Thursday, December 16, 2010


I listen to him year after year. He was hilarious, brilliant, brave and right about everything.
--Henry Rollins, about Bill Hicks

Humor is one of the most Divine forms of magic. It can rescue us from despair, arm us against our enemies, wake us from stupor. One of the greatest practitioners of this latter form of badinage is the American stand-up comic Bill Hicks. He would have turned 49 today. We celebrate his story, therefore, with notes on the virtue of Satire.

The word Satire probably comes from the Latin "satura" meaning "mixed" (literally a "dish of mixed fruits"). According to Wiktionary, Satire is not (necessarily) a form of comedy, but rather a literary technique of writing or drama “which principally ridicules its subject, often as an intended means of provoking or preventing change.” Interestingly, it adds that “humor is often used to aid this.” In other words, while we may be accustomed of thinking of Satire as a form of Humor, it is the essential nature of Satire not to provoke Laughter, but rather Thought. This means the proper root virtue of Satire is not Transcendence, but rather Wisdom.

And that makes Hicks a perfect avatar for Satire. Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Hicks spent his childhood practicing his stand-up comedy in the least likely of places: Sunday School at his Baptist church. Later, as a teenager, he had to sneak out of the house in order to attend his weekly stand-up gigs at Houston’s Comedy Workshop.

A great fan of Jimi Hendrix, Hicks wanted to push boundaries as his idol did. In his early 20s, after having lived a completely sober life, he decided to try alcohol and drugs as a way to “cross the line.” It worked--but it also put him over the top and made it difficult for club managers to work with him. So in his late twenties Hicks quit everything--except cigarettes, which he chained smoked until his death (and may have contributed to it).

His style was intimate. Watching his routine, you’d feel you were hanging out with Bill on his couch in front of the TV. He vented his ire, derision, and indifference casually, as he would with a group of friends. He loved to challenge “conventional wisdom” at every turn, whether that wisdom had to do with religion, politics, or--a favorite topic--mainstream consumerism. Once during one of his acts a heckler complained, "We don't come to comedy to think!" Hicks replied: "Gee! Where do you go to think? I'll meet you there!"

One of Hicks’ most famous routines has to do with the nature of life:

Bill’s ride ended too early. In April 1993, he started complaining of pains in his side, and two months later he was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. He chose to disclose his diagnosis only to few close friends and family. Hicks started receiving weekly chemotherapy while touring and recording his album, Arizona Bay. True to his comedic nature, he would often joke during that time that “any given performance could be my last!”

His actual last show was on January 6, 1994, at Caroline’s in New York, after which he moved to his parents’ home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He spent his last few days re-reading Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and playing for his parents the music he loved. He stopped speaking on February 14, and died on February 26, 1994. He was 32 years old. A final message to his loved ones finished with the words:

I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

In a 2005 poll to find the “Comedian's Comedian,” fellow comedians voted Hicks #13 on their list of "The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever". In a BBC Channel 4 viewer poll of the top 100 comedians, released April 2010, Hicks ranked #4. 

Bill Hicks, we honor you for tilting at windmills and waking us from our stupor. We honor you in Love, Laughter, and in Truth.

May we see the gates of Satire, and perhaps make a home there.

1 comment:

  1. It's a challenging virtue -- wasn't there a John Waters quote from a few years back about how hard it is to do satire anymore, because the world keeps catching up too quickly?