Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 13: Bill Hicks, American Comedian

SOME TIME in the Eighties serious newspapers started appointing critics to review stand-up comedy, which must have been about the most dispiriting job on the paper unless you actually enjoyed spending endless nights listening to jokes about airline travel and fast food (American comics) or daytime television and masturbation (Brits).

That probably explains why the scabrous, high-energy performance put on by Bill Hicks at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival was so rapturously received by the critics, and why the Texan comic was immediately hailed as a genius.

Strange thing is, Hicks really was a genius. The tendency to overpraise anyone emerging from the morass of mediocrity that is modern comedy with an act that is sharp, original and - praise be - has a point, should not be discounted, but Hicks quite clearly was inspired.

If you listen to the four CDs of Hicks's act that have been issued since the comedian's death from pancreatic cancer in February 1994, you can detect influences - Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, whom he acknowledged; Jack Nicholson scolding the waitress in Five Easy Pieces; Martin Luther King at his fieriest (especially Martin Luther King) - but Hicks's voice is defiantly his own. That is something you can't learn, can't copy, can't fake.

A skilled comedy craftsman such as, say, Jerry Seinfeld, who pushes all the right buttons and is undeniably funny, is not really in the same business as Hicks. Hicks's mother, interviewed on a Channel 4 tribute to the comic, displayed a quarter of an inch of space between thumb and forefinger and said: "He was just that far from being a preacher" - which is as good an insight into Hicks as any. He really did want to change the world.

The comedian with whom Hicks is most often identified is Lenny Bruce, but since Hicks was not born until 1961 and Bruce died in 1966, any influence the sophisticated New Yorker might have had on his kindred spirit in the South must have been indirect.

There are extraordinary parallels, though. Both died young; both spoke up for recreational drugs; both were highly political, even touching on the same subject matter in the Kennedy assassination. Hicks did a brilliant routine about the Assassination Museum established in the Dallas Book Depository. ("I think it was set up after Kennedy was shot," says Hicks, "but I'm not sure of the chronology here.")

Bruce and Hicks both suffered censorship, too. Hicks, shortly before he died, famously had his act cut from the David Letterman show. Letterman's people were particularly concerned about Hicks's attack on anti-abortionists. ("If you're so pro-life," said Hicks, "don't lock arms and block medical clinics, lock arms and block cemeteries. I want to see pro-lifers opening caskets shouting, `Get out'.")

Neither were they too impressed with Hicks's thoughts on Christians who wear crosses ("Do you think when Jesus comes back he's ever going to want to see a cross again? That's like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant"), or his plans for a new TV game show called Let's Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus and its follow-up Let's Hunt and Kill Michael Bolton.

Quoting Hicks's words, elegant though they usually were, tells only half the story, though. Hicks's maniacal laugh and his body language as he stalked the stage spoke just as eloquently of the passion this original thinker felt. Always passion, never anger.

One of the truly remarkable aspects of Hicks was that however much he ranted, whatever shocking bile he spewed forth, he remained utterly lovable. He was a true hero, saying the unsayable for us.

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