There have been any number of comics who have aspired to the mantle held by comic Lenny Bruce and his obvious heir, Richard Pryor. Their successors range from George Carlin and Robert Klein to Will Durst and Bill Maher to Sam Kinison and Chris Rock.
Bill Hicks is a name that should also be included in that list: a comic who never reached a mass audience in the U.S. but whose corrosively funny take on the politics of me-first and the dumbing-down of consumer culture places him squarely in the Bruce school of truth-tellers.
“American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a bit of hagiography which, with luck, will bring Hicks to the attention of a wider audience than ever saw him during his brief life and briefer career. Though not a great documentary, it’s an affectionate one that uses limited imagery from Hicks’ life and finds ways to bring it to life.
Born in Georgia, Hicks was a Houston kid who, in high school, decided that he and his best friend, Kevin Booth, would make a great comedy team. They started performing for friends on an impromptu basis at school, then found their way to the Houston Comedy Annex, the nexus of stand-up in that Texas town (and the launchpad for Sam Kinison as well).
Hicks performed all through high school, then moved to Los Angeles and became a Comedy Store regular in the 1980s. But he disliked the L.A. scene and moved back to Houston, where he honed his style and became a local star, while touring and honing his material. Still, he struggled with drinking and drugs, developing a reputation for getting roaringly drunk onstage.
But he cleaned up and refocused his material, keying in on social hypocrisy, whether about smoking, marketing drugs or any of the other things that struck him as irredeemably bogus. He developed a particularly strong following in Great Britain, selling out theaters there and taping a couple of sterling concert specials (which were barely seen in the U.S.).
But just as he hit his stride creatively, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which killed him within a year (he died at 32 in 1994). Today, he’s something of a comedy footnote, one of those performers known to a few with no hope of achieving the kind of mass popularity he deserved. Bill Hicks is dead – and Dane Cook roams the Earth. Where’s the justice?
Filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas use the people closest to Hicks to tell his story: friends, colleagues, family. We see still photos of them – but the directors mostly eschew the use of talking heads. Rather, they let these witnesses tell their stories off-camera and illustrate them with animation, employing old photographs.
Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough archival footage of Hicks on stage. It takes more than an hour to get to those British TV specials, which are the best document that exists of Hicks in his prime. The rest of the Hicks’ footage is either of his very early years or so limited that you get very little sense of what his act was all about.
Still, a little Bill Hicks is better than none. “American: The Bill Hicks Story” recalls a lost artist and, perhaps, will inspire aspiring comics to emulate him by telling the truth in an edgy and funny way.