by Bill Hicks

Since you're reading this site, you probably don't need telling of Bill Hicks's status as one of the greatest stand-ups of all-time.

But his genius is largely unrecognised outside the comedy cognoscenti, especially in his native America where he never really managed to emerge from the circuit.

It is something to be proud of that he did find an outlet and audience for his comedy in Britain, thanks to a Channel 4 executive knowing a good thing when he saw one.

But even so, his death of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 a decade ago robbed comedy of one of its most influential figures before his star really shone. On the other hand, of course, there's nothing like an early death to secure an iconic status, either, especially for a figure so essentially rock and roll as Hicks.

He was a template for a generation. He spoke his mind with passion, savaging hypocrisy with a preacher's zeal yet never forgetting the humour inherent in such a ridiculous world. And, unlike many who followed in his wake, he genuinely, and deeply, believed in every word he said.

Reading the transcripts of his routines in Love All The People, you can almost hear his strident voice leap from the page, dripping with sarcasm, righteous anger and utter, savage contempt.

But 'almost' is the key. Stand-up is meant to be performed, not read, and you quickly yearn to slap on a CD or video to hear this brilliant material from the horse's mouth, rather than reading yet another word-for-word transcript.

And boy, do the compilers of this book love a transcript. No fewer than nine complete stand-up shows are committed, verbatim, to print here. But it's hard to see exactly why, when large tracts of material remain substantially the same between performances.

Comedy anoraks might want to dissect the subtle variance in wording, the way the different sets run with different emphasis or rhythms or enjoy the way he goes off-script to furiously berate the audiences who don't give him the respect he deserves.

But even so, you'll find yourself skipping great chunks of material, with a dismissive 'oh, this is the Iraqi Republican Guard bit', 'the getting stopped by traffic cops while stoned routine' or the 'abortion rant' as you encounter it for the Nth time.

More revealing are a number of letters and articles Hicks wrote during his brief life. Some, inevitably, are distilled versions of his stand-up, but others give a real insight into the man.

The long, impassioned letter he wrote to journalist John Lahr after the David Letterman show unceremoniously dumped his routine for being controversial, falsely trying to lay the blame on prudish network executives, explains one of the most formative episodes in his career.

And patient, polite responses to clergymen who complained about his Channel 4 special reveal an intelligent man prepared to defend his stance through careful argument, rather than simply an angry loudmouth railing against anything. There were brains behind the attitude.

But then anyone who knows about Hicks already knew that. From his work, from the recent, compelling biography by Cynthia True, and from various tributes already published in the press or online.

So while completist, die-hard fans will no doubt pour over these rarities and the nuances of his shows, there are plenty of better introductions to his genius, not least one of the many recordings of the man himself.

Steve Bennett
March 16, 2004

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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