By Colin Woodward
Last night, I finally watched American: The Bill Hicks Story.
I’ve been a fan of Bill Hicks for a while. It was one of those post-graduate school, things. How I found out about Bill, I’m not sure. I think I was on amazon, reading about Denis Leary. One of the comments said Leary was a hack: he stole everything from Bill Hicks. Hmm, I thought. Who is this guy Bill Hicks? And was Leary truly a hack that had stolen everything from Hicks?
Well, not everything. But after listening to Hicks on Dangerous and Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1 and a handful of other DVDs and CDs, I realized that there is no doubt that Leary lifted quite a bit. A shameful amount, really. The real proof is that Hicks died in 1994. Denis Leary hasn’t done anything funny since.
American is a good introduction to Hicks. Much of the biographical material in it I already knew. But there were some scenes that were unknown to me, such as when we see Bill travel to Waco, Texas, to watch the Branch Davidian debacle in person. I also liked seeing Bill play rock music with his friends.
Bill was born in Georgia and raised in the Houston area. He died at 32 in Arkansas. He wasn’t just young when he died. His death can only be described as unacceptable. There is no doubt that he would have went on to greater things. He would have had endless political material had he lived to see the Clinton impeachment and the two Bush terms. He might even have found a nice fit on a cable sitcom, like Larry David, Louie C.K. and Marc Maron have.
But, no. And in a way, Bill’s early death from pancreatic cancer was fitting. He always talked about visionaries who were taken from us too early. Bill Hicks was the Jimi Hendrix of standup comedy. He wasn’t just funny, he was philosophical. And very smart.
What I found most interesting about American was the archival footage of Hicks, which included many photographs and home movies. Hicks was raised in a firmly middle class, suburban household. His dad worked for a car manufacturer. His mother was and is a Mississippi-born Baptist with a tolerance streak. And apparently, someone always had the camera running when Bill was growing up. The film has an innovative style that reminded me of the great film American Splendor. I think Hollywood could make a great biopic about Hicks. Still, I can’t think of anyone that could play him.
Hicks was born to do comedy. He was playing clubs when most people were getting their driver’s license. And he was a veteran comic before he had his first beer. Some years, he would play 300 shows. Despite so much gigging, his act was always evolving.
Bill had troubles with drinking. But he was always surrounded by loving friends and family. And American puts them at the center of it. We don’t hear from any famous comics, celebrities, or girlfriends. We don’t get cultural critics telling us what it all meant. We instead meet Bill’s lifetime friends. His mother. His brother and sister. Photos of his dad. High school pictures.
Bill was an angry comic, but he was raised in a privileged environment. Bill’s house was big enough for him to hide in. Many kids (myself included) didn’t have their own room to retreat to at the end of the day. Bill probably spent too much time in his own head. He could be nihilistic. But his message could also be very uplifting and life affirming.
Bill died in Little Rock. His family’s house (which is still owned by the Hicks family) is shown in American, but there’s no reference to where he died. I’ve had the pleasure of having had long talks with Bill’s mother, Mary Reese Hicks, on two occasions. She is a funny woman, generous with her time, and she’s very protective of Bill’s legacy.
In a way, American doesn’t do justice to Bill’s genius. Only a few of his funniest bits are included in this movie. Really, you need to see a whole performance to know what he was all about. Movies are visual, but Bill Hicks was someone that you didn’t need to ever see to appreciate and understand. It’s all there on his comedy albums. The talk about sex, war, relationships, parents, traffic, work. Film wasn’t Bill’s medium, anymore than it was for Elvis or John Lennon. Even so, for Bill Hicks’s fans, American is a must-see.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.