COMEDY / Hicks pics still kick: A new video celebrates the late Bill Hicks, scourge of the self-righteous. Ben Thompson mourns his fiery talent

IT IS nearly eight months since the death of Bill Hicks. The brave, iconoclastic American comedian would have been 33 in a few weeks' time. It might seem depressing to dwell on this, but it needs dwelling on. Death has cast an abnormally long shadow over the lively arts this year. Hicks, with River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, forms a trio of prematurely departed icons who prove that whatever else you think of the grim reaper, he certainly has taste. Their passing has left a spiritual hole in the middle of each of their respective fields that is too big to walk around.

For both Cobain and Phoenix, the end was - purposely or otherwise - self-administered. Hicks was different. His act celebrated hedonism; he spoke out in favour of recreational drug use and was a fanatical defender of the right to smoke. Early on in his career, his profligate lifestyle seemed to court the excess-fuelled, rock-star premature death which eventually befell his fellow Texan 'outlaw comic' Sam Kinison; yet he eventually died of natural causes in the ugly form of pancreatic cancer, having long since given up not only drink and drugs but cigarettes too.

'The comic is a flame - like Shiva the destroyer,' Hicks told the New Yorker critic John Lahr in an idealistic moment in 1992. 'He keeps cutting everything back to the moment.' Comics are so much of the moment that it is difficult enough to capture what is good about them on TV when they are alive, and harder still for them to have an after-life. Even when they do - as, say, Lenny Bruce has - anyone who didn't see them perform will find it hard to remember what was funny about them.

The way forward might, as so often, lie in commercial exploitation. 'It's Just a Ride', the tribute film which makes up the first part of Totally Bill Hicks, a new Channel 4 video, offers fascinating insights into Hicks's life and work. There are revealing interviews with his parents, God-fearing Southerners who 'couldn't understand why Bill used the f-word so much'; and with the geeky friends with whom he used to sneak off to perform at a rough-and-tumble Houston comedy club at the tender age of 15.

The affection and envy mingling in the eyes of his fellow comedians speak volumes about Hicks's talents. Comedians are competitive, not given to abasing themselves at the feet of their peers. Eddie Izzard and Sean Hughes represent Hicks's British fan-club (it could just have easily have been Rob Newman and Steve Coogan), but American Brett Butler is more revealing.

Hicks's treacle-voiced fellow Southerner, star of C4's Grace Under Fire, observes that 'For all the talk about Bill being like Hendrix or Dylan or Jim Morrison, it was Jesus he wanted to be.'

The Messianic tendencies are apparent as he emerges from tongues of fire on to the Dominion Theatre stage on the last night of his 1992 Revelations tour. But it's the ordinariness of his appearance which is striking once he's taken his cowboy hat off - slicked-back hair, button eyes and chubby face like a potato in a stocking - and which throws the brilliance of his performance into even sharper relief.

Bill Hicks's command of the stage and of his material was so complete that it sometimes seems like he's using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even when he isn't. His intensity - especially when personifying his own libido as the demonic Goat-boy (motto: 'Let me wear you like a feed bag') - is almost frightening. Like the preacher he often fancied himself to be, Hicks could be self-righteous and he could hector, but he could also be devastating.

'Ever noticed,' he asks, 'how creationists look really unevolved?' The industrial-strength sarcasm which went down so well in Britain landed him in trouble in the US, especially when applied to such targets as fundamentalist Christianity. Last October, when he turned his scorn on anti-abortionists in a routine being recorded for the David Letterman Show ('These pro-lifers . .

. You ever look at their faces? . . . (screws up face and assumes bitter, pinched voice) 'I'm pro-life' . . . Boy, they look it, don't they?'), Hicks became too hot for even the supposedly cutting-edge Letterman to handle.

The cancelled slot had been recorded in the same theatre where Elvis's pelvis was deemed unsuitable for the Ed Sullivan Show, and the ensuing censorship furore spurred Hicks on through the rigours of chemotherapy to a final epic bout of creativity ('It was like Bill to the tenth power,' said friend and producer Kevin Booth. 'He couldn't be involved in any kind of mundane situation for even a second').

The fruits of this - two complete albums of new material and videos of his last live performances - should emerge early in the new year: further timely reminders that a comedian can do something more than just remember old television programmes or analyse the difference between cats and dogs. And if American fundamentalists don't like it - 'Well,' as Bill Hicks used to coo with deadly relish, 'forgive me.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home