“Hey, man. Killer idea.”
Texan stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, who died in 1993 from pancreatic cancer, is best remembered for his confrontational, evangelical intensity – his arch-conservative father had hoped he would become a minister. But, years before the Gingrich revolution and the George W. Bush administration, he knew how to sell an audience on a radical idea with an endearing Southern drawl.
“You guys like goin’ to the movies? You do? Three of you? I love the fuckin’ movies. Love ’em.”
Hicks did not survive to witness Sucker Punch or the works of Michael Bay. But he recalls catching Terminator 2 on the big screen and being so enamored with the special effects that he couldn’t imagine Hollywood ever topping them. “Unless…
“They start using terminally ill people as stuntmen.”
“Well, hear me out. ‘Cause I realize to some of you, this may sound a little cruel.”
In Irish satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1729 classic “A Modest Proposal,” he more casually worked his way around to suggesting that impoverished children be used as food. Once the idea was on the table, he describes the Irish poor in language typically applied to livestock. Hicks’s description of a dying grandmother packs a certain Swiftian rhetorical flourish.
“You know what I think ‘cruel’ is? Leaving your loved ones to die in some sterile hospital room, surrounded by strangers. Fuck that! Put ’em in the movies!”
“What? You want your grandmother dying in some sterile hospital room? Her translucent skin so thin you can see her last heartbeat work its way down her blue veins? Or do you want her to meet Chuck Norris?” He then illustrates Grammy’s glamorous end with his trademark homemade sound effects, like an imaginative adolescent with a mic, an amplifier, and large, often disturbed audience.
Stand-up comedy is one of the more isolated and dangerous forms of artistic expression. Typically, a lone individual serves as writer, producer, director, choreographer and star, and takes responsibility for maintaining a steady flow of laughter from an unpredictable, sometimes abusive audience. Also, to work, the whole operation must appear as natural and unrehearsed as possible.
Often, when discussing banal pop-culture, his extreme Anarcho-Futurist political beliefs, or his plan to establish “Arizona Bay” by sinking Southern California into the Pacific, Hicks had all the subtlety of Oliver Stone. However, in bits such as the one indexed as “A Killer Idea” or “Put ‘Em In the Movies,” he achieved the morbid satirical brilliance of a stand-up Kubrick, right there in the Chuckle Hut boiler room.
Predating Mike Judge’s dystopian comedy Idiocracy by well over a decade, Hicks also reconsiders the death penalty as mass amusement. “Poison? Electrocute? How cruel! And unimaginative! Put ’em in the movies!”
Hicks forced audiences to consider their own repressed bloodlust. He highlighted increasingly relevant worries about how to care for a growing elderly population (I said “growing,” not “exploding”) facing illness and death with tenuous financial security and alienated, overworked children. He hatched a brilliantly stupid scheme and played it for yuks. Politics usually doesn’t fly in stand-up comedy unless the bit would soar without it.
He’s been eulogized at length across various media, and remains fuck-all polarizing. Bill Hicks’s true gifts as a comedian are best seen in his long-form performances, the ones where he self-righteously self-destructs and then re-emerges from the ash, saving his set with a promise of “dick jokes on the way.” But, for today’s time-strapped consumer, Ryko’s The Essential Collection collects some condensed gags that still shine brightly, including “A Killer Idea,” a devastating JFK/Christ analogy, and a spot-on Willie Nelson impression.
|The Assbuster is a monthly column from the mind of Emerson Dameron, a comedian from Chicago who navigates the world of a stand-up comedy, hitting up open mics and comedy clubs. Dameron is a writer, comedian, and gentleman of the old school. He enjoys cats, oranges and the warm glow of a neon beerlight. Shadow him on his website or Twitter @EmersonDameron. He’s game for whatever.|