Like an Anaconda, Blowing in the Wind

By Mark Stafford

american-the-bill-hicks-story-matt-harlock-paul-thomas.jpgBill Hicks

Fifteen years after his death at the unfair age of 32, Bill Hicks reputation has grown and mutated in strange ways. He now hovers like some kind of profane saint over the worlds of stand up comedy and alternative culture, a potty-mouthed-truth-spouting-preacher, riffing on politics, war, culture and conspiracy in an age of empty celebrity, urging us to pull back the curtain and laugh at the wizards. He’s the one who didn’t sell out, whose injunction that anyone who participated in advertising was “off the artistic roll call forever,” nags away in the back of countless minds, who’s Iraq war routines from 1991 could be replayed in the noughties without having to change a word, or the name of the goddamn president. Hicks is sampled and replayed, his best routines served up piecemeal on You-Tube, his act impersonated wholesale live for those who missed the main event. He is perilously close to becoming a brand, a t-shirt worn like all those Ramones and Misfits tees by teens who couldn’t name a single tune by either band.

It’s a good time then, to come out with American: the Bill Hicks Story, a documentary by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, which very consciously sets out to locate the man behind the bullshit. All the usual celebrity talking heads (like those in the previous Hickumentary, 1994’s It’s Just a Ride) are eschewed in favour of the people who knew Bill best, his family and friends, and his story is told through home movies, animated snapshots and taped gig material of variable quality, to a soundtrack of Bills band, Marblehead Johnson. The film details his suburban Texas childhood, his gigs at Houston’s first comedy club, sneaking out as a 13 year old to wow adult crowds, the false starts, an abortive jaunt to LA and stalled screenwriting career, and his years as a cokey alcoholic mess, before a rebirth through sobriety and a move to New York created the Bill Hicks we knew briefly, before pancreatic cancer took him too damn soon. There’s a distinct echo of the Ramones documentary End of the Century here – like them Hicks always seemed to be slightly out of place in his own country, he had to travel to the UK to achieve the press and theatre-filling status he deserved (both films feature the phrase “they get it,”), only to return to the US and audiences of 40 odd punters in an Arkansas club, all of them looking back at him, in his immortal phrase, like “a dog that’s been shown a card trick.”

american-the-bill-hicks-story-matt-harlock-paul-thomas-2.jpgBill Hicks

, as you’d hope, throws up a few surprises, Bill as football player, Bill as callow clean cut stand up berating drinkers and smokers (!) There’s gruesome footage of a thankfully abandoned TV pilot Bulba, showing a young Bill in full-on Norman Wisdom slapstick mode. And thankfully there’s a lot of unfamiliar footage of the man doing what he did best: stand up comedy. Here he is confidently laying into his dad as a teen, exploding with rage at a knucklehead in the crowd as an unsatisfied adult, using that cherubic face, that rangy, podgy, black-clad frame to knock home well honed routines and startling off the cuff rants of obscene poetry and mushroom fuelled utopianism. This material makes American well worth watching.

What there isn’t much of, sadly, is context. The focus of the film is on Bill, not the world in which he operated, and surely this world is a large part of what makes Hicks stand out. It’s mentioned at one point that he started getting smarter and more political at a time when the US stand up circuit was getting dumber, but this is not elaborated upon. That he got a lot of attention at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival in 1991 comes up, but not that in the early 90’s this was seen as a stepping stone by most comedians to the holy grail: the kind of Roseanne/Home Improvement sit-com that he was wholly unsuitable for. In short, a few celebrities opining about the world of US comedy in the early 1990’s wouldn’t have actually gone amiss. What were the comics surrounding Hicks like? Was his material that atypical? How did other comedians tackle the first Gulf War, for example? There are curious omissions too. Jay Leno is said to have helped him out early in his career, but that he was savagely attacked by Bill in a later routine is left unsaid. The intriguing parallels with the career of Denis Leary (always more of an actor) go unmentioned. His censored last Letterman show routine has since been broadcast, but goes unseen here, and is only mentioned as a footnote. And whilst the war and hypocrisy hating material is shown in all its righteous fury, the Hendrix/Debbie Gibson (“I’ll bet he could shake her love right in half”) routine is absent. I was at the Dominion theatre show in 1992 (filmed as Revelations) and remember the keen discomfort in the room at the “if you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself,” bit, which is reproduced here, but also remember an equal amount of discomfort at his obscene, overextended “Goat Boy” stuff, which isn’t.

american-the-bill-hicks-story-matt-harlock-paul-thomas-3.jpgBill Hicks

For most of the first half of American we see photos manipulated by computer into a kind of limited animation, broken up with what little moving footage is available. Some of this is effective, a surly teenage Hicks arguing with his folks on the stairs, for example, but over time the pictures become repetitive, and a little oppressive, you long to see an actual human face. I assume this was a move forced on Harlock and Thomas by the dearth of video material of their hero’s early life, and a desire to avoid the talking head clichés. The animation route deserves points for originality, but considering that a good many of Hicks friends here are ‘animated’ comics themselves, I think we could stand to watch them talk a little more. I’m sure his dad had something to say about being the butt of so many routines, and I would have liked to hear it. In the end, I’m not sure that the tight focus on his family and friends memories, though it creates a warm portrait, actually pays off with a great deal of insight into the man. But there are always the albums and a handful of filmed shows to track down if American piques the interest. And it’s clearly made with love.

Mark Stafford is a cartoonist, film critic and broadcaster.