Wednesday marked 20 years since comedian Bill Hicks died from pancreatic cancer at 32.
While he’s not as popular as other deceased legends such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor or George Carlin, he deserves the same respect for his acerbic commentary on social issues, religion, philosophy, politics and more.
He commanded a stage and, after years of playing more than 300 shows per year, mastered his craft. His messages of hope and truth tried to encourage public dialogue about difficult and controversial topics.
While many of Hicks’ points remain valid two decades after his death, I wonder if his belief that stand-up comedy could provide the gift of catharsis has endured.
Performing on what he called his “Flying-Saucer Tour” – much like UFOs, Hicks doubted his own existence while playing small towns in the South for tiny crowds – he worked at a time before the Internet.
As a statement, that doesn’t mean much, but the reality has recoil.
Comedy, like so many lines of work, was transformed by the information age. Hicks saw stand-up as the last bastion of unimpeded, unedited, unfiltered speech in a public place, using the stage as a forum to discuss everything from pornography to conspiracies about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Hicks felt that other means of communication were stifled and co-opted, particularly the television. What would’ve been his final live TV performance served to prove his point, with his Oct. 1, 1993, appearance excised from “Late Night With David Letterman” for being too controversial. Letterman invited Hicks’ mother on his show in 2009 to finally air the segment.
The jokes included topics such as homophobia, gender roles, Christianity and a crack about creating a show named “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus,” a joke that has aged better than anyone could’ve predicted.
It was his willingness to go to such places that distinguished him. The points he made still resonate 20 years later, although some of the references are dated.
His dream of stand-up comedy as a cathartic bully pulpit was contingent on it being a shared experience with others in the room, people who weren’t checking their phones, trying to sneak a picture of themselves rows from the stage or live-tweeting the show.
The proliferation of phones has shattered the intimacy and sanctity of the distinction between public and private life in all aspects. No comedy club performance is immune from worldwide praise or ridicule when people can upload Vines before the show even ends.
Changing the nature of the audience – the entire world instead of a small gathering of listeners – changes the nature of the performance and the material, too. As stand-up comedy is not limited to a one-time experience in a club anymore, it strains the notion that there can be a truly open forum.
It’s a notion some may find liberating and it’s a risk every performer takes, but it changes the stakes.
While it may change the stakes for modern comedians, it’s hard to imagine camera phones would have changed Hicks at all. He was fearless, willing to stand in front of anyone to do his material. When one audience member told Hicks he didn’t come to comedy to think, Hicks replied, “Tell me where you do and I’ll meet you there.”
He wasn’t perfect – some of his material smacks of misanthropy and anyone who claims to know the truth and preach it draws an automatic aura of condescension – but his goal and his dream of what stand-up comedy could be is one to admire.
No matter how venomous his act could be, he tried to end his shows with a hopeful vision for humanity. Though his could be as cynical as they were hopeful, more than anything, Hicks wanted to unite people.
In a speech he wrote that was read at his funeral, the final words were, “I left in love, in laughter and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.