The first time I ever heard of Bill Hicks, I knew that he was an outlandish comedian who David Letterman had called a genius. I knew that his version of stand-up was known for its controversy, a modern day Lenny Bruce, without the criminal track record. He had the insight of George Carlin combined with the ferociousness of Sam Kinison. There would be no fart jokes when it came to Bill Hicks.
‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’ is a film chronicling Hicks’ rise to fame as a boundless and politically rebellious comic before his death at age 32 to pancreatic cancer. The film, produced by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, takes us back to Hick’s family life growing up in Houston with his Southern Baptist family. As Hicks puts it ‘ everyone thought that growing up I was Catholic, but that’s not true, I was a Southern Baptist, which is worse.’
Hicks’ first taste of comedy was Woody Allen. He saw what Woody did, which was making people laugh, and decided that he could do that too. The setting is Houston in the 60’s, where there is no Youtube, comedy clubs or comedians. If you’re funny, you’re on your own. Bill and his friends have to resort to entertaining their classmates in order to get noticed. It isn’t until the Comix Annex opens in Houston that Bill and his friends get their shot at stand-up comedy.
Hicks’ first experience with stand-up isn’t edgy or in-your-face, it’s just Hicks’ talking about family life and his strict but friendly parents. As he grows and gets more established, he heads out to Los Angeles, where he becomes a featured headliner at The Comedy Store at the age of 21. It is here that Hicks’ finds himself as a comic, and also as a drinker and drug user. As one of his friends puts it, Bill is the only guy who would get into drugs and psychedelic mushrooms before ever having a drop of alcohol. The first time Hicks has alcohol, he asks his friend what people like to drink. His friend says people like margaritas, so he orders seven, downs them, and then goes onstage.
We see the evolution of Hicks as a smart comic, into a drunk one. It’s when he drinks that the real raw humor comes out, the anti-establishment Bill Hicks awakens and takes over his show. Hicks goes from smart comic, to drunk comic, to drugged-out comic, and then cleans up his act when the clubs stop hiring him.
His coming of age happens in the early 90’s, with events like the Gulf War and The Branch Davidians having a major impact on his view of the government. Hicks is a very passionate challenger of authority, and his material, while funny, doesn’t play to American audiences as well as it does to audience overseas. He is an American ridiculing American government. Whereas in the U.S. he is playing to comedy clubs and restaurants, in Europe he is selling out arenas and theaters.
It is around this time that Bill Hicks is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, just as his set on David Letterman is cut. He begins one of his club appearances saying he is giving up on comedy, that he doesn’t enjoy it, while knowing that he doesn’t have much longer to live.
The film leaves the audience with a sense of closure. We feel that Hicks knows, as so many troubled artists have before him, that his time is limited. He has this purpose to be ferocious and intimidating with his comedy because he knows that he only has one shot to do it.