It’s been more than two decades since the death of Noam Chomsky’s comedic incarnation. Yes, a “Noam Chomsky who made dick jokes.” But one who made me realise that comedy could be more than a pleasant distraction. With astute observations and social commentary, he encouraged us to think and question in his characteristically unapologetic and unwavering manner. Unfortunately, he has become just another meme-friendly symbol merely known for his Tweetable and T-shirt slogan worthy quotes. Aargh! Let’s not dwell on that. But let’s instead wax lyrical about a man who left an indelible imprint on comedy-lovers and comedians worldwide with his incendiary dark humour.
A man named William Melvin Hicks.
I was 16 when I first stumbled upon the name Bill Hicks and it was in a treasured Tool album. As a couple of articles and a Wikipedia page didn’t adequately satisfy my curiosity, I went straight to YouTube and I found myself watching all his material. In the next few hours as he ranted about organised religion, condemned war and glorified drug use, it felt like I’d finally discovered someone who was expressing what I’d always felt. And expressed with great eloquence and humour. For obvious reasons, it was Hicks’ confrontational style that really appealed to my rebellious, anti-establishment, rock-n-roll sensibilities at the time.
Not anymore though. Over the years, as you learn new things and push yourself to experience new things, your taste and distaste for things change.
Do you remember, as a kid, when eating at McDonald’s was this magical, joyful expedition? How about now?
How about when you thought that films could not get any better than Toy Story? Do you feel the same way now?
Similarly, as I revisited some of Bill Hicks’ material recently, I realised I was no longer captivated by the same bits that I enjoyed as an angst-ridden teenager. Though some of his bits seemed dated, a lot of his timelessly discerning social and cultural commentary are relevant to this day. And this certainly intrigued the older, more bookish “me”.
His stinging critique of American culture demanded the audience to read, think and question in an age where it seemed to be frowned upon.
“You know I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country ever since around 1980, coincidentally enough. I was in Nashville, Tennessee last weekend and after the show I went to a waffle house and I’m sitting there and I’m eating and reading a book. I don’t know anybody, I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book. This waitress comes over to me (mocks chewing gum) ‘what you readin’ for?’…wow, I’ve never been asked that; not ‘What am I reading’, ‘What am I reading for?’ Well, goddamnit, you stumped me…I guess I read for a lot of reasons — the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress. Yeah, that would be pretty high on the list. Then this trucker in the booth next to me gets up, stands over me and says [mocks Southern drawl] ‘Well, looks like we got ourselves a readah’…aahh, what the fuck’s goin’ on? It’s like I walked into a Klan rally in a Boy George costume or something. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read, there I said it. I feel better.”
He vehemently criticised marketers and advertisers for breeding a consumerist culture which convinces and encourages people into buying things they don’t necessarily need. He notoriously urged them to kill themselves.
He often launched furious tirades against the government, especially condemning the Persian Gulf War and its supposed involvement in various conspiracies.
“Well, a war is when two armies are fighting. So you can see, right there, there never was a war.”
Though his anti-war agitprop about the Gulf War is valid even today, his conspiracy theory bits haven’t aged well. Much like his pro-smoking eulogies. Though he acknowledged the toxic and destructive nature of alcohol, his self-aggrandising attitude towards smoking made him seem like a political lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
Hicks was a bible of contradictions. At his funniest best, he was fearlessly perceptive. While his worst, most desperate moments are characterised by homophobia, wild accusations and delusional conspiracy theories.
Why Bill Hicks didn’t quite feel at home in America?
In fact, Bill was more popular in the UK than in America. Some note it’s because the American audience didn’t quite appreciate his rather sophisticated sense of humour and irony. Perhaps, they wanted more dick jokes but minus the Chomsky part. His intellectual severity and honesty perhaps did not make for the most soothing entertainment for a beer-drinking nightclub audience merely looking for cheap, easy laughs. He wanted them to question the country’s status quo, challenge social mores and wake up from the delusion that is the American dream. Unfortunately, for Bill Hicks, the audience who came to these clubs wanted to get away from society, rather than be reminded of it.
Hicks was the physical embodiment of the romanticised “live fast, die young” mantra. Though his premature demise may have played a small part in creating this timeless mystique around him, one needs a discernible artistic skill, foremost, to ensure he/she doesn’t sink into oblivion. And though his material and style denied him mainstream popularity, his work continues to be enjoyed and revered by fellow comics, critics and comedy-aficionados all over the world. With Russell Crowe positively confirming the talks of the biopic, hopefully more will get to see the comical genius of Bill Hicks.