Patton Oswalt on Bill Hicks

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, the greatest comic of his generation and, in my view, one of the four or five greatest of all time. Patton Oswalt, one of the best comics of the present generation, wrote about it. Coincidentally, the first part of it was something I had just said to someone myself just hours before I read this:

I never thought Lenny Bruce was funny.

I am very aware of how important he was. But his stuff never made me laugh.

He was just…before my time. Too too soon for me, and me born too too late. Growing up on Bill Cosby and George Carlin and Richard Pryor and then Steve Martin and Monty Python – all of them, and so many more – I couldn’t go back and listen to Lenny Bruce with new ears. I knew enough about history, about the sterile, cultural neck brace that America wore in the late 50’s and early 60’s, to realize just how revolutionary and foolhardy and essential Lenny Bruce was, but…

…he never made me laugh.

I’ve been saying exactly the same thing for years. Lenny Bruce broke new ground, opened doors, paved the way and other metaphors. He just wasn’t funny to me. Hicks, on the other hand, did all those things and he was funny enough to make you feel like you’d been punched in the gut.

By the time Bill Hicks started doing stand-up comedy, the form itself had calcified into the comfortable, brick-wall-and-two-drink-minimum that all of America saw on basic cable all through the 80’s. The feats of derring-do that Bruce and Carlin did with language in the 60’s and 70’s had become crass wordplay. Dick Gregory’s gentle yet explosive racial truth-telling had soured into facile “white people/black people” comparisons. Cosby realized, to his horror, that his opening the door for comedians who just happened to be black created a generation of comedians who only talked about being black. The same fate befell Pryor – he’d opened a door that led to a deeper emotional freedom for performers who followed him, yet most of them never went deeper than saying, “motherfucker” constantly. And Steve Martin’s meta-textual commentary on smarmy, shallow comedians created a new breed of…smarmy, shallow comedians. Barrier-breaking, darkness, risk and danger had all been co-opted, and any taste the audience had for the new had been dulled by a thousand baskets of mozzarella sticks and an ocean of over-priced blender drinks.

Which is what makes Bill Hicks’ achievement all the more miraculous, when you put his comedy into the context of the time he did it. Lenny Bruce had to punch through an icy wall of Eisenhower-era repression. But Bill Hicks had to make his voice heard through the amorphous, ever-shifting fog of Reagan-era comfort and complacency. Comedy club audiences in the 80’s actually thought they were being revolutionary and dangerous, listening to a sport-coated, sleeves-rolled-up comedian railing against the absurdities of airplane food, the plot holes on Gilligan’s Island and the differences between cats and dogs. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, laying down world-saving truths in the pages of disposable stroke magazines, Bill Hicks was trying to light the way into the 21st century – on the stained-carpet stages of strip mall chuckle huts, usually following a juggler.

That is the best description of late 80s/early 90s comedy I’ve ever heard. And so absolutely true. That time is often referred to as the comedy boom, when every cable channel had its own comedy show (Evening at the Improv, Comedy on the Road, Half Hour Comedy Hour, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, Comic Strip Live, etc) and every other bar and bowling ally had at least a comedy night and often full of stand up. But all that TV comedy meant that those who went to the comedy clubs were expecting to see sanitized, pre-packaged, safe jokes — “Hey, what part of the chicken is the mcnugget anyway?” The incredible popularity of comedy meant a whole lot of people doing it who really weren’t that talented (me included, incidentally) or committed to the craft. It also meant that doing really interesting, challenging material was even more difficult because you were playing to a mass audience of suburbanites.

None of us is ever going to hang out with Bill Hicks, ever again. I never did, not really. Does this desire for closeness to Bill come from the gut-wrenching fact that the frenzied lead-up to and vertiginous arrival of the 21st century happened without Bill Hicks commenting on it? The O.J. trial, the Lewinsky scandal, the explosion of the internet, the 2000 election, the collapsing of the Towers. Everything.

I can’t tell you how many times over the last 20 years I’ve thought, “Damn, I wish Hicks were alive to talk about this.” Imagine how much fun he would have had with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. If I’m starting a Mt. Rushmore of comedy I’m starting with three faces: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. All three are gone now and the world is much poorer for it.

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  • Donovan

    That comedians are sometimes the philosophers of our age gives me hope for the world.

  • theschwa

    I love Patton. I love Bill. I love that Patton referenced Kilgore Trout and Vonnegut. Now I extra love Patton. But in a purely heterosexual, GOP-approved way.

  • barry21

    Not sure if I’m veering too far off-subject, but Tig Notaro’s “cancer set”, released on iTunes, etc. under the name “Live” changed comedy for me. I think the word “brave” is applied to art and artists far too often, but is apt in Tig’s case.

    I believe that Louis C.K. put pressure on her to release the recording, and even if he weren’t one of the Mt. Rushmore (is he ever!) comedians, he would rightly be remembered for doing so.

  • barry21

    I once saw an interview with John Cusack where he described reading the script for “Being John Malcovich” as being equivalent to seeing Monty Python for the first time. I think he meant that the script was so innovative and bizarre that he got a sense that something brand new was being added to comedy. That’s how I feel about Tig’s “Live”. BJM is a fucking outstanding movie, too.

  • pocketnerd

    If I’m starting a Mt. Rushmore of comedy I’m starting with three faces: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks.

    Mr. Brayton, your taste in comedy is impeccable (that is, it agrees with mine). Just out of curiosity, who’s your fourth?

  • Ed Brayton

    Tig Notaro is brilliant.

    I don’t know who the 4th face on my Mt. Rushmore would be. A case could be made for Cosby, I think. And I really think we’re in a renaissance in comedy at the moment, with more unique, hilarious and original comedians at the top of their game right now than at any time I’ve been alive. Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Doug Stanhope, Dana Gould. I think any of them could end up on my Mt. Rushmore. Right now I’d have to say Stanhope just because of the sheer volume of great material he’s put out, though Patton and Louis are doing the same thing.

  • Michael Heath

    I never found Lenny Bruce funny either. I did know prior to listening to him why he was so respected. But that didn’t help. I concluded it was me, that you had to be there.

    It’s the same with The Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I never got it, and that’s in spite of my loving some of the Beatles’ earlier albums and being a once ardent student of rock history. I love a handful of songs, but I can think of several dozens of albums I’d far prefer listening to than this one.

  • Michael Heath

    My Mt. Rushmore has Jonathan Winters and George Carlin on it. I thought Steven Wright would make it but I got burnt out on him after a few years of exposure.

    Perhaps this is a category error but I still go back and re-read my Far Side books by Gary Larsen.

  • dan4

    *Shrugs at mention of George Carlin*. I feel the same way about Carlin that you (“you” meaning Ed) do about Lenny Bruce.

  • had3

    I’m often reminded of A.E. Housman’s To An Athlete Dying Young when I remember the greats who have passed too soon.