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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?