guttural hellfire talent, his sexed-up super-mojo and idiot-savant charisma. Elvis was Bill’s connection with his upbringing, the South that was bred into him that no amount of talent could wipe away; as no amount of success could take the hick out of Elvis, Bill realized that he could never kill off Burl Hicks (his nickname for his Southern alter-ego).
However, Bill had another side to him that he could not fulfill in the world of perfect lawns and Elvis. Bill was always having peculiar thoughts, increasingly hostile criticisms of the world he lived in, and, what’s more, he seemed like the only person who had them. But when Bill first heard Woody Allen, it was a triumph: he wasn’t insane! There were other people who thought like him! Bill began to feverishly tape every comedian that he could find, trading tapes and generally doing anything necessary to hear more freethinking, intellectual yet humorous outlooks on life, which were in short supply in the deep South.
In his teenage years, Bill followed both of his loves. He formed a rock band called Stress that, more or less, was pretty awful and went nowhere. At age fourteen, he performed his first stand-up show...at Bible Camp. Half of his material was lifted from Woody Allen; no one, of course, noticed. Comedy was the pursuit he was obviously much better at, so he began working any gigs he could. By his late teens, he was a well-liked figure in the Texas comedy scene.
"George Bush says 'we are losing the war on drugs'. Well you know what that implies? There's a war going on, and people on drugs are winning it! Well what does that tell you about drugs? Some smart, creative motherfuckers on that side."
Bill, above everything else, was an addict, and not just of drugs. Bill, during his short 32 year life span, became obsessed with just about everything he encoutnered: Woody Allen, Elvis, transcendental meditation, drugs, alcohol, sobriety, AA, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, A Course in Miracles, televangelists, smoking, video games, pornography, confrontation with audience members, sex, Frank Sinatra, phone calls, ragging on David Letterman, screenwriting, life, death etc. Everything Bill did was done to the most extreme level possible; if Bill got into something, he was such a passionate person that his emotions would lead him to follow it until the very end, until he had memorized the words to every Bob Dylan song and had finished his 40 page plus typed essay against David Letterman. Bill thought moderation to be a trait of the mediocre and scared; even with masturbation and pornography, Bill never accepted anything short of total immersion. He rued the day that he would die, the day when his mom would have to clean out his apartment and find some way to understand the “Clam Lappers Volumes 1-40" box set in his room.
So, at various times in his career, you would encounter a different Bill Hicks. In his younger years, he had a psuedo-mop-top haircut and did relatively tame jokes about how he couldn’t get laid. For many years, he was Sam Kinison’s booze and cocaine buddy, staying up for days at a time and performing maniacal sets during which he would rail against the audience for hours of hilarious vitriol. Then there was the more subdued, philosophical sober years, when Bill made his first true inroads nationally. During his later years, you would encounter a ranting, feverishly inspired dervish of a comedian, a man entirely sure of his skills and even more sure of his beliefs and the need to change. What tied these disparate Bills together was a savage, insightful wit coupled with a sincere, borderline mystical belief in the need for and the feasibility of change.
What Bill thought needed change the most was American culture, the culture of mediocrity.
This Man Beat Bill Hicks For An American Comedy Award
“You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. You’re another corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang...everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink. You don’t have enough money, you fuckin’ whore?”
Bill Hicks was much too close to the American public for his own sanity; most weeks, he would work multiple shows in small, cheesy comedy clubs with names like The Laff Stop and The Chuckle House. The majority of his career was spent during the 80's “Comedy Boom,” where stand-up comedy suddenly became the thing and the number of clubs in the country doubled and tripled. Each night he would play to houses packed with yuppies and trend-followers doing the cool new thing, people who wanted to hear the same “How about that airplane food?” type of jokes and certainly didn’t feel like being challenged intellectually. Bill often became despondent, opening shows with lines like:
“I'm very tired, very tired of traveling, and very tired of doing comedy, and very tired of staring out at your vacant faces looking back at me, wanting me to fill your empty lives with humor you couldn't possibly think of yourselves. Good evening.”
Bill’s attitude coupled with the closed minds of his usually drunk audience (though Bill was just as likely to have been intoxicated) often lead to confrontations such as this charming Tête à Tête between Bill and some elderly patrons unpleased with his show:
Elderly Person #1: Potty mouth!
Elderly Person #2: You’re disgusting!
Hicks: Fuck you, you fat fucking tourists! What moron put these fat fucking tourists up front?
(As the old people begin to leave, Bill starts dancing a jig)
Bill’s comedy style hardly helped to endear him to the average Middle-America, Christian audience. Bill, usually decked out in all black, giving off a psuedo-rock star, rebel vibe, would rant and improvise on various subjects, working himself up before usually coming to an over-the-top call for change that included damning everyone in power as “suckers of Satan’s cock,” endorsing the power of drugs, and calling for universal understanding and love for humanity...all in the same sentence or two. While Bill rarely found it hard to make an audience laugh harder than it ever has before, he preferred to try to enlighten them as well, to try to make them think and analyze the world around them instead.
“The artist...inspires the audience to feel that perhaps they too can freely express their innermost thoughts with impunity, joy, and release, and perhaps discover our common bond–unique yet so similar–with each other.”
Bill had no time for phony differences between people: cultural faux pas, things that should be left unsaid, polite rules, bogus family values, and ham-fisted morality. None of that had worked in the past 2000 years. All of it was merely a smokescreen to prevent us from getting together, Bill thought; there was no harm in jokes, no harm in laughing and looking at ourselves. It was harmless, unlike geopolitics, religion, repression, war, and the rest of it. He fought against backwards ideas, prejudices, closed minds, and censorship. It was his war against mediocrity.
What was this mediocrity that was fighting against? Well, it was everywhere, from the fundamentalist Christians in the White House to Gallagher selling out arenas by smashing watermelons to the New Kids on the Block on the radio, people aspired to so little. There was no push for originality or greatness when there was comfortable, unthreatening mediocrity available that you could be force-fed by the ton without having to think or feel anything.
“Only America could produce a comic who ends his show by destroying good food with a sledgehammer. Gee, I wonder why we’re hated the world over?”
Bill’s biggest battles were against television, which he called the “biggest drug in America.” Television, of course, was also the medium he had to deal with the most, and his experiences were abysmal. Hicks generally avoided any national television exposure (he turned down numerous sitcom pilots) outside of HBO and Letterman, the former because of the lack of censorship and the latter because he liked Dave and the show. Outside of HBO, every television station and show would constantly hound Bill about content (not obscenity, mind you, but content) asking him to avoid any controversial issues and to turn down his vitriol. Characteristically, he refused to play by their rules, losing out on fame and large sums of money.
Ironically, the only place where he would consistently put up with censorship was Dave’s show. Always a Letterman fan, Bill was annoyed by having to do routine, safe material on the supposedly most edgy show on network TV, but, out of respect for Dave and the need for some type of exposure, Bill continued to appear regularly. Each time, however, he would step up the fight to be able to be himself, to challenge the audience while making them laugh.
The Letterman Battle
"Isn't this the same network that shows Full House? What are your standards exactly? Stupid to retarded?"
Things were going suspiciously well for Bill career-wise in 1993. Rolling Stone had named him “Hot Comic of the Year,” and Bill had managed to make it big in the more cerebral UK comedy scene, getting a nationally televised stand-up performance and a completely sold-out, multi-city tour. He was finally on the cusp of getting the success he had so wanted, getting the type of fame that he could use to actually open up some minds. Most suspiciously of all, Letterman’s producers had agreed to let him do his act.
Bill ran his set by The Late Show’s producers, and, to his shock, they had no problem with his jokes about pro-lifers and religion. For the first time, they gave him a go: network television was going to have a warts-and-all Bill Hicks performance.
And he killed. Letterman congratulated Bill after the set on a great performance. And then, after the show, Letterman and his producer Robert Morton decided to cut the performance in its entirety. They lied and told Bill it was a network decision that they fought against.
The controversy came quickly, with numerous entertainment rags and newspapers picking up on the story of the comedian who was too hot for Letterman. In one of those years where the salacious nature of television was much in debate, Hicks became a hot-button story. It was ironic for Hicks, who thought TV’s only problem was that it was too stupid, to suddenly become a name in America off of such a cheap, unnecessary controversy. As Bill repeated endlessly, “They’re just jokes.” In the world of the L.A. Riots and David Koresh, Bill thought of his little jokes as nothing more than quaint stabs at communal recognition and a momentary release from suffering and ignorance...certainly nothing to get worried about.
Nonetheless, over seven book publishers enquired about signing Bill up for a deal, and The Nation invited Bill to do a regular column alongside writers such as Noam Chomsky. Most importantly, a British production company had finally agreed to produce a pilot of his ultimate dream, his biggest strike against mediocrity: Counts. Counts was a concept of Bill and his friend Fallon, a talk show where the two friends would interact with the foremost intellectual minds of the day and talk about issues, ideas, beliefs, anything at all, all while keeping the proceedings humorous. It would be a modern-day recreation of the salons of the Enlightenment, a place where men like Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, and Stephen Hawking would have a chance to influence the minds of a nation without a TV producer asking, as they often did in Bill’s routines, “But does it have titty?” In other words, it would be an oasis from mediocrity, one small step away from the chasm of safety and conformity.
Unfortunately, Bill would not live to tape the Counts pilot. For all of 1993, Bill had been suffering greatly from pancreatic cancer, the most lethal form of cancer. Through the entire Letterman fiasco, through his sudden American fame, through his discussions with book publishers and TV producers, he knew, all too well, that he was on borrowed time. Then again, an opportunity to affect people was worth ignoring death.
By early 1994, however, it was too much to ignore. Performing had become an impossibility, and, in a shocking move, Bill returned home to his family, blocking out friends and his girlfriend. Bill, a reluctant Southerner to his last, was honest, and he wanted to die the same way he was born: in the middle of nowhere, with only his two parents who didn’t understand him and never could. It was a perfect circle to Bill, and he saw nothing to be gained by having his friends watch him slowly deteriorate into nothing.
The last weeks of Bill Hicks’ life were spent with simple pleasures, talking religion with his devout parents and betting his brother $500 that he could get their dad to trip on mushrooms. Bill died before he could win the bet, before he could cash in on his fame, and before the Counts pilot taped.
Bill, in an essay he wrote from the intensive care unit, had this to say:
“The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers, and non-participants in the true agenda of our governments–which is to keep us separate, and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems...Just stay asleep America, keep watching TV.”
There never was an unresolvable problem to Bill Hicks, and, no matter the suffering and odds, Bill never balked at an opportunity to bring people together, to somehow use the truth to make real the idealistic visions in his head. Of course, his eventual visions were farfetched, but Bill only hoped to make the world around him a little smarter, a little more aware, a little bit more free. While many people as gifted as Bill withdraw from the world around them, from the nitty gritty, Bill embraced those flaws and his opponents, dragged himself from tacky comedy club to unforgiving tacky comedy club, forced himself to undergo derision and hatred. Why? Because he legitimately, sincerely loved his fellow man, and he could not see any reason not to try to make things better.
The final lines of that essay were:
“Heaven is a win/win situation. There is nothing to fear.”
Bill Hicks, still relatively unknown, died at age 32 in Little Rock, Arkansas, his simple parents at his bedside. It was February 26, 1994, the dawning days of the Newt Gingrich era. If there is such thing as an afterlife, one can only imagine that Bill was mightily pissed off at the missed opportunities.
Contract with America? Is that a pentagram I see by the dotted line?”
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