The Laugh Goodbye

When comedian Bill Hicks died this February, there was a heap of media attention in most major cities across the country. But here, in his hometown, the coverage was noticeably slim. Almost before Hicks was cold, dozens of clubs nationwide were sponsoring "tributes" filled with Hicks wannabes who aped his style and went on gooily about his "honesty" and his "anger." Unoriginal and exploitative, yes. But at least attention was paid. And how about in Houston? Nada.

Well, now the home city is trying to make it up with a tribute to Bill Hicks this Friday at the Laff Stop. Given that GQ has scheduled a Hicks story and that the BBC is preparing a Hicks documentary (the Brits always did like our boy Bill), some people may ask, okay, what's different about the Houston tribute? Why, at this late date, have it at all? Why not just shut up and let the poor guy rest in peace?

One thing that's different about this show is that it will feature a number of comics who actually knew Hicks and had some sort of influence on him. And what's really different is that Bill's mom will be there. As to why we shouldn't just all put a sock in it and let the boy sleep the big sleep -- because this was his home, dammit, and we should do right by him. He was a good Southern boy (with impeccable manners) and he was a hero and we should pay tribute. Period. Plus, it'll be fun.

The Laff Stop promises video clips from Hicks' career as well as snippets of home movies, which will be interspersed with comedy and remembrances from his friends and family. Clips will include samples from Hicks' early years -- samples that show he always had the spark of comedic brilliance -- and the opening sequence from his last HBO special, in which Hicks, wearing a black duster and black Stetson and moving to the accompaniment of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)," storms on stage through a wall of FX flames. It's the most over-the-top, over-theatrical entrance possible. Nobody should have been able to get away with it. Hicks did.

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He was always doing amazing things on stage that shouldn't have worked, and he always pulled them off. He could segue from the material that earned him a spot on Comedy's Dirtiest Dozen to a pro-literacy bit in which he recalled an encounter with a waffle waitress: "She asked not what am I reading, but what am I reading for," he would say in a horrified voice. And people who hadn't cracked a book since sophomore year would laugh.

People always laughed, and at things that shouldn't always be funny -- but that were with Hicks. He had one fine story about air travel that also involved a bit of child abuse. There was a point in the piece, which gained fair notoriety from his handful of TV appearances, where Hicks got a huge laugh merely by crooking his finger -- his setup was so perfect, so precise, that he didn't have to say he was beckoning a child, or why.

Another Hicks favorite, a Hicks antique, was "the vomit joke." He'd introduce the bit by expressing amazement that Jimi Hendrix could drown in his own vomit. "That's a lot of puke," Hicks would say. Then he'd do a little mock retching. "Getting up to the ladder now," he'd go on, and the retching would grow more intense. "No diving yet." And there would be a pantomime of vomiting so real the audience was inclined to duck, or hold its nose. As an idea it was sophomoric, and Hicks would generally refuse to do the piece unless someone begged him. But when he did it, it worked wonderfully, because the joy he took in imagining and creating such a gruesome image was liberating.

Among those toasting the original Texas Outlaw Comic this Friday will be Hicks' old stomping buddies Andy Huggins, Riley Barber, Jimmy Pineapple and Ron Shock. During the heyday of Houston comedy, these boys all had an impact on Hicks. Huggins' formidable intellect set a standard of erudition for Hicks' stage work. Barber's masterful character acting surely helped Hicks in setting scenes. Pineapple? Well, Hicks' physical grace was a natural gift, but given his offstage predilection for sloppy tie-dye shirts and vaguely preppy shorts, it's obvious that his sleek onstage look was styled by Pineapple. And Ron Shock can be called to task for the worst of Hicks' outlaw angles.

This is not to say that Hicks was a rip-off artist, or that the other comics have nothing to offer but their shadowing of their friend. The point is, back in the early '80s there was something special going on in Houston, and Bill Hicks was the best and the brightest of that. He achieved the classical standards of romantic irony -- the triumph of the artist's creative soul over all content and form. Big stuff for a skinny guy from Houston. Which is really a big ripping deal now that he's dead. And there's not a thing you can do, except maybe attend this tribute and for once acknowledge Houston's revolutionary comic genius. And laugh, of course.

A tribute to Bill Hicks, 10:30 p.m. Friday, June 3 at the Laff Stop, 1952 West Gray, 524-2333. $15.

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