Bill Hicks is perhaps the most talented comedian the United States has ever produced. With Steven Wright’s intelligence, Robin Williams’ momentum and Richard Pryor’s timing, he could have played to stadiums, lined his bank account and become a major Hollywood star. Instead he lived and died a polished middle finger, one giant fuck-you forever seething at the established order. That someone so uniquely apt to make people laugh would frequently eschew that gift to deliver pointed monologues defending rights to burn the American flag runs counterintuitive to the very instinct that drew most comedians to stand-up, but for Bill Hicks, pleasing the audience was never the goal. He could win them over in a second with a clever joke or an amusing anecdote, but if it wasn’t rife with social commentary, what the hell was the point?
The point, for Bill Hicks, was to make the audience think, and he did that by making them laugh. It would be tempting to lump him in with the so-called political comics, but his scathing words weren’t about advocating a political party or playing to one side of the spectrum. Bill Hicks was a man, who quite simply, didn’t think his country was on the right path. He couldn’t understand why we spent billions on weapons or why ignorant Wafflehouse waitresses would ask him why he was reading. Sober nearly all his life apart from one spell in which he lived like John Belushi, Bill Hicks channeled his energies into questioning every single preconceived notion society told him. He embraced some and used his position as a comic to rant against the others. It’s easy to shit on everything the world holds dear, but Bill Hicks was better than that. He knew love and family were ideals worth living for and tyranny and ignorance were blights worth fighting against. Ultimately, he died zealously clinging to all he fought for, one of the greatest goddamn patriots this country has ever seen. Just how he got there is told in American: The Bill Hicks Story.
Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock’s brilliant documentary is absent many of the trappings normally at home in retrospective retellings of visionary lives. It’s not interested in examining Bill Hicks’ influence on other comedians or letting famous faces insert themselves into his life story. There are no montages set to catchy music or a sensationalizing of his career trajectory. American: The Bill Hicks Story is quite simply an exhaustive chronicle of how the comedian morphed from a talented adolescent athlete into the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking prophet screaming at advertising executives to go kill themselves. Told by his family, closest friends and unknown Houston comedians, the film is rich with early performance footage and strikingly honest, even when it comes to boozing and drug use.
It’s impossible to understand Bill Hicks’ journey as both a comic and a man without discussing his drug use. In fact, it could be argued his drug use or lack thereof is the one single element which chops his performance style into four distinct phases. Clean cut and eager to please audiences, pre-alcoholic Bill Hicks began performing stand-up comedy while he was still in high school. By nineteen, he was a regular, alongside Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno at the comedy store, but he soon grew tired of his own act which he found boring. In need of some new material, he headed back to Texas and for the first time in his life, began drinking heavily and taking mushrooms. At first, it did wonders. With a new outlook and a tipsy freedom, the freewheeling Bill Hicks many are familiar with started appearing for the first time. He openly talked of boozing and getting high, started advocating education and lamenting the loss of personal freedoms, but eventually, those governmental shoutings turned into drunken, incomprehensible tirades. His behavior became erratic, and his reputation suffered greatly until he woke up one morning and gave it all up. Sober but still with his acidic tongue, he moved to New York and spent the last six years of his life tirelessly working on his act, reconnecting with his family and pushing audiences to think for themselves.
Pancreatic cancer took Bill Hicks at the age of thirty-three. I wish I could tell you he died beloved, but people like Bill Hicks don’t die beloved. They leave untarnished legacies of fevered aggression that double as calls to action for the few who care enough to listen. Other comedians mark their footprints with culturally-relevant hand signs like the shocker or notable phrases like “you might be a redneck if…”. Bill Hicks didn’t will society any of that shit. His contribution is one of independent thinking and intellectual aggression. Be accountable to yourself. Contribute, don’t take from. Hold your family close. And never, under any circumstances, blindly accept what someone else tells you is right because this life is a fucking amusement ride that could end at any second. It’s yours, make of it what you will.
There are surely more seasoned and well-crafted documentaries that will be released this year, but none of them will make you think like American: The Bill Hicks Story. Embrace it, love it, hate it, despise it, just make up your own goddamn mind. That’s all Bill Hicks ever wanted anyway.