American Outlaw

A funny flame that burnt out early, Bill Hicks forcefully challenged the norms of society.

American: The Bill Hicks Story
April 28 and May 1, 7 p.m.,
April 30, 9 p.m.
Metro Cinema (Citadel Theatre)
4 out of 5 Stars

Of life’s many great tragedies, one of the worst is squandered potential, but even more dire than that is being robbed of it. Such was the fate of the late stand-up comedian and social critic, Bill Hicks. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer when he was just 32 years old.

Although he was already a sensation in the U.K., where he packed houses and had producers clamouring to make videos about him, Hicks was still a “cult” or “underground” figure in his native America, despite endorsements from Jay Leno, appearances on David Letterman’s late night show, an HBO special, and a spot in Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special. Part of the reason was censorship and part of it was controversy. Hicks regularly tackled subjects which made the mainstream media uncomfortable: religion, recreational drug use, politics, sexuality, conspiracy theories, consumerism and marketing as evils. His first appearance on Letterman had a joke about putting a classmate in a wheelchair excised and his entire final appearance was removed from the show, supposedly because of religious irreverence. Hicks didn’t take the censorship quietly, either. He railed about it in other venues, to the embarrassment of those who had censored him. (Letterman later apologized on-air to Hicks’ mother).

Anger, substance use, and social criticism outside the norm is always a tough route for an entertainer to take. One need only look at what happened to Lenny Bruce.

British filmmakers Matt Harlock (Toll, 2002 and Lollipop, 2001) and Paul Thomas (Prince William Uncovered, 2003) have made the definitive documentary about Hicks, told by his friends Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault, Andy Huggins, John Farneti, Hicks’ brother, sister, and mother, and others. One of the strengths of the film is its extensive use of photo-animation, which adds movement and dimension to still photographs in a dynamic but irreverent, cartoon-surrealist manner that Hicks himself would surely have approved of.

The other strength is the wealth of video footage of Hicks’ routines, from his earliest high school days to his final appearances, so the audience can judge for itself the power, sincerity, and laugh-out-loud potential of his constantly changing material.

The audience is pulled relentlessly and sympathetically into Hicks’ world. It is shown to be a hermetic world, revolving around himself and his friends. As Dwight Slade says, he didn’t want his family in it when he was young, locking them out of his bedroom when his friends were over. Yet, as he was dying, it was that family connection he turned to for comfort.

As the film points out, he went from poking fun at his family (especially his father) to mocking his country. The single-minded purpose of his vision even as a teenager and his refusal to submit to any kind of authority if he believed it false is extremely American, though his beliefs may have been an anathema to them at certain points. Canadians can feel justly proud that they “got” Hicks long before his own countrymen did. One of things that established him internationally was his appearance at Montreal’s 1991 Just For Laughs festival.

For all the influence that he’s had since his death (and the way he’s been imitated by so many other comedians) it’s also good to remember what the film clearly shows: that it’s not so much the controversial nature of his vision that makes Hicks special, but his honesty, the matching of his inner voice to his outer voice. He spoke his truth from his heart, like a blues singer. For an artist, especially today, that honesty, directness, and lack of a phoney “act” is what makes him or her so unique and valued. It makes the viewer wonder what sacred cows he’d be skewering today if he’d lived.


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