For over ten years, Bill Hicks has been an very popular comedian for British fans of stand-up comedy. But Bill's active career as a comedian during that time was actually very short. His work first became known to us in January 1992 with the television broadcast of his 'Relentless' video recorded in Montreal. By February 1994, Bill was dead.|
So... what made, and still makes Bill Hicks such a great comedian, even in the estimation of other successful comedians? For me, he has the three great qualities that the best stand-ups have - intelligence, playfulness, and most importantly passion.
His material was always powerful and insightful, but he never lost a sense of fun. He employed the imaginative connections of a great humourist. The characterisations he created in his routines were genuinely funny. He clearly enjoyed his work on stage, and liked to comment on and sometimes ridicule his own material and performance.
Bill is a comedian that other stand-ups should study if they want to learn about good technique. He demonstrates the important skills that the best comedians employ. He can create characters and mime situations that brilliantly dramatise his routines. He can use his voice and face to convey a variety of feelings and emotions.
Another thing that he does is acknowledge the mood of his audience. In many of the recordings of his work in comedy clubs, he makes it clear that he knows the audience is largely unsympathetic to his point of view and personality, and the great thing about that is... HE DOESN'T CARE.
Bill Hicks talks about what he wants to talk about, as openly and explicitly as he wants to. He enjoys revealing attitudes and feelings that he knows will be controversial and unpopular. He knows that the role of a GOOD comedian is to challenge an audience, NOT pander to them.
There are few books that tell of Bill Hicks life and work, but there is plenty for fans and interested newcomers to read in the websites for which I have provided links below.
The best book available is 'One Consciousness - An Analysis of Bill Hick's Comedy' by Paul Outhwaite, which is not only a great study of Bill's work, but is also an excellent introduction to the work of those comedians who influenced him.
We are lucky that to have so many recordings of Bill's performances now available. There are about seven CD's and three videos available for purchase, and much more to play via websites. I have added links to those websites below... PLUS for those of you with broadband connections, I have set up two direct links to video material. These are two halves of a 60 minute comedy club performance.
The best CD/audio tape available is probably 'Arizona Bay'. I love the routine about the Rodney King trial, and can always imagine Bill miming Officer Koon wheeling his wheelbarrow in and out of the courtroom. It is a wonderful comedy moment to see, even though I have never seen it. All the available Cds are good, but 'Rant in E-Minor' contains routines that even I find hard to take. How could he say such things about Barbara Bush?
The video/DVD recordings are all the better because they don't hide the important visual aspect to Bill's comedy. Unfortunately, the main ones available, 'Relentless' and 'Revelations' are theatre performances and consequently seem quite restrained after you've become familiar with his recordings from comedy club performances.
I have recently received from America a copy of the 'Sane Man' video. This is an earlier performance of Bill's than the more familiar concert videos, and in important ways is superior to those later ones. He is in a comedy club rather than a theatre. He consequently has more freedom in what he decides to do on stage, his performance is less controlled, and is all the more honest, passionate and exciting for that.
You can watch excerpts from that 'Sane Man' performance via the Sacred Cow Website (link below).
Bill Hicks Website
Sacred Cow Website
Bill Hicks Bootlegs - mp3s
Google Video - Bill in Chicago 1989
Revelations video clip 1
Broadband Video - Part 1
Broadband Video - Part 2
Revelations video clip 2