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.
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.