In the stand-up world, to be a cerebral comic in America is to invite anonymity. In his short life, Bill Hicks extended that invitation and, more or less, it was accepted. His was hardly a household name. Instead, he settled for the tag of "a comedian's comedian" which, much like a writer's writer, translates thus: lots of respect but not much fame and even less money. More practically, it means appearing on the Letterman show one night in front of millions, and, the next, playing a dingy club in Possum Grove before 25 people double-dipped in apathy and Bud Light. Such was his career.
To chronicle it, American: The Bill Hicks Story takes a straight chronological approach, starting at birth and moving through to his death from pancreatic cancer, in the early nineties, at the very tender age of 32. For many comedians, their childhood years are a dark cliché - Lenny Bruce toddling around the strip clubs, Richard Pryor raised in a whorehouse. Not Hicks. He grew up in the relatively affluent suburbs of Houston, the youngest boy in a Southern Baptist family, and found his calling with precocious ease.
In his mid-teens, still in high school, he would sneak out the bedroom window and venture downtown to break them up at the local comedy club. Using video footage from that period, intermittent animated sequences, plus the recollections of friends and family, co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas convince us beyond a doubt that, at 15, Hicks was a real prodigy, a natural comic talent with a surprisingly mature voice. In lieu of college, he opted for graduate work in the L.A. clubs, then returned to Houston to become the biggest fish in a small pond. With Jay Leno's endorsement, national television beckoned on occasion. But so did a heavy flirtation with drugs and booze, lasting long enough to jeopardize his ambitions. On stage, as the footage shows, he was an angry drunk, with his humour turned all black and bitter.
Sobriety not only saved him from self-destruction but launched an already good mind into cerebral orbit. Yet his speed posed a problem: "Bill was moving faster than his audience." At least, the American audience. Up here in Canada, at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival, the crowds loved him, and over in Britain, where his popularity was box-office gold, he could take his act out of the clubs and into packed theatres.
Excerpts from that act show him to possess a wonderfully agile wit that was intellectually curious, politically liberal and especially fond of skewering Yankee hypocrisy (the object of his attacks had expanded from father to fatherland). For example, it could move with lightning quickness from a legal definition of pornography - "No artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts" - to this assessment of porn at its most ubiquitous: "Hmm, no artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts - sounds like every beer commercial on television." Indeed the "United States of Advertising" was a favourite target, which he took on with a delicious mix of satiric delicacy and brute force - a sniper's bullet one moment, a cannon blast the next.
But television, and the ad men who run it, got their revenge. Around the time of his cancer diagnosis, Hicks made a final appearance on the Letterman show. The taping went well but it never got to air - "They cut it", the entire stint, without telling him why. And then he died. Only recently, in 2009, Letterman played the segment and issued an apology. So, 15 years after his death, Bill Hicks enjoyed a brief national resurrection, perhaps even long enough for the audience to finally catch up with him - such is fate, and the hope, of a comedian's comedian.
American: The Bill Hicks Story
- Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
- Classification: NA