Bill Hicks and the Place of Corporate Comedy
I have three comedians on my iPod: Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. All of them evolved as much into prophets as comedians, and all of them died younger than they should have from maladies that probably had something to do with the stress of being a live performer on the road in corporate America.
Hicks died the youngest, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 in 1994. Perhaps his pancreas had had enough of his drinking, which started later than usual at the age of 21 but got excessive quickly. Or maybe it was road food from all that driving to comedy clubs around the country. He looked puffy by his mid-20s. If Hicks came back from the dead, he could do a good routine about government agents slipping some carcinogen (white sugar?) into his food because his routines had come too close to the truth.
That was one of his best joke constructions, taking some dark conspiracy theory lurking in the collective unconscious and validating not so much the theory as the paranoia that got the imagination fired up in the first place. In a routine called “The Elite” on his album Rant in E-Minor, Hicks speculates on what happens to a new president. “When you win, you go in this smokey room with the 12 industrialist/capitalist scumfucks who got you [elected]...And this screen comes down—whrrrrrrr—and this big guy says, ‘Roll the film.’ It’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before. [Big laugh.] And it looks suspiciously off the grassy knoll. And the screen comes up and they go to the new president and say, ‘Any questions?’”
Hicks did believe the Warren Commission was a lie, but you can have any theory you want about the Kennedy assassination and get the joke there. He’s describing a fictional situation, and in literal reality, it doesn’t happen like that. Long before anyone is elected president, they are vetted for obedience. Nobody has to tell politicians to obey, or what the consequences of disobeying would be. New presidents want to obey, and that’s why they got the nomination. What Hicks is getting at is not so much conspiracy but the deeper truth that inspires so many grassroots conspiracy theories. It really is a tiny number of industrialist/capitalist scumfucks who control everything. They will tell any lie and commit any crime to keep their power. Hicks not only understood that, he could make phenomenal jokes about it.
I saw the recent documentary about Hicks, American: The Bill Hicks Story. As a coming of age story about a teenager who figures out that he’s funny, becomes fascinated by the mechanics of humor, and is performing in nightclubs before he can drive, it’s compelling and even triumphant. Growing up talented in the Deep South always has its element of heroism. The story is not so much about finding himself, which he did by his late teens, but finding a place to display what he found of himself. That was a struggle until the end.