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An angry soul

What would Bill Hicks say now? His many admirers wish they knew, as more and more of the scalding critic's work is made public.

December 04, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

BILL HICKS, the most scathing comedian of his generation, died 11 years ago at age 32, but he hasn't gone away. On the contrary, the mischievously shifting sands of history have granted an eerie afterlife to some of his material -- you can play a recording of a Hicks routine from 1991 or '92 and hear him going after President Bush and the war in Iraq.

But Hicks' growing stature as a comedic beacon isn't because of a quirky recurrence of a name and war zone. Hicks went deeper than any of his contemporaries, and he did it with missionary zeal and fearless brilliance.

No one has come along to take up his challenge -- Chris Rock might come closest, but unlike Hicks, he never quite seems dangerous -- so comedy customers who need that bracing jolt of satire keep returning to Hicks, spurring a posthumous trajectory that, if not Tupac-like in sales figures, has a similar momentum and vitality. His estimated CD and DVD sales are around 750,000 -- remarkable for items that have received no promotion besides reviews.

Since his death from pancreatic cancer, eight CDs have been issued by the Rykodisc label. On Tuesday the company will put out "Sane Man," a DVD featuring a restored and expanded version of a 1989 show.

A 2004 DVD, "Bill Hicks Live," has three routines and a documentary called "Just a Ride," in which Jay Leno, David Letterman, Eric Bogosian and other comedic minds testify to Hicks' genius in awestruck terms.

There are Hicks books too. "Love All the People" is a collection of routines and interviews, and the new "What Would Bill Hicks Say?" compiles Hicks-style rants on topical issues by comedians, writers, artists and musicians, including Radiohead singer Thom Yorke.

What would Bill Hicks say? That question becomes second nature once you've started seeing things through his eyes. At that point, the world of "American Idol" and this new Bush, of Wal-Mart and Paris Hilton, 9/11 and Viagra, is a blurred landscape just waiting to be blasted into focus by a Hicks screed.

It's no surprise that Hicks has fans among musicians. Besides Yorke, his high-profile boosters include Tom Waits (who calls him "our Lenny Bruce"), Rage Against the Machine and Tool (which used a Hicks sample on its song "Third Eye"). The comedian employed rock imagery in his show, railed passionately about the music, and tapped into its rebel spirit.

But in the DVD documentary, actress and comedian Brett Butler suggests another inspiration. "For all the talk about Bill being like Hendrix or Dylan or Jim Morrison or Lenny Bruce, it was Jesus Bill wanted to be," she says. "He wanted to save us all." She adds that he ended up emulating the Jesus who drove the money-changers from the temple: "He wanted to be Christ at his angriest."

Indeed, Hicks was one of the rare links to the time when comedy was a weapon and the comedian the scourge of the status quo. The anger that drove him is palpable in his restless stride and powerful voice, and the way his doughy features -- he looked a little like Kevin Spacey playing Jerry Falwell -- would twist in revulsion when he talked about the forces of ignorance and intolerance.

In the documentary, Bogosian compares the onstage Hicks to a tornado, but you might also think of a volcano: something unmistakable, massive and about to blow its top.

Born in Georgia and brought up in Texas in a Southern Baptist family, Hicks observed the techniques of the preacher and was fascinated by the rock theatrics of KISS and Alice Cooper. As a comic he was a natural. He started entertaining classmates at age 13, hit the Houston comedy clubs as a high school kid and was soon blowing the grown-ups off the stage.

Fellow Texan Sam Kinison had shown Hicks that he didn't have to care about people liking him, and the envelope-pushing edginess that endeared him to his hard-core fans may have slowed his progress toward the wider audience he dreamed of.

Still, he was clearly on his way before he got the bad news about his pancreas. He'd done Letterman 11 times (his 12th appearance was infamously cut from the broadcast), had an HBO special and had made his breakthrough in England, where he headlined large theaters and landed a TV deal with Channel 4.

It would have been fascinating to see how Hicks might have adapted his outrage and energy to more mainstream formats. One thing seems sure: He treasured passion and freedom so much that it hurt, and he'd never settle for halfway measures.

He didn't just make snickering jokes about pornography -- he roared about how much he loved it and told you why. He didn't just do spaced-out drug bits -- he reminded you how much of the music you love was created by people on drugs.

But Hicks' real vehemence was reserved for the alarmist mass media, the government, corporations and organized religion -- the institutions that he saw promoting hypocrisy and mediocrity and causing society to lose its soul.

"By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, [pause] kill yourself.... "

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