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Tuesday 2nd December 2008

I have been commissioned to write a piece on Bills Hicks for Q Magazine. So I've spent today reading about him and watching clips of him on the internet and trying to work out what I can say about this remarkable comedian that has not been said before.
It reminds me a bit of being a student again and having to write an essay - except that generally at University I just copied my essays word for word from the person who did the same tutorial as me, but earlier in the week. I am not exaggerating. If the tutor realised what I was doing or noticed that if he asked me any auxiliary questions I could only flounder, he didn't say anything. To be honest I often hadn't even actually read the essay I had copied until I had to read it out in front of him. I had just written down the words in my own handwriting without paying any attention to what was actually being said. What a wasted opportunity. If I had my time again I would work harder, but of course I was spending my time writing comedy and acting in plays, which proved much more useful to me than an essay on the Lollards.
But I did work hard in the penultimate term and wrote my own stuff and writing a magazine article is a bit like that. Except you're much more conscious that you'll get into trouble if you just copy a big chunk out of a book. Unless you're Raj Persaud, who seemed to think he'd get away with it.
I like Bill Hicks and have seen most of his stuff, but I am by no means an expert on his life or material. I wouldn't peg him as a major influence, though it's clear that he has filtered into my subconscious as I've ended up going down similar routes to him at times, without really realising This piece especially owes a good deal to him. Yet then I also saw stuff for the first time today that I realised I had also explored. This response to a heckler where he claims that Hitler was an underachiever and should have killed everyone, isn't a million miles from my assertions that maybe Al Qaeda have got a point and that they should pump gas through the air conditioning system of the Westfield shopping centre. But he does seem to put voice to those horrible and wonderful thoughts that we all have about life.
You can see why he is the comedian's comedian, partly because of these furious rants that he spews out at drunken morons in his audience who aren't prepared to listen to his stuff. We've all been there and can understand his indignation and given his early demise and his brilliance it seems even more insulting that someone in his audience didn't understand what a privileged position they were in.
Any decent and thinking person has to both love and hate humanity. How's about this for a great routine?- "There's a new party being born: The People Who Hate People Party. People who hate people, come together! "No!" We're kind of having trouble getting off the boards. Come to our meeting! "Are you gonna be there?" Yeah. "Then I ain't fucking coming." But you're our strongest member! "Fuck you!" That's what I'm talking about, you asshole! Fuck off! Damn, we almost had a meeting going. It's so hard to get my people together."
But Hicks could take a subject that most comedians will tackle, like the drudgery and boredom of travelling on planes, but make something magical about it. Rather than going on about leg room or the things you're not allowed to take on to the plane he comes up with this weary, dark and brilliant thought - "Dear God help me I'm so tired...
Just so sick of airports. Sitting on planes on runways and the planes won't take off. Every time I read about a hijacking in the news I just think to myself - do it! Let’s see how far you get. I paid and didn't get off the ground. I've thought about that too. Dreamed of putting a gun to a pilot's head. That would feel so good. "This is a hijacking!"
"Where d'ya want to go, Cuba?"
"No I want to go where this plane was supposed to be five hours ago. That's right I'm hijacking this plane to its scheduled destination."
Hicks' material stays relevant fifteen years after his death, not only because of the neat and spooky coincidence that he was dealing with the first President Bush's bullying war in Iraq, but also because he addresses the human condition, rather than more obvious and hackneyed comedy targets. In fact only his jokes about New Kids on the Block or Gladiators stick out as being a bit cheap and obvious, but then I don't suppose he was expecting that every joke he did would be picked over for years (he was, as he described himself and as all comics are, at least partly "a joke-blower... blowing jokes all over the driveway"). And in some ways even these jokes about crap TV and commercial boybands have seemed to presage worse that was to come. He saw where the world was heading and it infuriated and frustrated him, just as much as the wonder and beauty of life inspired him.
Some people think that it is mainly because he died that he has become such a Messianic figure and part of his appeal is his unfulfilled promise and tragedy. It's certainly awful and unfair that he died so young and just as things were taking off for him in a big way. And perhaps if he had become a success he would have lost something of his cultish appeal. But what jars with me, now I am much older than he'd ever be, is just how brilliant and assured a comedian he was at just 32. I don't think he would have declined either. If only he'd had the chance to get older I am sure he would have only got better and better. You're still a baby when you're 32. It's stupidly, stupidly young to die.
He tried to keep working as long as he could, eschewing treatment that might have kept him going longer but made it impossible for him to perform. But I got slightly choked up by his final ever words on stage, "Colleen, are you there?" he asked, calling out to his girlfriend, before saying "I can't do this anymore."
He so wanted to carry on and yet was finally defeated and had to stop. There's a horrible poignancy to it. Tommy Cooper at least went out on a laugh, but maybe it's more apt that Hicks left the stage to tears.
The comments that are made about Hicks may seem way over the top: that he was a genius, that he was like Jesus. But I don't think the comparisons to Christ the man (rather than Christ the God) are that far out. He spoke movingly and truthfully about big subjects, even if sometimes his solutions were idealistic. Hicks, like Jesus (in my reading of the subject at least) was an iconoclast, pointing out the hypocrisy and illogicality of the world and of religion, and yet in death they both became icons. Ultimately Hicks is a comedian and it's important not to lose sight of that and turn him into something he wasn't, like the world has managed to do with Christ. But neither should we think that he's only remembered because he died young. He'd have been so much more if he'd carried on and providing (as I think we can assume) that he hadn't sold out.
Remember too that Jesus had an extra year on Hicks and did most of his best work in those last twelve months, so it's not fair to compare them. Believe me I can really understand how annoying it must have been to have put in all that work, to have got to the point where things were finally about to happen and then to have your pancreas decide that it was time to pack things in.
This is what he said about it, "On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having 'liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas'. One of life's weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I'd been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams, that it just stood me on my head for a while. 'Why me!?', I would cry out, and 'Why now!?'"
Life is stupid and unfair and brilliant and breathtaking. If only there were more people like Hicks and less of the people who heckled him.

Incidentally a few tour dates have been added. Full details here. Please book in advance to avoid disappointment.

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