Comedy Legend Bill Hicks: In Complete View

Houston's Best Export: Comedy Legend Bill Hicks
Houston's Best Export: Comedy Legend Bill Hicks Photo by The Hicks Estate

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Houston's Best Export: Comedy Legend Bill Hicks
Photo by The Hicks Estate

“You know, there’s a handful of people that run everything. That’s a fact, I’m not some conspiracy nut. A handful, very small, elite run and own these corporations, which include the mainstream media. I have this feeling that whoever’s elected president… when you win, you go into this smoky room with the twelve industrialists capitalists scum-fucks who got you in there.  And a big guy with a cigar goes: ‘Roll the film.’ And it’s a shot of the Kennedy Assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before. It looks suspiciously off the grassy knoll. Then the screen comes up, and they go to the new president: ‘Any questions?’”
- Bill Hicks, Rant in E-Minor (1993)

Somehow, that’s a joke written by a comic who died 23 years ago.

The timeliness (and thus, timelessness) of that specific joke speaks directly to the gifts of its designer: modern legend of stand-up comedy and beloved Houstonian Bill Hicks. Both incisive and imaginative, the story of Bill Hicks is an essential one in the oral history of comedy fans. Both myth and cautionary tale, the Hicks parable appears simple: A visionary performer who found little support in the showbiz avenues he pursued finds himself alien in his own country. Even though he later found success in Europe, his deeply held anti-“sellout” beliefs seemed to keep the performer at arms length in the entertainment industry, which left him reliant on rigorous touring just to survive. After a surprise cancer diagnosis, the prodigy died young at 32 — a tragedy compounded by the fact that his immense talents were rarely recognized during his life.

But it seemed, only after the comedian’s output stopped completely, could society catch up with his cutting edge. His persona, the chain-smoking philosopher, became an oft-imitated (and occasionally stolen) style for up-and-coming comics to model themselves after. His sets, most unrecorded, became the ones that comics asked other comics to describe. His name itself became a calling card for originality: the next Bill Hicks would have to stand for something.

Improbably, despite his generational absence, the titan of the road still continues to amass new fans keen on his clear-eyed prophecies and cynically honest takes on government, religion, sex and entertainment. Despite his short window on the stage, Hicks wrote his words to last and after releasing only two albums during his life (Dangerous and Relentless), a hefty stockpile of the comic’s recorded-yet-unreleased material sat untouched. For a while…

While certain bootlegs have always seemed to float around the Internet for fans who couldn’t get enough of Hick’s straight-arrow bile, the quality of these (often-fan captured) recordings was pretty rough on the ear – a price happily paid by most of his diehard devotees. But for many in the mainstream, Hicks’s few commercial releases were all that there was of the Outlaw Comic. Thankfully, producer Comedy Dynamics has stepped up to the plate and cracked open the vault.

With Bill Hicks: The Complete Collection, we get the fullest time capsule of the performer ever assembled – 12 CDs, six DVDs and, perhaps most special, a lovingly created companion book of photos from throughout Bill’s life, both onstage and off. The set itself is one of the most thorough collections for a comedian ever. Physically, this compendium is compact and attractive, with a cigarette box-style pull-top and the folder-like CD storage of a high-quality TV box set. From a completionist stand-point, the package instantly earns the right to sit beside great comedy collections (the gold standard for such collections is the Warner Brother-era Richard Pryor: And It’s Deep Too! and the Shout Factory’s eclectic The Incredible Mel Brooks). By working with the Hicks estate, Comedy Dynamics has done this right. (Kudos to the team behind the box: Jack Vaughan, Brian Volk-Wess and Michael Epstein, as well as Bill’s family — Steve Hicks, Mary Hicks, Lynn Hicks.)

The audio collection is certainly the prize jewel of the set, which repackages the comic’s entire eight-album commercial discography. His bests, the posthumous 1997 duel-release Rant in E-Minor and Arizona Bay, have never sounded better – and the uncut versions of previously released albums are sure to please purists. (The badly butchered 2003 abridgment Shock and Awe has been replaced by the superior Salvation, in all its robust 114-minute glory.)

“Like Flying Saucers, I too have been appearing in small southern towns in front of handfuls of hillbillies - I’ve been doubting my own existence too.”

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Equally exciting is the decision to unearth Bill’s wealth of heretofore-unreleased material, which includes insightful glimpses into the writer’s formative years during his teeth-cutting tours across Texas (Early Bill Hicks/Amarillo ’85), as well as including higher-quality transfers of two shows done at The Queen’s Theatre in London in 1992 (Early Show/Late Show), as well as the long-awaited second volume of his Flying Saucer Tour series – an homage to Hicks’s preferred way of viewing his career. (The joke is heard on Dangerous: “Like Flying Saucers, I too have been appearing in small southern towns in front of handfuls of hillbillies - I’ve been doubting my own existence too.”)

There is some repeated material across discs, an unavoidable side effect of recording live shows over such a brief professional time frame. But even within similar bits – for instance, Hicks’s hypersexual demon “Goat Boy” appears across several discs – the comic’s natural tendencies to ride his audience’s energy keep all his quips from being written in concrete.

Of course, the cyclical thoughts of the comedian are certainly a part of the collection’s appeal too. Like charting a painter’s evolution across mediums, or a band across stylistic periods, watching a master craftsman deconstruct a single concept this way, across almost 15 years, offers listeners a unique opportunity to see how Hicks honed material. For instance, hearing Hicks’s views on smoking can serve as a convenient barometer for his overall views on life itself.

On Amarillo ’85, a high-voiced Hicks takes the perspective of the light-hearted observer, saying: “Even if I didn’t smoke, I’d sit in the smoking sections. Because I think smokers are way more interesting than non-smokers. Anyone who tries to systematically kill themselves all day long, every day has a quirky view of life.”

By 1990’s Dangerous, the smirking comic seems to be finding his humor not from those who smoke, but
from those who want to persuade smokers otherwise: “Every pack has a different Surgeon General’s warning. Mine says, ‘Warning: Smoking may cause fetal injury or pre-mature birth’… I say, just don’t get the ones that say ‘Lung Cancer!’”

Two years later, in Oxford's Salvation, after a more solemn, almost depressed Hicks has kicked the puffing habit, he instead finds his perspective from the natural tendency of his audience to boo him after he admits so onstage. “People ask me why’d I quit smoking? Is that a weird question to anyone else? ‘Why’d you take your mouth off the exhaust pipe, man? Traitor! Judas! I say, chill out, all right.’ This isn’t Dylan Goes Electric, okay? ”

“People ask me why’d I quit smoking? Is that a weird question to anyone else? ‘Why’d you take your mouth off the exhaust pipe, man? Traitor! Judas! I say, chill out, all right.’ This isn’t Dylan Goes Electric, OK? ”

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In addition to the recently uncovered audio, the box’s DVD selection is first-rate: For those who have seen nothing, this offers viewers everything.

The feature-length concert specials Sane Man, Relentless, Reflections and his half-hour HBO One Night Stand offer a glimpse at the comic at his most polished. Along the way, there are plenty of self-made
tapes of Hicks at work – several of which were shot in Houston at the Comedy Workshop, alongside fellow self-labeled “Outlaw Comics” Jimmy Pineapple, Andy Huggins and Ron Shock. These clips (The Outlaw
Comics, Live at Comix Annex ’81, ’84, ’86
, and Live at the Laugh Stop ’91, ’92, ’93) all vary wildly in both film quality and Bill quality – but it is undeniably charming to see Hicks in his earliest years struggling to define his voice. The spot at Comic Annex ’81 finds Bill, only 19 years old, performing an act mostly foreign to what he’d be famous for – all about the charming foibles of his family, the choking climate of the suburbs or the banality of Houston traffic. The performance is neither great nor unwatchable; it’s simply a moment in time –
but from a historical perspective, it is a treasure.

The highlight of the DVDs is easily Totally Bill Hicks, which, running at more than two hours, is the longest feature in the collection. The first hour of the film (which was released in England as It’s Just A Ride in 1994) is the spectacular documentary on Hicks’s life. With full participation of the comedian’s family, friends and fans, this deep dive on Bill’s personal and professional life is the closest this collection gets to a reflection point. Even though it was made just a year after his passing, the documentary paints a legend similar to the Hicks of today: wise beyond his years, appreciated too late.

Just A Ride bleeds seamlessly into Revelations, which may indeed be the perfect Bill Hicks hour. In what turned out to be his final live performance in the United Kingdom, Revelations paints Hicks as the stranger in the strange land. The film begins with an extended voice-over (delivered by Hicks) as a mysterious drifter who rides across a grim nighttime scene on a glorious white horse. As Hicks explains, “It was the tail end of the American Dream, just before we lost our innocence irrevocably and the TV eye brought the horrors of our lives into our home.” The fog of the apocalyptic city street engulfs Hicks, as he continues: “I was told when I grew up, I could be anything I want: a fireman, a policeman, a doctor, even president. But like many kids, growing up on a steady diet of Westerns, I always wanted to be the cowboy hero. That lone voice in wilderness fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it.” The cowboy renegade emerges onto the London stage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and a standing ovation; this special is the cinematic tragic-hero story that only a legend could pull off. With A+ material, and 2,000 audience members in rabid allegiance, Hicks never seems more in control or at home.

To say this collection covers the Bill Hicks canon is impossible. As so many professionals in the field will tell you, you’ve never seen a comic until you’ve seen him live. So this Complete view, sadly, will always remain a frustratingly incomplete one. But for those who came around too late, those poor Millennials (like myself) craving to see a past master in his prime, this box is as good as it gets. And for those who knew him or simply know that his name means quality, your time machine awaits. 

For Bill Hicks, and his followers, there’s always deeper truth to be uncovered. Just press play.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, or trying to hustle up a few laughs himself!
Contact: Vic Shuttee