An Angry Comic’s Afterlife Proves His Prickly Prescience

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, by Bill Hicks. Soft Skull Press, 308 pages, $16.95.

“It’s such a shame that Bill Hicks is dead …. “

“Yeah, we could really use Hicks now more than ever.”

That’s the refrain heard nowadays about the late social critic Bill Hicks, mostly from the fan club that loves him-that is, most working standup comics and late-night TV writers and all the celebrity fans, from David Letterman to David Cross, who’ve dropped his name for years.

A decade after his death from pancreatic cancer at age 32, Hicks has returned from the dead in a way nobody would have predicted, complete with album reissues, a DVD and now a new book, Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines. In part, it’s because his withering criticisms of the first Bush administration, the Persian Gulf War and the Christian right have become so uncannily relevant as to be prophetic.

“Iraq? Incredible weapons, incredible weapons,” he’d say, imitating the government line back then. “How do y’all know that?” he’d ask back. “Well,” he’d reply, unblinking, “we looked at the receipt. But as soon as that check clears, we’re goin’ in! What time’s the bank open? Eight? We’re goin’ in at nine for God and country and he’s a Hitler and hey, look, a fetus! Whatever you need, let’s go! Whatever you, the apathetic, docile masses need to get behind this-here, here’s a fetus.”

Foreshadowing Jon Stewart, Hicks turned simple facts like the disparity in war casualties into cold outrage: “Iraq: 150 thousand; U.S.A.: seventy … nine,” offered Hicks. “Does that mean if we had sent over eighty guys we still woulda won that fucking thing or what? One guy in a ticker-tape parade: ‘I did it! Hey! You’re welcome, huh-huh.’”

Hicks performed in obscurity for a decade until he was censored for doing jokes about the pro-life movement on CBS’s Late Night with David Letterman in 1993. “If you’re so pro-life … don’t block med clinics,” Hicks said, “lock arms and block cemeteries. Let’s see how fucking dedicated you are to this premise.”

Infuriated by CBS, Hicks wrote a 30-page letter to The New Yorker’s John Lahr, who in turn wrote an adulatory profile of the unsung comic. (It’s published in full in the new book.) After years of having his best material edited by TV producers, the comic finally began to get his calls returned. He died before he could really capitalize on the attention. But it wasn’t the end of the story. In one sense, Love All the People is a hodgepodge of dated material from a guy you’ve never heard of-strictly for completists interested in unpublished letters to Jay Leno, amusing interviews with the British press (Hicks’ criticisms of American culture found enormous success in England) and eight fully transcribed routines marking the evolution of a cult comic. But it’s more than that: In the age of Bush II, it’s an awe-inspiring example of what it means for an individual to stand up in a public venue before an audience expecting mind-killing entertainment, and vivisect American culture with ferocious, breathtaking honesty. For those deflated patriots who, like Hicks, find themselves screaming, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND AMERICA!”-here’s a field guide to the fearless mind. That the cultural references are dated makes little difference.

“Go back to bed, America:” Hicks said, “your government is in control again. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this! Shut up! Go back to bed, America: here’s American Gladiators. Here’s fifty-six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fuckin’ skulls together and congratulate you on living in the Land of Freedom. Here you go, America. You are free-to do as we tell you. You are free-to do as we tell you.”

Hicks’ humor wasn’t just the bitter, misanthropic complaint of an oppressed lefty-you can hear less funny, overtly partisan versions of that on Air America. It was the unyielding idealism of an artist who took himself deadly serious in a medium that had rarely risked that since the 1970′s. Like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, Hicks wasn’t just going for laughs-he was truly, sincerely pissed off. “By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing,” he said, “kill yourself …. No, this is not a joke. You’re going, ‘There’s going to be a joke coming,’ there’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage.”

In the red-blue political spectrum of the moment, Hicks probably wouldn’t be considered altogether coherent. He loved pornography and psychedelic drugs but advocated gun control. His most infamous bits were attacks on people who didn’t smoke cigarettes. In a way, he was just an unreconstructed hippie with an almost naïvely idealistic message that he hid in the comic seams of a black-clad, chain-smoking misanthrope. “I guess I’m just trying to share the message of love,” he said in an interview, “and hope more people will think that way, thereby validating my lifestyle.”

Hicks was dedicated to the cult of the individual, with John Lennon and J.F.K. his saints. He regularly ended his routines by soliloquizing about love and the nature of life-then faked his own assassination onstage, falling to the floor with three gunshot reports. It was a bit much. But for all his solitary poetics and flirtations with a messianic complex, Hicks didn’t want to be alone. He yearned for what we now call a “reality-based community,” one that could help bring his kind of humanist sanity to the world. Included in the book is a 1992 treatment for a British TV show idea, called The Counts of the Netherworld, in which Hicks proposed that he and a fictional count from a Victorian-era intellectual salon discuss philosophy, modern-day affairs and the “complete rejection of popular opinion” while mocking people from a horse-drawn carriage. He opened his treatment with a “manifesto”:

The time has come to air the Voice

of Reason,

In a world gone mad, adrift on

banal seas,

For all who feel that lies have had

their season,

And whose Hearts Cry Out, instead,

for Honesty ….

Considering how history has borne out Hicks’ worst fears, Love All the People should serve not as a bookend, but a beginning.

Joe Hagan writes the NYTV column for The Observer.