Popular Culture

Honest Bill

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In 2004 British M.P. Stephen Pound called Bill Hicks, an American stand-up comic who died of cancer at the age of 32 in 1994, "one of the few people [worthy] of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers." Judging by American: The Bill Hicks Story, a 2010 documentary available on DVD, Hicks had at least this much in common with Bruce: His "truth telling" was not all that funny, sacrificing humor for the sake of leftish social commentary.

To his credit, Hicks' anti-authoritarian instincts led him to rail against not only consumerism and organized religion but also drug prohibition, the bloated defense budget, the first Iraq war, and the deadly 1993 confrontation between federal agents and Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. But Hicks, who began his career as a remarkably poised teenager at a Houston comedy club, may have been funnier before he became the darling of left-leaning Brits eager to hear an angry American criticize the U.S. —Jacob Sullum

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  1. What a horrible review. Completely lacking in any intelligent insight or analysis. One of the main points made by the documentary is that many of today’s top comedians believe that Bill Hicks is one of the best comedians of the modern era. He was a comedian’s comedian. He has had a major influence on stand up comedy and that is why he’s important. The reason he may be interesting to Reason subscribers is his anti-authoritarian and anti-hypocrite stances. Bill Hicks had trouble breaking into the main stream due to conservative tv networks who shun most forms of social commentary. His major appearance on the David Letterman show was cancelled at the last minute because bigwigs got wind of his style of commentary. If he had been allowed the same type of exposure in the US as he had achieved in the UK then he would definitely been more successful here.

  2. Sacrificing humor. Yeah, Mark Twain was like that too. Very unfunny.

  3. @Matt — You make it sound like Hicks had only one Letterman appearance scheduled, and that he was prohibited altogether from performing. This was not the case. Hicks was on Letterman 12 times. He was able to tape the last appearance, but execs didn’t air it until after Hicks’ death.

    @Mr Sullum — I agree with Matt: A rather lazy review. Not being a comedian myself, I have no opinion on his “importance” to comic history. What I do know is, 1) Hicks earned the respect & admiration of his peers while he was living (so no claiming he’s being hallowed because he’s dead), and 2) while he did spout left-ish screeds onstage, I find it difficult to countenance he was a mere mouthpiece for UK-style nannyism as you seem to claim. I’ve recently finished watching the documentary you mention, as well as all of Hicks’ major taped performances that I could find, and I see more evidence of joke-recycling than bromide-recycling. If you don’t find Hicks all that funny, that’s fine. I didn’t find him all that funny, either, all these years later. But for the time in which he lived, he did have some great points to make which a lot of other comics wouldn’t have touched if they harbored even a strand of hope of becoming commercially successful. And I believe that, had he lived longer, his views (and his act) would have matured further and you would probably be writing about that instead of focusing on a snapshot.

  4. instincts led him to rail against not only consumerism and organized religion but also drug prohibition, the bloated defense

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