The afterlife of comedy's dark hero

Bill Hicks was the funniest man in America. His blistering routines made trouble - and his death at the age of 32 made him a legend. As his complete works are published for the first time, Bill Bailey celebrates the life of an inspirational and provocative performer
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I greatly regret that I never got to see Bill Hicks live. He only performed a handful of shows in Britain, a few of which were recorded for video, and it was because of one of these, Revelations, recorded in 1992, that I first registered his greatness. The show begins with a Hendrix-like guitar riff, stage empty except for a backdrop of a prairie in silhouette. A black door opens at the back and a black-clad figure strides forward, apparently out of a flame. What a sensational opening. The show that follows is, quite simply, a classic, which I have watched many times. It sealed my devotion.

Even before this, Hicks was a cult favourite in America, and a passionate advocate of freedom of expression. Much has been written about his politics and how the absurdity and double standards of government were the spur for some of his best comedy. But I think this does him an injustice. He was much more than just a topical comic: he was a gifted and consummate performer whose ear for language and character was as much a part of the act as the anger that drove it.

Hicks was a peerless physical performer; he could bend and shape his body to any routine. A skilled mimic, he was also a master of multiple comic voices.

A key skill for many comedians is the imaginative use of the microphone. Hicks would turn his back to the audience during routines, taking long pauses between phrases, letting you focus on the words and the sound of his voice.

At the time I first saw him, I was tending to rush through my own stage material, not pausing for fear of losing momentum (or the audience), so such apparent fearlessness was liberating to watch - a measure of how you could occupy a stage and still grip the audience's attention. The seemingly languorous way that he built up a routine was the mark of a comic so supremely confident of the material that he could afford to take his time, to set up the premise, and then work out the ideas.

A problem for any comedian whose staple material is topical is that it has a limited shelf life - you hear it a few years later and it seems quaint and far-off, like an old tape of the news. But listen to Hicks talking in 1992 about the first President Bush looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it all sounds startlingly - and depressingly - up-to-date. Some things don't change

Hicks was performing stand-up from the age of 13 in his Bible Belt home town of Nottingham Forest, and I think his boredom there and desire for excitement set him up for a lifetime of expanding his horizons, metaphorically and chemically. By the time he was in his twenties he had acquired that unwanted moniker, the "comedian's comedian": the one the other comics would turn up to see. I say unwanted, because it invariably means that the comic in question is highly regarded by his peers, but hasn't received the widespread acclaim that he deserves - or, maybe, craves.

Last year, I was working in New York and met a couple of comics who had gigged with Hicks in Brooklyn clubs. They were quite surprised that I knew about him. To them, he was still an underground figure, if a massively influential one. After the show one night, I was in a bar with some pleasant non-comedy types, just ordinary New Yorkers - perhaps a Parks Department employee, or an IT worker from Brooklyn, you get the picture. The conversation soon came round to American comedians, and the question of who was my favourite. The name Bill Hicks was met with blank looks. "Bill who?"

It is a sad fact that he probably received greater appreciation over here than in his own country. Here, we encourage dissenting voices, we revel in slagging off our leaders, our betters, our peers; we grow up in an atmosphere of healthy irreverence. It wasn't until I worked there that I realised the true extent of censorship in America, and I was shocked. This is a nation in which news channels show wholly uncritical reports of the government, folksie stories dominate the bulletins - wild weather here, cat up a tree there, and... "Oh yeah, today there was a development or something in some war in a far-off dusty part of the world... Here we see some foreigners shouting - ohmygod look at them - well, never mind... Hey, we're okay! Look at the tiny kitten!"

Maybe it's not quite as bad as that, but you get my drift. Last spring, when there was a huge anti-war march in Washington attended by more than 100,000 protesters, it never made prime-time on any national news channel, and was instead shown at 4am on the cable version of NBC with no editorial, no context, no comment whatsoever, as if it were merely a matter of some nutters blathering away on public access.

It's quite telling, also, that even left-leaning, liberal-minded Democrats get nervous at any outright criticism of the government. It is so deeply embedded in the American psyche - this US vs them mentality - that when someone like Hicks comes along, it's easy to see why he would have had such a hard time over there.

Tearing into such sensitive subjects as pro-lifers, birth control, drug and cigarette addiction, and foreign policy was bound to set him on a collision course with a deeply conservative society.

The precise moment of that collision came about when his set on David Letterman's late-night talk show was edited entirely out of the programme before it went on air. It later transpired that one of the chief sponsors of the show was a pro-life organisation that ran advertisements during the commercial breaks.

This level of censorship is unheard of here, and I hope it would not be tolerated. But its effect in America is to produce these kinds of passionate anti-establishment voices on the margins of the cultural mainstream. Hicks is frequently compared to that other iconic figure of American stand-up, Lenny Bruce, who battled with authority throughout his career on the subject of obscenities and his freedom to speak them. At least Hicks never had a problem with obscenity - compared with his magnificent routine about vacuous pop stars orally pleasuring Satan in return for fame, Bruce's mild exploration of sexual behaviour seems quaint, but the notorious Letterman incident demonstrates that in terms of powerful conservative forces controlling the media, not much has changed. (Witness the recent Janet Jackson nipple outrage.)

His material was topical and satirical, like that of many other comics, and on the face of it neither groundbreaking nor original. But he laid into his targets with such controlled venom, such brilliant use of language, that these routines were elevated into perfectly formed classics.

Hicks described himself as a "one-man movie", and this was more accurate than it might at first appear.

What I first saw in his show was, like a movie, polished, edited and honed over years of hard gigging, and combining the best of all his traits: this was great material performed brilliantly with languid ease, in the controlled and passionate way that to a comic says: "He's put in the hours, he's done his time, that's thousand of gigs of experience up there." In some ways, I'm glad I just saw the finished article.

Usually I don't like to see a comic's routines repeated in print. It never does justice to the live performance, but in this case I think an exception can be made.

Take the sequence in which Hicks describes America arming countries and then attacking them, which he likens to Jack Palance and the Sheep Herder in the movie Shane. Palance throws a gun to the sheep herder and dares him to pick it up. In imitation of Palance's deep, breathy tones - and, by moving his mouth close to the mike, getting the full cinematic Dolby sound - Hicks commands the hapless herder to "pick up the gun". Then, he switches voices to the farmer, nervous, high-pitched, pulling back from the mike. "I don't want to, Mister. I don't want no trouble." Palance replies: "Pick up the gun". "I just came into town to buy some hard rock candy for my kids and some gingham. I don't even know what gingham is but the wife goes through about 10 rolls of the stuff every week." Long pause, much laughter. "Pick up the gun," repeats Palance. Hicks then mimes the farmer reluctantly and gingerly picking up the gun - and, just as he does, Palance shoots him. Hicks drops like a stone to the floor of the stage. In Palance's voice, he intones: "You all saw him. He had a gun."

This is great stand-up; in fact, it is more like a piece of theatre. With a leap of imagination, a few choice words, and the two voices in the theme you have a perfectly realised and insightful satire, not preachy, and above all very funny.

Above all, Hicks had a persona you could like and identify with, and this is the rarest gift of all. It means that you are already most of the way there in capturing the affection of your audience.

I think he gave people a voice; he was the mouthpiece for a kind of inchoate rage and frustration. Watching him, you felt a sense of communal catharsis - that your world-worries, which for the most part get crowded out by domestic, day-to-day concerns, were being exorcised. He would hold up for scrutiny the scary revisionist mindset of the creationists, the hypocrisy of government, the "non-miracle of childbirth", and he would bring them into sharp focus. Somehow you felt that as long as he was there, hilariously debunking these things in public, we'd feel powerful. All he did, really, was to tell the truth about himself, and about the way he saw the world - and this is the hardest thing to do on stage and still be funny with it. Hicks's life was spent in this quest and he succeeded brilliantly, and to me and to countless others he remains nothing short of an inspiration.

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, by Bill Hicks is published by Constable & Robinson