Bill Hicks: Courage against the Void

Count William lounges in decadent repose upon a red velvet couch, dressed all in black and adorned with a rapier that shines as bright as the light of his intellect.

– from the concept for Counts of the Netherworld

Like more than a few things these days, this movie review is Ayn Rand’s fault. There I was, waiting for American: The Bill Hicks Story to roll, reflecting on the howling reviews of Atlas Shrugged: Part I. Sure, that cinematic train wreck was a pompous, barn-side target, but savaging idiotic pop culture and herdthink is what Bill Hicks did best, serving up flaming contempt for fevered egos. It’s not hard to imagine, had he lived, ten raucous minutes on “Who is John Galt?” American is a fine chronicle told by those closest to Hicks, contemplative and with engaging visuals and rare footage.

This documentary is aided by the passage of time, so it may not be fair to compare it to 1994’s Totally Bill Hicks, which was worthy but sullied by the murkiness surrounding Hicks being censored on television. Few were fooled by the shallow posturing which didn’t deserve inclusion in that film. However, when Letterman hosted Hicks’ mother in 2009, offering a profuse, heartfelt apology and a full-show discussion on a Friday night, the most contentious chapter was closed and Bill Hicks’ life can be recounted in a more settled manner.

Except it’s still a gobsmacked political nightmare in America. Since Hicks’ passing, America has continued to devolve under the lash of billionaires, speculators, fundamentalists, and their various tools; think the Four Horsemen roaring through a meth-and-champagne bender. American is a good film for those who know Bill’s material well or those seeing him for the first time, showing the contours of his life and the space in which he operated. This documentary breaks new ground in offering a better feel for Bill Hicks as a person.

Briefly, the career: His several recordings, including the superlatives Arizona Bay and Rant In E-Minor, are each at least seventeen years old, but refuse to tarnish. Largely unknown in America during his lifetime (this Yank writer discovered him a few years after his death), he found welcoming audiences in Canada, England, and Australia. Easily one of the greatest cult figures in American culture, Bill Hicks is Generation X’s lost Lenny Bruce. He left the scene having earned his peerage among George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and could possibly have unseated Bruce himself had his show Counts of the Netherworld reached production. Bill Hicks tackled scathing social commentary at a time when stand-up comedy had exhausted its early 1980’s renaissance and was fitted for a gaudy white jumpsuit. (Patton Oswalt on comedy audiences’ input circa 1990: “When you gonna smash some fruit?”) He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32. These facts are well-known.

Where American excels is by supplying the ground-level view of these events, an unsentimental but often enthusiastic narration. While lacking the pop of continuous green room anecdotes or blazing Betty Ford Center collapses, the arc of Hicks’ life emerges without pretense (excepting his love life but, to be fair, that wasn’t his claim to fame). An early talent and vigorous iconoclast with an awkward home life, he roamed the continent alone in his white Chevette, chasing down a comedic vision, suffered lapses and setbacks, his star still deservedly rising when the curtain fell too early. We see his growth through much experimentation and the realization of “inner voice equals outer voice equals greatness.” Of course several hundred stops at places like Adolf’s Comedy Bunker in Idaho were required.

Hicks’ comedic edge isn’t blunted in this re-telling, but gains depth through how much he valued his friends and in a simple exchange with his mom, a few weeks before he passed. Over the course of time, Mary Hicks would sometimes find him on the back deck, sitting in a lounge chair in his preferred solitude. On that day she asked him, “Bill, do you want to be alone?” and he replied “Mom, who really wants to be alone?”

Despite “We’re a virus with shoes” and “People suck and that’s my contention,” Bill Hicks had courage against the void and to the end held to his motto of “Love, laughter, and truth.” That’s more than we can say for another cult figure, who was happy to dip into Social Security and Medicare when laissez-faire objectivism sprang a leak. Hicks fans haven’t had to confront hypocrisy from their man, but luckily for Randroids John Galt’s dick “has many heads, so all these little demon piglets can nuzzle up and suckle all at once… Put that big scaly pecker down your gullet!”

Dave Patten lives in the Pacific Northwest. He can reached at: dpattenwa (at) Read other articles by Dave.