Bill Hicks leaves a legacy
I am one of the few who argues the late comedian Bill Hicks was the most creative mind among English-speakers since Mark Twain, or at least Albert Einstein. Although Einstein is praised for forging brilliant advancements in physics, he got there with a vivid imagination, which Hicks held like an unbreakable sledgehammer.
Hicks was a self-educated social critic who spent years developing his wit and personality in comedy clubs (starting at 14), or alone in altered states. He died at 32 from pancreatic cancer just more than a decade of relentless touring in the U.S., playing on average 250 shows per year during the ’80s. The next decade, shortly before his death in 1994, but after the U.S. went to war in Iraq, he embarked for Europe where he was not censored, appearing in people’s homes.
Upon returning to the U.S., he joked to American crowds that his views on childbirth made him “virtually an anonymous figure in America.” He knew the real reason for a lack of mainstream popularity in America: what he noted as the built-in, neutered defense championed by politicians parading moral values and “the family,” commonly lobbying the Federal Communications Commission and other media establishments to keep the vulgarities off the airwaves and out of print.
About one year before his death, Hicks became the first performer at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City to be censored since Elvis Presley, who had his dancing hips censored. John Lahr of Index on Censorship Magazine wrote, “Hicks was not to be shown at all. It’s not what was in Hicks’ pants but what was in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums.” (The American Heritage dictionary states a “panjandrum” is “an important or self-important person.”)
In the set, Hicks didn’t cuss. He didn’t describe any lewd sexual activity. He didn’t tell the audience to join a cult, burn a cross, become a communist or storm the White House. Instead, he presented an alternative view to life’s peculiarities someone might find offensive or downright shocking, and the network executives (in Hicks’ opinion) cared more about ratings than letting him speak. And Hicks was a seasoned comedian, quick on his feet and clever, known for a knack on social issues and politics. Part of his humor is the shock, clever shock.
A show that surfaced on the Internet recently features Hicks performing in New York about three days after CBS cut his show. He begins the set performing the exact material he performed to the Ed Sullivan audience. He then explains the censoring, which is truly a revealing angle most people don’t commonly see.
The unsuspecting audience for that night and those who listen to the tape today find a man who pointed out “a double standard” in modern culture. He notes, on one hand, the networks consider themselves the gatekeepers of society’s morals, but ultimately they are amoral because they don’t want to lose advertisers, and “are whores at the capitalist gangbang.”
“They didn’t use the word ‘censor,'” Hicks said that night. “They used the term ‘standards and practices guidelines.’ You guys (CBS) have standards? Is this the same network that shows ‘Full House?’ What demographic are you trying to reach? Stupid to retarded?”
He explains how he spent weeks with Robert Morton, executive producer for “The Late Show,” working on a ten-minute set that was sure to send audiences at home falling out of their seats laughing hysterically. It was to be his seventh time on the show, so he had the necessary experience.
“Here’s the punchline. ‘Bill we really love you and we want you back in a couple of weeks.’ Really? I don’t know if I can learn to juggle by then! ‘Hi, I’m Bill Hicks and used to have a conscious. I made jokes about how our beliefs are affecting us negatively. Now watch this: an apple!'”
I gave my former journalism professor, an expert on media censorship, a copy of the Index on Censorship Magazine article and a copy of Hicks’ performance in the New York club. He said he understood why networks would want to censor Hicks because people would find the material offensive. He pointed out one joke (that he said was hilarious): “Why do Christians wear crosses around their necks? Do they think when Jesus comes back he actually wants to see a cross? That’s kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendent on.”
Hicks said CBS was not afraid of its audience; they feared they might lose viewers because someone presents a point of view contrary to the mainstream, “perhaps a view you might not agree with. People think I’m making fun of Jesus when I in fact did not make fun of Jesus. What made fun of is the way people act on their beliefs.”
It speaks volumes noting this month CBS Radio cancelled the Don Imus program for alleged racist comments—not immediately after the Rev. Al Sharpton demanded his removal, but immediately after the biggest advertisers pulled their money.
Maybe today Hicks could thrive on network television. He is listed as 19 on Comedy Central’s “Top 100 Comedians of All Time.” But what stands out the most is the timeless quality of his material. Even when his jokes were about current events then, his imagination stood out from most other comedians. If Einstein could create a theory, Hicks could make people laugh thinking about it.
In fact, he did adopt Einstein’s theory on energy and mass equivalency to expose his religious philosophy: “How come you never hear a positive news story on drugs? It’s always negative. Why don’t they do a positive story on drugs for once? For once I’d like to turn on the news and hear, ‘Today, a young man on acid realized all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.'”