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Echoes of Laughter

Bill Hicks: Reconsidered

Before he performed for a 12th and final time on David Letterman’s show, comedian Bill Hicks had to send a copy of his routine to the show for approval. Dutifully, Hicks sanded down the edges of his jokes, removed the curse words, lightened up the dark material just enough to make it safe for TV. But his performance on Oct. 1, 1993—a tight seven minutes covering Billy Ray Cyrus, the pro-life movement, smoking, and Easter—never aired.

The producers worried the anti-religious material in Hicks’ act would upset the Late Show’s viewer base and anger its advertisers. So, they used the nuclear option and cut his appearance altogether. Viewers at home were left to wonder why the promised comedian never showed up. Within four months, Hicks would be dead from pancreatic cancer.

On January 30, 2009, the Late Show host apologized—on air—to Hicks’ mother for cutting her son’s final appearance. Then he aired the full routine.

It took David Letterman 15 years to catch up to Bill Hicks.

It’s taken the rest of us even longer.

The First Modern Man

Hicks was ahead of the American public on nearly everything. At a time when comedy clubs were the domain of goofballs in sports jackets poking fun at airline food, Hicks was a splash of cold water. From the stage, he advocated illegal drug use and decried religion. It was stuff other comedians wouldn’t touch, even the edgy ones.

While his jokes feel routine now (“Not only do I think pot shouldn’t be illegal, I think it should be mandatory.”) they were genuinely shocking in George H.W. Bush’s America. Not that controversy was ever his goal; beneath the sardonic delivery and scholarly wordplay were two sincere beliefs that informed and guided his act.

Hicks’ primary belief was in Truth. He felt obligated to speak honestly and to point out when others didn’t.

A typical routine went like this: “They lie about marijuana. Tell you pot smoking makes you unmotivated. Lie! When you’re high, you can do everything you normally do just as well—you just realize that it’s not worth the fuckin’ effort. There is a difference,” he’d say. “I know this is not a popular idea. You don’t hear it often anymore, but it’s the truth. I have taken drugs before … and I had a real good time. Sorry! Didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rob anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t beat anybody, didn’t lose one job. Laughed my ass off and went about my day. Sorry!”

Hicks’ second belief was in unifying spirituality that saw people as one. He first came to this idea on a cannabis and magic mushroom-fueled experience, but it connected with him so deeply that it became the lens through which he saw the entire world. Raised in Texas by fundamentalist Christian parents, Hicks spent his teen years searching for answers to life’s big questions that felt honest. Through his experiments with drugs, Hicks discovered a deeper truth that withstood his personal brand of uncompromising scrutiny.

From his act: “You see, Jung had this idea of a ‘collective unconscious’ which mankind shared . . . and I agree. But I think this collective mind is supposed to be conscious, not unconscious. And that it is our job as the agents of evolution to enlighten—to bring light into the dark corners of that netherworld and thus awaken our minds to truth and complete the circle that was broken with the dream of our fall from grace. And, if we evolve the idea, the planet might be more compassionate and something like heaven might dawn.”

He never performed a full set without sharing his spiritual side, but as a comic working before crowds of drunk people, he sandwiched the deep stuff between jokes. Sometimes, when he would get too involved sharing his spirituality or upbraiding the public over loving “sell outs” like Gallagher, Hicks would turn down the volume by telling the audience, “Don’t worry—there’s dick jokes on the way!”

Hicks’ primary belief was in Truth. He felt obligated to speak honestly and to point out when others didn’t.

The Lost Prophet

If there’s been a reckoning for Hicks, it’s been shallow. Many retrospectives have focused on the parts of his act that would offend people today. And it’s true: some of the language and views he expressed in the late 80s and early 90s are beyond what any respectable comic would utter now. But there’s a danger to reading a dead comic’s jokes as evidence of their true beliefs.

On stage, Hicks was the cigarette-smoking, leather-jacketed avatar of late 80s/early 90s angst. He crucified religious leaders for their hypocrisy and reserved choice words for entertainers who seemed more interested in making money than meaningful art. But he also demanded a smarter a progressive policy, lauded reading, and regularly did a bit called “goat boy” in which he pretended to be a Pan-like icon of debauchery who enjoyed nothing more than giving cunnilingus.

Most of the progressive bits get overlooked in his postmortems. Thanks to his preachy tone and 90s vocabulary, he is often labeled as one of the Angry White Man™ of yesteryear. But that’s a misreading. Hicks urged people not to take life seriously by presenting himself as someone who took it extraordinarily seriously. The depth of his emotion was the joke—something that can easily get lost without the context of his time. Hicks never winked through his belligerent demeanor the way that Lewis Black does or laughed at himself as he trotted out a ridiculous and wrong-headed statement, the way Louis C.K. does, but his sentiment was the same. He wasn’t actually angry; it was just funnier that way.

Off stage, Hicks was sober, gracious, and intelligent. He spent the last weeks of his life re-reading “The Lord of Rings” for the sheer enjoyment it gave him. Although he held opposing beliefs, he remained close to his parents all his life. Although they forbade him from performing when he was a teen, he implored them to watch one of his sets as an adult. To soften the blow, he warned his mom: “Listen to the message, not the words.”

If there was frustration in his comedy, it stemmed from what he saw as a mass delusion. Hicks railed against capitalism, entertainment, and religion as things that distracted his audience from the simple and beautiful truth that we’re all connected to and responsible for each other. He hated that culture had de-centered truth. For Hicks, the opiate of the masses should have been, well, opium. Or at least cannabis.

What he found in drugs was a chance to glimpse the bigger picture. They represented a spiritual medicine that reminded users to enjoy the ride. He knit together a career by funneling that very absurdity through the authenticity-obsessed ire of Generation X. When discussing society, he’d open with, “It’s all about money, not freedom, OK? It has nothing to do with fuckin’ freedom. If you think you’re free, try going somewhere without fucking money, OK?” Then he’d add: “It’s just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.”

 

Rewriting the Legacy

The cannabis legalization effort owes its success to legions of unsung and unremembered advocates. Bill Hicks deserves a space among its most ardent and influential supporters. Although he’s hardly referenced these days, Hicks has an outsized effect on both comedy and cannabis acceptance that went far beyond his fame. You know the old saying that only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground record, but everyone one of them started a band? Bill Hicks was like that. He’s your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian.

But what made him great wasn’t the jokes. It was how he used them in service of greater ideas. He wove public policy prescriptions and spiritual truths into his act, stealthily deploying them like thought grenades that wouldn’t explode until later. He was one of the first comedians to respect an audience enough to challenge them and try to save them at the same time.

In “Bill Hicks: Love All the People,” John Lahr describes Hicks’ sincerity in the promise of the human spirit. “The next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas. A bloodless revolution,” Hicks said. “And if I can take part in it by transforming my own consciousness, then someone else’s, I’m happy to do it.”

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