It’s surprising to think that Bill Hicks would have been 50 on 16 December. At least, it is if you find the passage of time surprising. Bill – it’s hard not to drop into familiarity – was brilliantly, mordantly, matter-of-fact about things in which the rest of the world finds wonder and delight. The beach to him was ‘where dirt meets water’, and the ‘miracle’ of childbirth was no more miraculous than the inevitability of shitting after eating.
Bill at 50 is an intriguing hypothetical idea. It’s an article of faith to his most enthusiastic fans that he was, and would always remain, a stranger to any sort of compromise or mellowing. His untimely, appalling death from pancreatic cancer at 32 means we’ll never know what he would have grown up into, and means that the work he produced in his final years are preserved as an ideal.
In 2004, I co-wrote a stage show called Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which imagined an angelic Bill returning to Earth for a final gig. My co-writer Chas Early (who also played Hicks) and I fielded many questions in interviews about what Bill would be doing now. Stand-up has evolved hugely as a form in the 17 years since Bill died. I’d love to think he could play the sort of stadiums that Peter Kay or Jimmy Carr fill, but there’s something about that picture that just isn’t right.
Since his death, the environment has become more and more of a political battleground, and it is easy to imagine him now as a more radical Al Gore figure, but with better jokes
Bill Hicks was a contrarian. In an interview with the critic John Lahr he said: “To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms. He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality.”
His reaction to the adulation he received in the UK – he achieved only cult status in the US – was to create a character called Goat Boy. It is one of his most renowned and brilliant creations. But it existed partly to unsettle his cosily left-wing audience. It was a raw, explicit celebration of the delights of cunnilingus with underage girls.
If it didn’t quite succeed in making the audience question just what they were laughing at, then surely that was only because it was too funny. I can’t help thinking that as his audience grew, his natural reaction would have been to test their loyalty by trying to alienate them.
Bill was famous for his groundbreaking Gulf War material in the early Nineties, all of which seemed frighteningly prescient in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq. He is often thought of as a political comedian, although he tended to take the long view rather than get caught up in the detail of current events.
A second, less well-remembered, strand of his work was his love of nature. As an evangelical user of magic mushrooms, he advocated the psychedelic exploration of inner space while getting back to nature. He supported wildlife charities, and to this day the money from the sale of his work goes to the Bill Hicks Foundation for Wildlife.
In the years since his death, the environment has become more and more of a political battleground, and it is easy to imagine him now as a more radical Al Gore figure, but with better jokes. Around the tenth anniversary of his death, numerous articles were written asking, “Where’s Bill Hicks when we need him?”, as the so-called War on Terror saw rational thought sacrificed to paranoia and misguided jingoism.
Now, though, it is the planet itself that could do with his eloquence, especially as the global financial crisis seems to have taken governments’ eyes off the ball in an alarming way.
If Bill could see us still talking about him at his half-century, he might be flattered, but I think he’d also be confused. Our show imagined just this: why are his audience looking backward rather than taking his work forward? Bill’s brilliance will always be celebrated, but we need to find the comics who are, to use his mantra, “evolving ideas”. Not the black-clad wannabes, but those who have transcended his influence and are making people laugh while speaking the truth. The best way to celebrate his work is to find them.
Happy birthday, Bill.