Out tomorrow, Bill Hicks: The Complete Collection features every album and special the comedian ever released, along with more than ten hours of previously unreleased material and a photo book, spread out across 12 CDs and 6 DVDs. There’s no denying Hicks’s talent now, but it took American audiences a while to catch on in the early 1990s. Hicks defied classification because he was an entirely different sort of comic. He elevated stand-up comedy with his long think-piece jokes that pushed away from uproarious punch lines and instead approached life’s more frustrating developments with a philosophical air tinged with humor.
Hicks wasn’t afraid to call bullshit on many a problem arising in the political, cultural or social arenas. Talking about the injustice of John Lennon’s murder when Barry Manilow lived on suffocating the world with his sound, Hicks said, “If you’re going to kill someone, have some fucking taste.” It’s a stance that would be hard to imagine any comic taking today, least of which because the media fallout would be so intense. He was more than an irreverent comic, though; he was himself a deep thinker attuned to the inane and insane. If he pushed buttons, he did so in order to awaken people to the world around them.
In many ways, Hicks’s comedy had a prescient quality. Talking about everything from the news cycles on CNN Headline News to mounting anti-intellectualism, he covered topics that still ring pertinent today. The names in his jokes may have changed, but the issues haven’t. One can easily imagine him attacking Miley Cyrus instead of Debbie Gibson, Donald Trump instead of George Bush.
Here are ten jokes that prove Bill Hicks was the best stand-up comic of his time, and an eerily farsighted one, too. They don’t make comics like him anymore.
According to Hicks, no celebrity who earns money from their art should need to hawk products. If anything, such actions kicked the person in question “off the artistic roll call.” Hicks often went after the big pop culture players who, he believed, were watering down society as a whole, contaminating culture by infiltrating it with advertising until the two spawned some ungodly mess. “They are demons set lose on the earth to lower the standards,” he told his audience on his first comedy album, Dangerous. Speaking in another appearance about a celebrity showing up on a commercial, he said, “Every word coming out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.”
Calling out the hypocrisy inherent to government and the growing arm of the military industrial complex, Hicks went after George Bush and later Bill Clinton several times throughout his stand-up specials. In one particular bit, Hicks calls attention to the fact that Bush sold weapons to Korea and Kuwait then turned around and ran a campaign that relied heavily on fear mongering. With an “us vs. them” mentality that he largely helped cultivate, Bush manipulated the state of affairs. “I’m so tired of arming the world and then sending troops over to destroy the fucking arms,” Hicks admitted.
It’s odd to include the word “relationship” after Hicks’s name, because he wasn’t a comic that often delved into the personal material many comics did and still do. Where Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer share hilarious tales about their personal life, Hicks tended to concentrate on bigger issues. Still, when he chose to talk about tamer things—like the beach or his ex-girlfriends—somehow that subject matter didn’t stay tame for long. One of his earlier jokes involved a fantasy about an ex-girlfriend who really crushed his heart. Like anyone who’s recently been dumped, Hicks imagines a life for her filled with wrong choices, the most recent one including letting him go.
Talking about the rise of pop stars like Debbie Gibson, Hicks questions why she had the number one album in America. “When did we start listening to pre-pubescent white girls?” he asked his audience at the time. “I must have missed that meeting. We have at our fingertips the greatest minds of all time, the knowledge and history of the great thinkers, of all fucking time. But no, what’s that little white girl saying?” Thinking now about how much pop music is composed of generic, technologically enhanced talent—coming equally from girls and guys—it’s hard not to think of how Hicks was on to something. He called out music’s growing lack of soul and existence as a means to sell other products, a problem that’s even worse today.
Before the dumbing down of America became the preeminent pressing concern among public intellectuals, Hicks called attention to the disconcerting but very real anti-intellectualism he encountered on the road. Discussing a post-show meal he had at a Waffle House, Hicks recalled an encounter he had with one of the waitresses there. As he sat eating his dinner and reading a book, she passed by, stopped and turned to ask him not “What are you reading?” but “What you reading for?” Unaware that reading in public (or at all) was such strange behavior, Hicks naturally expanded upon the memory by exploring the growing acceptance of stupidity.
“Is anyone here like me in that they are compelled, obsessed, and drawn beyond their will to watch the show Cops every fucking night?” asked Hicks. Long before one eligible bachelor spent a few weeks whittling down twenty attractive woman to find his soul mate, the world had Cops. “I’ve never been in so many trailer parks!” Hicks excitedly confessed to his audience. He was endlessly fascinated with the show’s spectacle, especially when it came to the people who appeared on it. Call them what you will—white trash, trailer trash, or rednecks—but Hicks’s concern regarding anti-intellectualism and its sheer prevalence within certain pockets in America arose when he talked about Cops.
In keeping with his opinions about celebrity endorsements and consumerism, Hicks took significant issue with advertising and its mind control on viewers. It’s hard to imagine his extreme comments, which repeatedly ask marketing and advertising executives to kill themselves, flying today. One cell phone video and he’d be pulling a mea culpa. Or would he? It’s hard to say, but given his strong-willed beliefs, it’s not easy imagining Hicks taking to Twitter to apologize for his act. Instead, his anger about advertising borders on righteousness: “Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet.”
Drugs aren’t anything new in stand-up comedy, especially when it comes to discussing marijuana use. Hicks talked about legalizing marijuana, but he went beyond that well-trodden line by highlighting the hypocritical stance advocating alcohol and tobacco sales while making other substances illegal. During the early 1990’s, when rampant anti-drug rhetoric appeared in campaigns like D.A.R.E. and spawned the famous “this is your brain on drugs” ad, Hicks talked about the mindset that criminalizes some forms of drugs (those that aren’t taxed) while encouraging another (those that are).
Unlike those he encountered back in the States, when Hicks traveled to Montreal to appear at the Just for Laughs festival, he found an audience eagerly awaiting his stand-up. Hicks there confessed his CNN addiction. Asking the audience if they’d ever watched over 20 hours of news, he admitted he needed to cut back. This was, of course, before CNN had competition, before television news channels became a 24-hour spectator sport focused almost entirely on sensationalistic stories. Hicks discussed CNN Headline News’ propensity for focusing on the negative when outside his door was nothing but crickets, and questioned whether what they reported wasn’t just fear-mongering to warp those tuning in.
Hicks called himself a “dark little poet” for a reason, and that’s primarily because, more than your typical stand-up comic, he explored existential questions. More times than not his philosophical expositions had a comical bent to them. In one of his most famous jokes, “It’s just a ride,” Hicks switched gears and offered up a powerful moment that broke down the comedic expectations involved in stand-up, becoming almost sermon-like. Coming from any other comic, the moment could have been a preachy one, but from Hicks it rang with the truth he intended. Plus, let’s be fair, what other comic would even include such a moment in their act nowadays? He was different all the way down the line.
Amanda Wicks is a New Orleans-based writer specializing in comedy and music. She’s more “haha” funny than “lol,” but feel free to follow her anyway on Twitter at @aawicks.