Judge Brendan Babish bows before the legend of Bill Hicks...then he pretty much pees all over it.
"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are all the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."
Bill Hicks, a.k.a. Goatboy, a.k.a. The Dark Poet, a.k.a. The Prince of Darkness (self-chosen) is considered by his cult-like followers to be the funniest stand-up comedians of all time. Curiously, most of his famous admirers are rock bands. Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, and Super Furry Animals have all dedicated albums to the comedian (The Bends, Evil Empire, Aenema, and Fuzzy Logic respectively). Though he never achieved the level of fame he sought in his native country (at least not in his own lifetime), Hicks was widely known and revered in England. Sadly, Hicks would never live to see his fame skyrocket as his brand of cynical and profane humor became the norm of the comedic landscape. In 1993, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died early the following year, at age 32.
It is now difficult to approach Hicks' stand-up (especially as a reviewer) without being overwhelmed by the near mythic status he has achieved. Like many before him (James Dean, Andy Kaufman, Jeff Buckley), dying young seemed to cement Hicks' status as a genius visionary in perpetuity. Fans insist that angry social commentators like David Cross, Bill Maher, and (in particular) Denis Leary are all just riffing off of Hicks' material, which he himself dubbed: "Chomsky with dick jokes."
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I watched Sane Man and found Hicks to be occasionally hilarious, sometimes annoying, and on the whole merely amusing. Had I watched Hicks without ever hearing the epithet "funniest human being ever" applied on several occasions, I might have been pleasantly surprised at my discovery. As it is, I can't help but continue to wonder what all the fuss is about.
What makes Hicks annoying is his tendency for inflammatory, self-aware posturing. Early in his set he boasts of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and mocks the anti-smoking movement. Perhaps this material was funnier in 1989 than it is in now, but I still don't think it ever adequately represented Hicks' style of comedy. His humor works best when he attacks popular institutions, such as pop music superstars (Debbie Gibson, Tiffany), politicians (Presidents Reagan and Bush) and consumerism (the proliferation of shopping malls). Boasting about one's smoking prowess is not attacking or challenging the status quo in any way. If anything it strengthens the interests of the cigarette industry and reinforces the stereotype of smoking as a rebellious act. Thankfully, towards the end of his life, Hicks would quit smoking and publicly disavow the habit (much to the chagrin of his loyal fans).
Then there are the moments when Hicks becomes confrontational with the audience. After a joke falls flat and is greeted by tepid laughter Hicks will stare at a particular audience member, or taunt the room by announcing that he is the anti-Christ. It's not so much that Hicks' ironic self-hatred is unfunny (which it is), but his anger at the audience over not laughing at a joke seems juvenile. I'm sure many of Hicks' fans would say that he was playing for audiences that were not cultured enough to "get" his humor. There may be a modicum of truth to that, but for the most part, as it relates to Sane Man, I'm with the audience. Some of the jokes just aren't that funny.
That said, there are stretches, more than a few, when Hicks gets himself into a nice comedic groove. These are the moments when he nearly justifies all those glowing posthumous plaudits he's received. As previously mentioned, his humor works best when he is challenging conventional wisdom, such as "celebrities should endorse products," "Debbie Gibson has talent," and "Ronald Reagan is a good president." In addition to being hilarious in their own right, these observations, almost always expressed with liberal amounts of profanity, help explain his enduring popularity. Hicks' frustration with Debbie Gibson's enduring popularity or Ronald Reagan's competence almost eerily echoes our contemporary uneasiness about Britney Spears and George W. Bush.
In one sense it is comforting to see how everything is cyclical, and as bad as things may seem now, they were just as bad back "in the good old days." But then I realized that in 10 years there would be a new Debbie Gibson/Britney Spears, and a new Ronald Reagan/George W. Bush. That was a sad thought. And realizing that, I discovered why Hicks is missed while so many other comedians fade into obscurity. It's a cliché but we really do need him now as much as ever.
Unfortunately, Ryko's DVD of Sane Man looks like something recorded off of a cable access channel. The sound is relatively clear, but the picture is washed out and grainy. In addition, Director Kevin Booth has done a horrible job directing the concert. Furthering my theory that this was originally broadcast on cable access, Booth uses just about every cheesy effect one would find on primitive editing equipment. There are several annoying uses of the slow-mo, superimpose, wipes and just about everything else you can experiment with in a high school audio visual class. It's really unfortunate that Hicks' performance is presented so poorly. I would be surprised if anyone's enjoyment of the show is not impaired by the shoddy presentation.
Despite an uneven performance, Hicks has got moxie, and I like that. Not guilty. Ryko, you got nothing going for you. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ryko Disc
• Previously Unseen Footage from the Outlaw Years
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