Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
Dustin Hoffman doesn’t play him in the movie. I’m not sure who could play comedian Bill Hicks and get all of his complexity. The eighties’ Lenny Bruce, he lived the requisite life of Hollywood pictures, but he didn’t have the drug-additcted burn of a Bruce, or the spectacular flame-out of an Andy Kaufman. Cancer was his mortal enemy, which is always a seat-squirmer as it can strike anyone at any time, making the audience a tad uneasy. Hicks was not your Jay Leno yock-it-up kind of comic. He was a searing satirist, a social philosopher preaching and railing at the masses in an agora with a two-drink minimum.
“American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a documentary, but a very non-traditional one.
“American” blends photo animations of still photos, which usually find their way into commercials and trivial reality shows, and the voices of friends and family to tell an amazing story of Houston “outlaw” comedian Bill Hicks, to tell the untraditional story of a comic genius who was an international star that did not shine as brightly in self-satisfied Reagan-era America.
Some of Hicks story is the stuff of movie cliches. Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Hicks moved around the South with his family until the family settled in Houston, Texas, when Bill was seven. His fascination with intellectual comic Woody Allen and societal-slaughter comedian Richard Pryor led him to dreams of being a stand-up comic. This at a time, in the 1970’s, when they were few and far between, and usually from big cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A. There were no comedy clubs, no places to “work out” in Houston, until the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston in the late 1970s.
At 15, Hicks would sneak out of his strict Southern Baptist home and go down to the club to perform. His comedy began as observational humor about his life, and particularly his social anger with his rigid parents. The jokes found resonance with ’70’s comedy club patrons who had grown up in equally oppressive fifties-style households.
Concerned about their son, the parents took him to a shrink. In his autobiography, Hicks tells us that, after one session, the psychoanalyst said “…it’s them, not you.”
He had to get a special work permit to be able to work the clubs. He graduated high school, then went out to L.A.with his suitcase and arrived at the door of The Comedy Store, one of the Meccas of comedians in the early 1980’s. There, he was a regular and performed alongside comedians like the rising Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Gary Shandling, and Andrew Dice Clay.
At that point, he did not drink. He was still doing “nice” comedy. He tried his hand at writing a script with his high school buddy Kevin Booth, which did get to an agent at William Morris. When it wasn’t an instant win, he abandoned the idea of writing for movies and TV. He took a sitcom, “Bulba” which flopped. He went back to Houston, where he was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He then started drinking, epically, smoking, doing mushrooms, and found his inner voice that would carry him through his career.
He became an acerbic anchor, a real-life Howard Beale, railing about everything from the smallest of social conditions to the Gulf War. He was a patriot. He spoke truth to power. His satiric eye did not miss a venal flaw of Lady America, or of the corporatocracy which made her its bitch.
If his name is unfamiliar to you, that is because of the road less traveled which Hicks took. He was a truth junkie, not a fame junkie. He wanted to change the world. Scream at us for our dim awareness of it. Make us see that reality that, even though it had come by way of smoke-filled rooms and hallucinogens, was crystal clear to him.
Fame was a symptom, not the driving force in his universe. Had it been, he would have sailed past the Lenos and Seinfelds with more mundane goal posts. He was our Lenny, in a time where the awareness that he sold fell on the deaf ears of an America that could only hear the cocaine-infused disco beat of self-righteous self gratification.
Fame found him, nonetheless. After appearing on an HBO “One Night Stand” special, and at the Montreal International Comedy Festival in 1990, he received booking offers in London, and his career as an expatriate comedian skyrocketed. In the U.S., he did clubs with a handful of people. In London, he was filling halls with thousands.
There is more to this complex life which can be seen in the documentary, which needs a few words.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking, it is flawed. The device of the animation to tell Bill’s story tends to become so much of a focus. The faces of the people speaking, which often can telegraph their emotions that charge the words, aren’t there often enough. The animation gets to make the movie, at two hours, without much relief, feel artificial and it begins to detract from the story telling of Hicks’ life. The best moments become those clips, though, some of them very home-brew, of Hicks on stage throughout his career. They are the diamonds in this rough.
Curious, also, though, is why the filmmakers chose to focus on the narratives of only his family and personal friends. Hicks worked with some of the biggest names in the business. The documentary tells us that Jay Leno loved him. Where was Jay to speak for him in the movie?
We’re also steered around anyone else who knew him. Who might have had a different opinion than the family and friends. No agent. No girlfriend, although the women in his life were often the subject of his most bitter barbs.
The irony of these particular 15 minutes of fame are that there are glimpses of a stunning portrait of an incredibly complex, intellectual, passionate human being who bypassed every norm of society and became its most outspoken critic, who is candy-coated in a cute animated movie whose script often seems to have the strip over the toilet that reads “Sanitized for your protection.”
The good news, though, is that what you see is enough to fascinate and amaze you. If you missed Bill Hicks in his life, you can go back and see much of what was captured of him. You can read more about him. He was the voice of my generation. Unfortunately, as is typical of my generation, we were too busy riding the coat tails of the baby boomers and we weren’t paying attention. Of course, he would have told us we were being that stupid and missed him.
Don’t miss him now. Even with the flaws in this movie, if you are a thinking person who loves this country, you will find a kindred sprit in “American.” It is on Apple TV, the pay-er-views, on-demands, and the movie is still on tour in a handful of cinema screenings. Go find it.
My shiny two.