Oh, he’s going for that ‘Missing a Dead Comedian Market’
By Glenn Fisher.
I’m not sure when I first heard the gospel according to Bill. I remember my friend buying the Arizona Bay record. I can remember being in his bedroom and looking at the portrait of Hicks on the inside cover of Tool’s Aenima album, gaunt and bearded, looking like an English literature professor lost in the sleeve of a rock record. But then I know too that it’s quite possible I was introduced to him through my other friend’s older brother, who provided us with much of the ‘weird and alternative’ culture other school kids missed out on. Either way, I know it was after his death.
So it came as quite a shock, albeit a pleasant one, to be asked if I wanted to go see Bill Hicks at the weekend. Naturally, I jumped at the chance and on Saturday I went to the Arts Theatre in London to witness first-hand the man who, if it were not for Springsteen getting in first, would undoubtedly be referred to as ‘The Boss’.
It should be noted that I’m writing this under the presumption that as a reader of 3:AM Magazine you will have likely heard of Bill Hicks. If you haven’t, stop reading now, and instead spend the time finding out who he is.
Entirely lost, having recently moved to the city, tripping and back-tracking through the million-backed monster of Leicester Square on a Saturday night, I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was actually going to see Bill Hicks, at least not the Bill Hicks. I wasn’t even going to see a comedian. I was going to a ‘play’ based on the great social satirist, the king of anti-advertising, a man who would likely have despised anything that even hinted at pastiche.
Even worse, after I’d eventually found the theatre and my friends, it became quite apparent that the ‘play’ was in effect just a man (an Englishman: ‘Oh to be a dustbin… in Shaftsbury… with hooligans’) impersonating Bill Hicks under the pretence that he was back from the dead. I realise a trail of minute Benedictine monks will be skipping matins and rushing to chime the bells of the irony tower in your mind. But the real irony is that I found the show to be a reasonably effective way of continuing the Hicks philosophy, peace and love, man, peace and fucking love.
The show, as a whole, was entertaining enough; a mix of straight out impersonations – a kind of Bill Hicks best-of, with goat-boy included – and speculative interpretation of how Hicks might have satirised the social and political failings of the modern day. Some of the more UK-centric jokes jarred with the authenticity of the impersonation (would Bill really have taken so much time pointing out how bland Coldplay are?) and lines about MySpace and Facebook just seemed below the threshold of his scorn. Purely as an impersonation, topics such as Al Gore and Global Warming, George W., 9/11 and the war in Iraq, all sat better and allowed for some original and challenging comedy in the spirit of the great man himself.
By far the most effective element of the show was, however, how Chas Early – the actor playing Bill – dealt with the paradox of impersonating a dead comedian who shouldn’t ever be impersonated (as Dennis Leary must realise every morning). Early used the act to raise the question of why we are so backward looking, so nostalgic for the past, why instead of trying to find new voices, we blinker ourselves, worshiping old heroes.
Naturally, I believe there are those who should be, and very much deserve to be, celebrated, a canon to which Bill Hicks definitely belongs. But there is a danger of becoming so reverent of the past that the present is ignored. There is a wealth of new comedians – who as Early rightly points out, are not merely versions of Bill Hicks but performers, preachers perhaps, in their own right. Was Hicks just another version of Lenny Bruce? Of course not.
It’s an idea – a question – that we should ask not just of comedy, but of all arts, all culture. A respect for what has come before is necessary, but blind nostalgia at the expense of the best of the modern is foolish.
Early, exploiting the paradox of his act and employing the preacher-man aspect of Hicks’ – the wise man with a grudge, as though telling off unruly but ultimately sincere students – delivered his message loud and clear and left enough awkward silence for those present at the sermon to consider if they might not be, at least, a little guilty of a nostalgia crime.
At times, we’re all a little guilty. I know I am. It’s unlikely Woody Allen will write or direct another film as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan, yet I watch each new film, with naïve, nostalgic hope. At the same time Patrick Marber writes a film/play such as Closer, which for me is far closer (excuse the pun) to what I would want Allen’s next film to be. Even Allen’s latest short story collection, Mere Anarchy, wasn’t quite up to the might of Getting Even or Side Effects. Yet George Saunders’ recent In Persuasion Nation slapped my tickle all over the place, in its own unique way.
I still love Woody Allen; I still love Bill Hicks. I always will, but to dwell on them, to face them in the past, back turned to the present and future, is to undermine their brilliance. Their stalls are set upon solid foundations and won’t falter if we go see a new Richard Linklater film; they won’t be jealous if we’re laughing and proclaiming Dylan Moran the funniest man we’ve ever seen. Flaubert certainly won’t fucking suffer if you buy Tom McCarthy’s new book. Y’dig?
I left the theatre having been entertained and challenged and made to feel just a tad uncomfortable, which I imagine would have been the same sensations I’d have experienced after a Bill Hicks gig. I went for a few drinks, making a mental note to experience next something new and modern and experimental, something cutting edge, something that breaks down all the boundaries of all the established academic canons… we’re going to see Macbeth next week.
Love your elders, fine. Just don’t ignore the kids or they’ll turn out to be rapists and crack whores. Just sowing the seeds, man, just sowing the seeds…
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Glenn Fisher was born in Grimsby, in a county that no longer exists, in 1981. After working in local government since leaving college in 1997, he took very early retirement in 2004. He is 3:AM‘s Film Editor and has just finished the Professional Writing degree course at the Grimsby Institute.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 12th, 2007.