Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection
By Ryan P. Carey
If I were a more conspiratorial thinker, I would be tempted to say that the Catholic Church conjured a metastatic pancreatic malignancy to dispatch one of its most eloquent and charming assassins. Bill Hicks could have very well been the biblical Antichrist, but the odd truth is that Hick’s spirituality was not atheistic so much as areligious. Hicks even spoke about how we’re all children of God, and that He loves each and every one of us — and especially because this topic was often broached surrounding his mention of psilocybin mushrooms — I don’t think he was being ironic.
Transcendentalism in comedy is somewhat an elite club. The elevation one feels from laughter alone is transcendence enough for most…And then some folks add an entire extra layer of context which tells you, “What I’m saying would still be important even if you weren’t laughing.”
It’s somewhat gluttonous, I suppose, for one’s taste in comedy to demand so much more than just laughs. A comic I know was telling me the importance of telling jokes about important things. He said, “why should I give a shit when some comedian tells a joke about birthday cake?” I replied, “well, it’s a much more impressive craft to make me laugh rapturously about something I don’t care about than a topic that is going to have my undivided attention no matter what. That’s why I’m more awed when Dave Attell makes me howl about taffy than when Jon Stewart makes me think about how unethical Ronald Regan was.”
The newly released Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection (2 CD + 2 DVD) box set contains two compact discs and two DVDs. I’m somewhat relieved that the material included is more of his substantial work (i.e. not that many dick jokes). I’ve always had a number of issues with Hicks, and one of them is his unnecessary quantity of dick jokes, and rather pedestrian ones at that (if I may use ‘pedestrian’ and ‘dick jokes’ in the same sentence). And this leads me to the second issue I have with him. As a strict anti-hypocrite, Hicks said, “If you’re in marketing, please kill yourself” and “If you’ve ever worked on a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll-call forever.” Well there’s something else he said at a lot of his shows, and that’s “Don’t worry, there will be more dick jokes later… I’m going to editorialize on philosophy for a while and then we’re all going to enjoy some dick jokes.” He basically marketed his act to his audience’s attention spans by offering some lowest-common-denominator humor in exchange for their focus during the socially conscious, culturally critical, and intellectually pertinent portion of his routine.
You could make the argument that toilet humor was part of what he loved doing. While it’s debatable how important it really was to him, it’s difficult to argue that his cunnilingual goat impression was anywhere near the same ballpark of quality as “Drugs and Rockstars” or “Miracle of Childbirth.” You say, “but there was plenty of vulgar ejaculation humor in ‘Miracle of Childbirth’!” Yeah, but it wasn’t a dick joke. It was a sanctity of life joke. That doesn’t automatically make it better joke. But it definitely is.
The two compact discs contain a lot of of his most famous anti-commercial, anti-war, pro-drug material. There’s a currently apropos bit in which he rails against Jay Leno a decade and a half before it was vogue. There are popular recordings (some of which were also rerun on 2001′s Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks) as well as previously unreleased recordings (which, in the world of Bill Hicks seem to be an endlessly trickling hot spring).
Okay, so maybe I can wax eloquent about achievement theory all day and I probably won the debate with my uber-clever perspective. But the greater point he made was undeniable. There are only so many hours during your life that you’re going to spend listening to comedy. What percentage of those hours do you want to spend learning about strategic grill locations, and what percentage do you want to spend gaining a truly more illuminated world view? Hey, to each his own, but the old “I don’t want to think when I’m at a comedy show” attitude is probably more of a casual fan’s option than a dedicated fan’s.
The DVDs are more of an anthology, containing hours of “Early Years” performances, and raw bootleg video. It also includes an interview and performance from the “Outlaw Comics” era. Hicks’ home movie, Ninja Bachelor Party, found on the second DVD, seems to be Hick’s mission statement. An absurd “follow your dreams and to hell with conventional wisdom” manifesto which, due to the poor production quality, poor audio quality, and mediocre acting quality, I think I would need to be in a certain extra tuned in frame of mind to sit through in its entirety. There’s also a download card for MP3s of original music recordings made by Hicks (the files — of an unknown extension type — wouldn’t work on my computer, but you can preview them all on the website. Interestingly, the guitar instrumentals are the best tracks.)
There’s something I’ve noticed about this box set which reflects my own collection of Bill Hick’s material. It reminds me of the Kennedy/Nixon debate. I almost always enjoy the work of Bill Hicks in audio format more than in video format. I’ve wrestled with this for a while. Maybe the reason is inherent in my relationship to each particular medium. Maybe, because audio is always corollary to some other activity, there is less unconscious demand for it to be amazing. Since sitting in front of the TV is a central experience which focuses the entirety of my expectations on what’s on the screen, perhaps I’m a more demanding entertainment consumer when cathode rays are involved. But if this was the singular explanation, the same principle would apply to every stand-up comedian whose routines are available on both CD and video. And there are certainly comics who it is always more of a treat to watch than just to listen to (i.e. Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr).
And there’s the answer. I realized it at soon as I saw those names written on my screen. They are practically my three favorite comics, and are overall more complete entertainers than Hicks. But there are some other upper echelon comics who share my audio bias with Hicks. The first ones that come to mind are George Carlin, Marc Maron, and Greg Proops. These cultural prophets all do better with me on CD or MP3 because their messages transcend their personas; what they say will always be way more substantial than how they say it. When watching them on TV, their declarations are bogged down by the context of bright-light showbiz clownery and the crude muck of an imperfect human vessel. When they’re on Comedy Central, their pontification is sullied by commercial interruptions, bathroom breaks and beer runs. But when they’re playing on my car stereo or iPod, they are just a voice in my head and their verbal tapestries are free to soar through my subconscious, unmolested by the club audience or camera crew. They make a much deeper connection with me when I can’t see them and their discourse is unchained from my cerebral foyer.
Hicks may never be able to top C.K. and Oswalt in my mind because they offer equal depth of art with the added value of brilliant entertainment. But even though he’s less of a rib tickler than other stand-up MVPs like Attell, Mitch Hedberg, and Jim Gaffigan, his comedy is definitely more important that theirs. And that’s nothing to sneeze at, because importance is, well, important.
Ryan P. Carey, D.D.S. is a Philadelphia-based comic and senior contributing writer for STAGE TIME. Check out his blog at http://dolphindentist.blogspot.com.