Sunday, August 21, 2005

The 53-Minute Crucifixion of Bill Hicks

As a complete comedy aficionado, having been a hardcore fan of Lenny Bruce since I was twelve years old, buying Lenny Bruce and George Carlin cassettes and albums instead of those released by Corey Hart, Duran Duran, and all the other tripe my generation considered to be the coitus of the moment, it's a testament to the obscurity in which Bill Hicks languished that I never heard about him until a few years after he was dead. He was exactly the kind of comedian I would have sought out, but luckily network television blacked him out completely, and thus spared North American society a wave of panic that might have matched or surpassed that which Orson Welles achieved with his War of the Worlds radio spectacular in the 1930's.

To say that Bill Hicks was funny is like saying that Mount Everest is tall.

In the documentary Totally Bill Hicks comedians like Jay Leno and Richard Jeni and Brett Butler speak of Hicks reverently, as though they were loved and admired by Hicks, as though they dwelled among his inner circle, which is absolutely not true. Bill Hicks despised Jay Leno. In one of his final shows, Hicks did a masterfully funny routine in which he and his buddies have a pool regarding which guest will prompt Jay Leno to finally commit suicide onair. One friend bet it would be Patrick Duffy. Bill Hicks was sure it would be Joey Lawrence. Then he fantasized about the night both Patrick Duffy and Joey Lawrence were guests, and Jay took out a gun and blew his brains out, blood and cranial matter forming an NBC peacock on the wall behind him.

Watching those tepid comedians talk about Bill Hicks was like watching Pharisees eulogize Jesus Christ.

Richard Jeni was particularly pathetic. I've seen his act numerous times on television and the man is the very definition of mediocrity; the kind of banal shit Bill Hicks loathed and ranted against. Jeni explained how seeing Bill Hicks' act, comedians stood back and thought, "Jeez, I really should be doing more of this sort of thing -- telling the truth." Yeah, Richard Jeni, deciding to tell the truth is just such a whimsical, easy decision, like making the choice between buying a pack of Certs or Mentos. And ultimately as relevant to the likes of you.

This morning I watched a most painful and poignant performance by Bill Hicks. The audio recording of this Chicago performance goes by the title I'm Sorry Folks and the bootleg video is referred to as "The Infamous Chicago Show." During this particular performance, Bill was having a bad night. Having endured a legion of bad days at work, my sympathies immediately went out to Hicks. He's on the stage, things are clearly not gelling, and to make matters worse members of the audience are heckling him. It's not that Bill Hicks couldn't handle hecklers, but these people hit him from a point of view that was like cryptonite for Bill -- the lame, moronic mewlings of peons drunk and on the town, 9-to-5-ers on a Saturday night hurling verbal bile balloons that wouldn't pass muster in any schoolyard of note.

"You suck," one drunk bitch belches. To this Bill Hicks laid on her a rant, a smoking, sulfur-stenched condemnation that I'm sure few human beings could have survived. He pronounced her a "drunk cunt," and proceeded to encourage her to leave, to go see someone good like Madonna, to go out and find a soul. He proclaimed this heckler to be everything about America that should be flushed down the toilet. It was relentless, and to my mind, completely justified on the part of Hicks.

But the heckles continued from the drunk bitch woman, from some necktied yuppie, and from some wastoid in the back of the room who incessantly and inexplicably shouted "Free bird." Hicks responded with another rant in which he screamed, "Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever!"

To Bill's credit, he didn't let the goatherd of peons beat him. He threatened to leave the stage, but didn't. He was going to out-wait his audience, drive them out of the place. In the midst of this bad night, this painful performance, Bill rallies more than a few times and runs through material that's as hilarious as anything found in performances where things were going well.

This footage is so illustrative of how authentic creatives are harassed and kicked by assholic cretins. I mean, there was Bill Hicks, the most cutting edge, incisive, creative, intelligent satirists of his time, and there before him is a goatherd of stiffs who would have been just as happy if Gallagher or Carrot Top had taken the stage. Bill Hicks, genius, throttled into anguish by a horde of faceless "consumers"; the sort to whom marketers pander, and for whom albums by Michael Bolton, Wham, Britney Spears, Billy Ray Cyrus are released and sell millions of copies.

It's literally footage of Philistines flogging a prophet.

I dug this performance out of my archives because I suffered a dance with mediocrity and ignorance in the past week. It was painful, ugly, and left me stinging like a man-of-war had tried mating with my leg. A friend of mine and I attempted to collaborate on a screenplay. We've spent the last five years doing a weekly Movie Night, and two months ago joined a film club whose goal is to write and produce a feature length film in the next three to four months. My friend is not a writer, but I looked forward to collaborating with him because he's got killer funny ideas. After the most recent movie club meeting I went home and wrote twenty pages of a screenplay, using as much of the horrible, pedestrian ideas the group made out of all the creative, quirky ideas first presented. I arrived two days later at my friend's house looking forward to collaborating, hearing what he thought of what I'd done so far, ready to discuss and revise and get down to work.

All of which came to a screeching derailment when my friend informed me that not only had he not read what I'd written, he refused to. Just what a writer lives to hear, especially from people he thinks he knows. The point my buddy could not budge from was "What if I don't agree with what you've written?"

A very easy problem to approach: Read what I've written and see if you agree or disagree with it.

But he steadfastly refused to read it, reiterating, "What if I don't agree with what you've written?"

To which I said, "Well, then we revise it, we make changes."

Whatever evolutionary point I thought this guy had come to by the year 2005, he set it back about 3,000 years with his fractured logic: He would rather not take the chance of disagreeing with what I'd written, preferring to dive headlong into the certainty of not only offending me, but coming off as a narrow-minded caveman by refusing to read it.

During our escalating discussion I made the point, "Creativity cannot be turned off and on like a switch." To which he shot back, "That's bullshit!" When I asked what experience he based that knowledge on; you know, during the writing of which of his screenplays, novels, short stories, articles, movie reviews, had he found that, yes, he could switch creativity off and on like a switch, he became one of those argument Nostradamuses: "I knew you'd throw that in my face!"

And it happened to be my infernal luck that this guy was a textbook example of the "grappling-hook anger-whore" arguer. After witnessing him demonstrate an entire floorshow of narrow-minded, caveman argument techniques, I removed myself not only from his residence, but from the project. Since 95% of the writing I do is unpaid, what the fuck do I need that shit for?

So, I took solace indulging in Bill Hicks this weekend. Hicks was a genius, I am not. I am creative. I am comforted taking refuge beneath Hicks' huge bat wings, and revisiting those times when he eviscerated Philistines. The loss of another narrow-minded anger-whore from my life is not a tragedy, it's a victory. I'm sick of Trojan Horse people infiltrating my life.

Near the end of Totally Bill Hicks there is discussion of the final slam his career and act took: being cut at the last minute from an airing of the David Letterman show.

"On October 1, [Bill Hicks] was to appear on the David Letterman show for the twelfth time, but his appearance was cancelled somewhat controversially. At the time, Hicks was doing a routine about pro-life organizations, where he encouraged them to lock arms and block cemeteries instead of medical clinics, but his routine was cut from the show. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility for the cut, but the reason appeared obvious to many during the following week's Letterman show when a commercial for a pro-life organization was aired. For many fans, this reinforced one of Bill's recurring themes, that America was being sanitized and manipulated in the name of corporate sponsorship." You know, earning only $20 million per year, poor, edgy David Letterman's hands were tied. He doesn't make the rules for his show, he only abides by them. As one of Johnny Carson's ex-wives once asid, "A million dollars doesn't buy what it used to." And Letterman surely must have had this in his shrewd, businessman's mind. Much as he might have wanted to step out on a limb for Hicks, stand up for someone worth standing up for, Letterman burrowed into a cocoon of Cuban cigar smoke (traitorous bastard! He buys them in my city) and mimicked all three monkeys of See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.

Bill Hicks' final public statement, read by his brother at the memorial following Hicks' death: "I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."


Robert F. Walsh said...

Enter this in the "Dismissed As Chance" category: I was just listening to a bootleg of his last night called "Relentless in Montreal." I also arrived late at the Hicks table, stumbling upon him in the midst of a Napster binge many years ago. It was creepy listening to a track called "I'm Bill Hicks and I'm Dead Now."

Unknown said...

I must say that listening to Bill do that bit gives me the willies. To the author of this great piece...BRAVO!! You write beautifully...absolutely beautifully-and-I might add, FROM YOUR HEART! I would like to point out one small flaw. The comedian in the documentary was not...I repeat...WAS NOT Richard Jeni. It was Richard Belzer. I would hasten to say that by mentioning that you have seen numerous pieces of Jeni's work, the fact that you mistook him for Belzer, in some people's minds, may affect your credibility. Mind you, not in my book, but there are many among us that would.
Can you say Bhhaaaaa Bhhhaaaaa
Respectfully, musicmaniac!

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Many thanks for your kind words about this piece. The work of Bill Hicks really speaks to me and the rawness and humanity and sheer hilarity of his abortive Chicago performance is purest art in my book.

At the risk of splitting hairs, Richard Jeni (now only days dead, himself) was, indeed, in the Bill Hicks documentary. He appears in the beginning and makes the ball-less admission that when watching Bill Hicks perform, that he, Jeni, "should be doing more of this type of thing... telling the truth." As if it's that easy.

Anyway, thanks for reading!


i agree, i think this is very well written and engaging. BRAVO as my said I wish you better luck with your future collaborations/projects as i think you have genuine talent and ability to talk from the heart.
Hicks true talent I believe was unbridled and unashamed expressiveness. Any artist would be wise to take a leaf from his book as you writing seems to exemplify.

Unknown said...

Wonderful written piece. I first saw Bill Hicks in the mid 80's, during a Channel4 season. My son was around 5 years old at the time. He is 28 now, we do and always tell people about Bill Hicks. It fills me with sorrow too, that so many were deprived of him when he was alive. We were lucky I say.

StrutterOnTheTown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
StrutterOnTheTown said...

Brilliant blog. Brilliant.

Joe Hacking said...

I stumbled upon this host about Bill while I was looking for images of him on Google. I just wanted to say that this is some damn fine writing about a damn fine human being. I was lucky enough to see him back in 1992, and I still feel to this day that if he was still with us, it would be a different, better world.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Thank you Joe. I'm envious that you got to see Bill Hicks perform. I discovered his comedy after he'd died. Thanks for stopping by! You're invited back any time!

Cuban said...

I think what you might have failed to realize something and it's a problem I've had with working with people. Maybe your friend thought you guys would work together beginning to end on the screenplay and you bringing an already created story-line, for him to just help with, is not what he considered the collaboration would be.

I bet if you initially said, "hey, I want to write a screen-play and wanted to know if you could help me add some punch-ups" then things might have gone differently.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Hindsight is 50/50. I stopped thinking about it about five minutes after posting this blog. No matter what I would have said, that wouldn't have changed the fact that my buddy at the time merely wanted me to perform the function of typist. I'm not a typist. I'm a writist.

Anonymous said...

Hey dude, great article. The ego is a brutal thing, Your friend didn't mean to be an asshole he was just protecting himself. A person with more pure ideas like yourself is better off working alone until you find someone you truly connect with. Keep pushing on.

Anonymous said...

Bill Hicks and George Carlin are my 2 favorite comedians of all time. I'm glad he never went mainstream because he always would stay real since he didn't. He was so right on everything he talked about. He always started out serious, and kinda boring, but then he explodes and brilliantly ties the boring part to the funny part and it all fits together. Honestly, one of the funniest things I think he does is that weird "I'm right you're wrong (sarcastic)" laugh he does after saying something stupid. The best example is his "non smokers die everyday, HAHAHAHA! Jim fixx died at 54 and ate tofu, Ewell Brenner smoked and drank everyday and lived longer HAHAHAHA!" lol any hecklers of either of these comedians are just braindead retards too scared to think for themselves

Anonymous said...

What a limited view you have of the world. No wonder you worship this Hicks performance.

As someone who was actually AT THE SHOW (that's me with the red hair up front,) I can tell you that not only was it NOT funny, it was painful. I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

He hears one or two words from the audience and went nuts. Then he spent the rest of the time attacking us.

Wow. Get me tickets for his next gig.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Well, brave anonymous Internet commenter, I suppose we'll just have to take your word that you attended this performance. It may well be my limited view of the world hindering my understanding, but I didn't see in your comment where the video of the performance differs from the actual event. "He hears one or two words from the audience and went nuts". You're delusional, or at least, suffering from a very faulty memory. Maybe have a look at the video to refresh your recollection. It's tragic that someone so incapable of grasping the importance of Bill Hicks saw him in person. I'm sure you would have been one of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Christ's robe at the crucifixion. There are times I accuse myself of being a Philistine, but I can say unequivocally that you are a solid gold Philistine. Now, go listen to some Madonna and try and find a soul! You deserve every ounce of Hicks' diatribe!

Anonymous said...

I don't care how edgy or great a comedian is, when they attack an audience it's over. A fail. If you pay close attention, he attacks the audience, women, Chicago... with a smug attitude that said he was just above us all.

Then he went on a newbie performers rant about how we just didn't get him.

Everyone in that audience wanted to crawl out of their skin, not just me.

The bottom line is, was it funny? No. Was anything he said funny? No. So... Am I missing something? Or it was only funny in hindsight for the fact that it represented such a phenomenal fail. But only to people like you perhaps? Who knows.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

"Am I missing something?"

Yes -- everything. Bill Hicks was not just a comedian. He was a human being having a bad night. The show went on long enough that you had plenty of time to walk out and ask for your money back. If you did not do that, then you remained an unrepentant member of an audience that acted like a bunch of kids pulling the wings off of a fly. Look, if you cannot understand what I am saying, clearly you do not have the mental/emotional equipment to understand such things. The obtuse denseness of your posts, though, absolutely convinces me you are not lying -- I completely believe you were part of that audience. You probably went to the club that night looking for entertainment. What you got is what you probably you deserved (based on your narrow, ill-remembered posts here). I will not try to convert you to Bill Hicks. Go to YouTube and sign up for the Carrot Top channel. I do appreciate, however, the insight you have given me into the awful mob Bill Hicks faced that terrible night in Chicago. A room full of you would be enough to make almost anyone snap.