“These Aren’t Idle Thoughts”: In Memoriam of Comedian Bill Hicks

In 1852, Karl Marx amended an observation about history made by his philosophical mentor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, writing: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” This famous passage, made even more famous recently by renowned Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, is emphasized in the life and work of the infamous comedian, Bill Hicks.

Bill Hicks graphicHicks, a Georgia-born, Texas-bred comedian, died this day, February 26, in 1994. His influence on other comedians has been profound, with colleagues and friends such as Dennis Leary drawing heavily from Hick’s work. His delivery moved from staccato and conversational to sincere and melodic with sudden, almost apocalyptic, profanity-laced crescendos complete with sound effects. And though his routines were always rooted in a Texas twang, his voice somehow transcended provincialism allowing Hick’s to provide much needed comic relief in a world steadily losing its sense of humor.

Of course Hicks was more than just a comedian; he was a satirist, and as close to a contemporary philosopher as may have been possible during the cynical “End of History” 1990s. Hicks used his comic style to deliver very deep and poignant social critiques – often to unresponsive and hostile audiences – as he himself often joked. He was critical of the anti-intellectual currents that had developed in the 1980s and raged against the hypocrisies of America’s partisan conservatives and liberals. Yet, somehow, his self-described “dark poetry” never failed to culminate in “a healthy gut laugh.”

Hick’s tirades spared no one. He denounced the lack of independent thinking of partisan Republicans and Democrats like a Post-Modern Will Rogers, but his political material was only one feature of his burning appeal for sincerity in American culture. He lashed out at talkshow hosts, marketing agents and pop stars “hocking” products, referring to them as “demons set loose on the Earth to lower the standards for the perfect and Holy Children of God, which is what we are. Make no mistake about it.”

Three names in particular, Bush, Clinton and Cyrus, evoked the most intense of Hick’s fire-and-brimstone comedic outbursts. Of course the Bush was George Bush, Sr. – not “Dubya” -and the Clinton was Bill – not Hillary – and the Cyrus of popular culture was Billy Ray Cyrus – not Miley. Yet, in an eerie reminder of Marx’s axiom, Hick’s work has once again become relevant over a decade after his death, as both American politics and popular culture seem to be more and more dominated by dynasties. If you don’t believe me, have another listen – or listen for the first time – to “We Live in a World” from Hick’s posthumous 1997 album, Dangerous.

by J.D. Thompson