The late Bill Hicks always reminded me of Johnny Cash — perhaps it’s a combination of the black suit, Southern twang, and onstage chain smoking (some of his best bits are about whiny non-smokers). Plus, in his HBO special, he wears a cowboy hat. Both Hicks, a Texan, and Cash, an Arkansasian, seemed to tap into that uniquely Southern vein of Americanism that is equal parts idealism and rage; none of your New York-style flippant irony here.
But while Cash enjoyed mainstream success and lived to a ripe old age, Hicks died at 32 and achieved only moderate fame in the U.S., where he’s known as a “comedian’s comedian,” which, as far as I can tell, is usually code for “too smart.”
And Hicks wasn’t just intellectual, he was anti-anti-intellectual. His brutal savaging of fundamentalist Christians and slack-jawed Waffle House waitresses played better in the UK, where to this day he frequently tops the polls of favorite comedians. The contrast was pretty grim; Hicks once cracked about going straight from playing an adoring full house in Ireland, on a stage that had also hosted Oscar Wilde, to trying to coax a laugh from a listless group of 25 at “Adolf’s Comedy Bunker” in Illinois.
So it’s fitting that a new documentary on his life, American: The Bill Hicks Story, is produced and directed by two Brits. The filmmakers, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, have billed American as an “animated documentary,” which turns out to mean the film basically uses lots of still photographs of Hicks and his friends and his house and his car as quasi-puppets — sort of like Terry Gilliam’s work, but not quite as good or weird as that.
I respect the directors for attempting to mix up the traditional documentary film approach, as the Ken Burns-style “pan across a picture, talking head, pan across a picture” rhythm does get kind of formulaic. But there were times, especially in the first half-hour, which is basically all animation, where it got a bit cheesy. When Hicks’ childhood friend and early collaborator Dwight Slade describes receiving a letter from Hicks, the pages appear on the screen and wriggle about like they’re caught in the wind.
Overall, the animated parts feel overenthusiastic, like when I used iMovie’s star wipe feature for every transition in my 8th grade video report on Galileo. In American, the animation works in a few instances; mostly the scenes where Hicks and his friends are all tripping on mushrooms.
But the movie really gets going once Hicks starts talking, and it gets going good. Harlock and Thomas have curated a lot of great videos of early performances from his days in Houston and other small clubs across the country.
My favorite of these early bits of material is a lengthy soliloquy Hicks delivers soon after a breakup, an excruciatingly detailed fantasy of the terrible life he wishes on his ex-girlfriend, which involves her living in a trailer surrounded by clouds of AIDS-infected mosquitoes and an eventual death from choking on vomit. It is a truly transcendent symphony of bitterness.
But there’s also a great deal of sweetness in the movie, too: home movies of Hicks playing with his nieces and nephews and joking around on vacation, and eulogies from those who knew him best.
It’s a shame that Hicks’ life was cut prematurely short by pancreatic cancer, because you can see all kinds of potential for something even greater. Many articles have been written about Jon Stewart’s ability to use comedy as a platform for advocacy, but he definitely wasn’t the first. During the U.S. government’s raid on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco in 1993, Hicks drove out to film the siege. He would later rage about how the mainstream press wouldn’t show the footage of the U.S. government clearly setting fire to David Koresh’s compound, contrary to the official account, which claims the Branch Davidians self-immolated. If Hicks hadn’t died, one can envision him taking on a role as a more radical counterpart to Stewart’s genial everyman.
What’s more, the American idiocy that Hicks railed against hasn’t really changed in the last two decades: there’s still a large contingent of mouth-breathers that want to teach Creationism in schools, bomb the hell out of countries we armed when it was politically convenient to do so, and make it a crime to burn the flag. Hicks’ comedy is still frighteningly relevant; all you have to do is replace the New Kids on the Block references with Justin Bieber. And these days, when the Daily Show/Bill Maher brand of acerbic, smart satire is both popular and widely accessible, Hicks might have found a large following in America at last.
The only difference is he probably wouldn’t be allowed to smoke onstage.
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