WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I discovered the angrily enlightened comedy of Bill Hicks about five years ago—sadly, long after his premature death at the hands of pancreatic cancer in 1994. I gobbled up the few standup CDs on the market (the still-available Relentless, Dangerous, Arizona Bay, and Rant in E-Minor) and enjoyed them for Hicks' fascinating amalgam of seething political rage, cynical social commentary, and, as he put it, "purple-veined dick jokes." Hicks was just climbing to popular notoriety when he succumbed to his illness, and today a sizeable cult following has developed in his memory. He was the type of comic that transcends the standup medium and becomes more of a preacher or social pundit (he's been compared to the legendary Lenny Bruce)—but he wasn't above playing to the lowest common denominator, either. At a Bill Hicks show, you could count on a plethora of immature sex jokes amidst a striking barrage of independent-thinking, free-flowing, crazy wisdom.
Immortalized in three separate legendary performances on this excellent Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian DVD, Hicks is—in all three—a beefy, sweaty, pallid dude with a penchant for black wardrobe and the mullet. In One Night Stand (30 minutes, shot at the Old Vic Theater in Chicago in 1991), we get Hicks at his energetic best, prancing around the stage, calling nonsmokers "obnoxious, self-righteous sadists," blissfuly defending pornography, all the while sweating and raving. In Relentless (70 minutes, shot at the Montreal Comedy Festival in 1991), we get Hicks, bespectacled but in full manic bloom, railing about Bush's war, the stupidity of the deep south, and women who don't like to give blowjobs. (You'll notice also that a lot of the subject matter from One Night Stand is repeated but with different energies.) But ultimately, the show blossoms with Hicks' signature sound and fury. It's considered Hicks' breakout performance and contains many of his jagged comedy gems. Finally, the brilliant Revelations (75 minutes, shot at the Dominion Theater in London in 1992) captures a later performance, with Hicks at his most blistering and jarring, braying and yelling and rolling his eyes at the miseries and injustices of the world—and, as always, sprinkling his diatribes with gross-out humor. You know, to keep the crowd involved.
Hicks definitely leaned to the left, passionately advocating the legalization of pot and describing how such a move would be a boon for the United States economy ("which is fake anyway!"). In fact, he was an outspoken proponent of drug use in general, recommending that more people take advantage of mind-altering substances in order to "squee-gee" their third eye and recognize the pettiness of everyday life for the mere "ride" that it is. The performances on this disc take place during the first of the dubious Bush reigns, and Hicks takes great delight in condemning the madly militaristic regime ("Quit arming these defenseless countries!"). He also finds comedy gold in the Bible and the fundamentalists who cling to its every word, as well as the Kennedy assassination—sometimes in the same breath ("People say, 'God, Bill, not another Kennedy joke, it was so long ago,' and I say, 'Okay, I'll stop talking about Kennedy if you stop talking about Jesus. As long as we're talking shelf life'"). And he has predictably harsh words for those in sales/marketing ("Kill yourself—no, seriously"), and for anyone who "sells out" to commercialism. Hicks' humor had a vicious bite, and he could really let his anger fly. In some of these performances, he gets so riled up that he nearly swallows the microphone in his guttural wrath, and you can practically smell the audience's nervous fear. And yet, amazingly, when all is said and done, when the punchline comes and the audience calms from its laughter, you get the feeling that Hicks was more about love and respect than about hate and venom.
If you consider yourself a free thinker, open to conspiracy diatribes and left-field politics, prone to angry cynicism but hopeful for the world, Bill Hicks will probably strike a chord with you. The world is a little worse off without him around to put things in perspective. Perhaps that's why a fervid audience has grown in his memory—there's definitely a void left by his death. No one in standup comedy really comes close to Hicks' humor of enlightenment. But be wary, if you decide to take a chance on this DVD set: You're in for almost 3 hours of mind-stretching and foul-mouthing, 175 minutes of Hicks shaking his fists at the sky, roaring into the microphone, and, in the end, thoroughly "squee-geeing" your third eye.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Ryko presents Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian in a full-frame transfer that appears accurate to the source material. Detail is fine, allowing you to observe every bead of sweat that drips from Hicks' hair and brow. This is a dark presentation, from Hicks' wardrobe to the dim blue-black stage, and black levels bring all this across effortlessly. Colors seem accurate, displaying Hicks' pallid demeanor with a nice realism. I noticed no compression artifacts, and no edge halos.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation is perfectly in service of the material. The quality of each concert presentation varies, but the disc does a good job of bringing the best possible audio. As you might imagine, this is a dialog-heavy affair, and thankfully, the disc brings across Hicks' voice with the right sense of clarity and depth, especially in the final concert, Revelations. Hicks occasionally screams and bellows and practically swallows the microphone, and all the audio effects come across clearly. One Night Stand isn't quite as successful, sounding a bit more hollow and echoey. Relentless sounds almost a bit muffled, but I attribute these differences to the source.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The lone extra will surely prove pretty valuable to Hicks fans. It's Just a Ride: The Bill Hicks Documentary is a 41-minute look at the man from the point of view of his contemporaries and his family. Peppered with clips from his performances, the documentary tries to get at the heart of Hicks' appeal, going from his origins in the deep south to his eternal interest in the concept of altered states (mostly via drugs) to his preoccupation with pornography to his fascination with rock stars to his fearlessness in talking politics to a controversial occurrence involving the Late Show with David Letterman. We even get pics of Hicks performing as a teenager, along with commentary by high-school buddies Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, and David Johndrow. Other thoughts are offered by Richard Jeni, Allan Havey, Richard Belzer, Jay Leno (who tells an illuminating anecdote about Bill walking out on Leno in disgust), Brett Butler, David Letterman, Eric Bogosian, Eddie Izzard, Sean Hughes, Thea Vidale, and Letterman producer Robert Morton. We also get interesting reminiscences from Hicks' family: Parents Mary and Jim Hicks talk about their son with a sense of bewilderment. (Jim wonders why Bill had to use the "F word" so often—after all, "Bob Hope never used it.). Finally, New Yorker critic John Lahr and Guardian critic William Cook weigh in.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
An excellent compilation of blistering Bill Hicks humor, Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian is a must-buy for anyone seriously interested in stand-up comedy. The DVD offers fine image and audio quality, as well as a probing documentary about that man and the legend surrounding him.