Legendary Comedian Bill Hicks Was Definitely a Legend, but Was He a Comedian?
Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it’s asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.
Bill Hicks was undoubtedly a massive influence on contemporary standup comedy. The impact of his confrontational style can be seen in countless comedians today, from David Cross to Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron to Denis Leary. Because of this inarguable influence and the high regard in which others hold him, I’ve attempted on several occasions to appreciate Hicks’s material. Each time I listen to it, I have the same reaction: Yes, I agree with most of what you’re saying, but… Where are the jokes? Where’s the comedy?
After trying time and again to figure out just why everyone respects him, I realized I had made a mistake: I was looking to laugh. Bill Hicks was a smart, impassioned man who used comedy to educate people. But he was not a comedian, and he should not be remembered as such.
For all Hicks’ influence on comedy, the comedians who remember him rarely focus on his actual humor. Richard Pryor called him “an inspired and inspiring truth teller, dangerous and brave and scary, all at once.” Simon Pegg said, “Bill Hicks wasn’t just a comic, he was a crusader against humanity’s relentless capacity to underachieve.” Even non-comedians, those you’d expect to look beyond the craft and simply enjoy the jokes, ignore Hicks’ humor. Fellow iconoclast Tom Waits said Hicks was a “blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer, and brain specialist. He will correct your vision. Others will drive on the road he built.” While many comedians cite Hicks as an influence. few remember him as someone who made them laugh.
Everyone considers Hicks a comedian because of context: He performed in comedy clubs and released comedy albums, and comedians keep his comedic legacy alive. However, by definition, a comedian is a performer whose act is designed to elicit laughs. Let’s check out one of those classic Hicks zingers: “As long as one person lives in darkness then it seems to be a responsibility to tell other people.” Insightful, but certainly not the work of a performer whose goal is to make people laugh.
Not that Hicks tried to claim otherwise. Once heckled by a man who said he didn’t go to comedy shows to think, Hicks responded, “Gee! Where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there!” There’s little comedy in his routine because Hicks didn’t care about being funny. He cared about enlightening others, and he used comedy to do so. Listen to him rail against marketing:
The audience laughs despite Hicks repeating his earnestness. “There’s no joke here whatsoever,” he tells them.
To Hicks, comedy was more than a weapon against the evils of the world; it was a means to enlighten others, like on the possibilities of drug use (starting at 1:29):
Just as Hicks educated his audience about the inhumanity of marketing, here he teaches them about the positive side of drugs. Take away his news story joke structure, and you find Hicks sharing a truly enlightened experience:
“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.”
Hicks added jokes to make messages like these palatable to a larger audience. As a noted nanny-philosopher once said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Bill Hicks died young, forever immortalized as that passionate voice of reason in an otherwise confused and corrupted world. Had Hicks lived on, he might have created his variation of Real Time with Bill Maher, where he could drop the pretense of performing comedy and focus on the issues he valued. Or he might have found a home in podcasts, as Pete Holmes suggested on a recent episode of You Made It Weird, since the free-form medium doesn’t “require a laugh every three to five seconds.” But even if Hicks had instead aged into mediocrity, he would remain an inspiration to comics because he helped destroy preconceived notions of what standup could be. Unlike those he inspired, however, Hicks valued educating his audience over making them laugh. Which makes sense, because he wasn’t really a comedian.
If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.
Justin Geldzahler considers himself a comedian because one time milk came out his nose and two kids laughed. He has since retired.