The death of William Melvin “Thanks dad!” Hicks in 1994 signalled the loss of not only a great comic talent but also the most scathing political satirist and social commentator to have emerged from America.
In the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, Hicks tore apart the myth of the American dream, marrying an acute condemnation of American foreign policy with a keen understanding of the invidious nature of mass media manipulation and the soul-destroying culture of consumerism.
Once describing himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes,” his rallying cry still resonates to this day: “Go back to bed, America! Here’s American Gladiators. Here’s 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!”
It was a message that – at the time – few Americans wanted to hear, and Hicks’ career in the States seemed like one stall and stumble after another, playing backwater venues and dives in the heartland of the country where more often than not he was met with jeers rather than cheers.
His brand of comedy with a conscience, brutal and uncompromising, was perhaps too close to the bone for many Americans – one audience member once heckled, “We don’t come to comedy to think!” to which Hicks responded instantly, “Gee! Where do you do to think? I’ll meet you there!”
Equally, his early experiences on mainstream television – particularly Late Night with David Letterman – taught him that the mainstream media wasn’t about to welcome his message in its raw, undiluted form.
Perhaps it was inevitable that he would find both the recognition and fame he deserved abroad – it was at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival and subsequent appearance at the Edinburgh comedy festival that his firebrand style was truly acknowledged, assisted greatly by British TV station Channel 4’s unexpurgated airing of his sell-out Revelations tour.
The news that he had pancreatic cancer seemed to invest Hicks in a new drive to perform and push forward new projects, including a TV series planned for Channel 4 in which the likes of Chomsky and fellow psychonaut Terence McKenna would feature as guests. Tragically, cancer took his life before he could realise his ambitions, and Hicks left this world with the words, “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
If Hicks appeared to defy categorization it is perhaps because he himself was uncertain how to define himself – poet, iconoclast, political activist, radical, philosopher and shaman are all fitting terms, yet even these are insufficient to sum up the legacy both to comedy and the world at large Bill Hicks left behind. For a while it seemed as if the one true prophet had come and gone, and despite the many imitators few comedians seemed to have the insight and spirit to fill his shoes.
But it is a mistake to cling on to icons and place them on a posthumous pedestal, no matter how much they spoke to something potent and timeless. Doing so distracts us from the here and now, where new voices speak with new messages; words which resonate with as much resonance as those of Bill Hicks twenty years ago.
Scottish comedian-turned-activist Frankie Boyle is one such voice who credits both his comedy and dedication to political justice to Bill Hicks; a fearless purveyor of truth in the guise of humour who has similarly faced ostracism from the mainstream media (a once regular face on BBC panel shows, the corporation has all but barred him from their studios).
Even when Boyle was appearing on television his attitude towards the medium was ambivalent at best. TV
“is, after all, just a shiny bauble used to distract morons while they’re having their pockets picket. I don’t actually own a telly … I found it to be brutally addictive and also just a drug I’d take without making a choice. If you want to get stoned you have to admit you want to get stoned and go find some drugs. If you want to experience the numbed high of watching two celebrities compete to see who can become the best plumber, you just drift into that hell without making a conscious decision.”
Like Bill Hicks, Frankie Boyle thought of magic mushrooms as a “tremendous thing” – and while his experiences with hallucinogenics didn’t lead to witnessing a UFO (although he does claim to have seen one, albeit not while under the influence) he nevertheless credits them with bringing about a “poetic clarity”.