Bill Hicks – Baby’s Got The Bends

Adam Casadevall

Bill Hicks – Baby’s Got The Bends


Bill Hicks questioned the legitimacy of stand up comedy in terms of how it should be presented and what material is too offensive. To get a grasp of how important Hicks was, it is equally important to understand how this country views stand up comedy and why we are so attracted to darker, gallows humor that plays on other peoples’ misfortune and brings humor to them.

Sigmund Freud, in his essay titled Humour, explains gallows humor: “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure”(Gotz, 84). This statement puts forth the notion that most of us refuse to submit to pain; we do not want to dwell on suffering and that the occasions that bring these emotions should be turned around as chances to laugh and gain pleasure.

Hicks, consciously or subconsciously, was aware of this and utilized it to make a mockery of what was, in his eyes, troubling the country. Hicks sought to enlighten the audience into protesting the accepted existential truths that are presented to all of us by authoritative figures and to fight the powers that have turned us into consumers in a highly commercialized and commodified world. His questioning of social norms, and sensitive issues is what label him as a Wayward American.

“Visiting a comedy club is like going to a hooker”

Bill Hicks died on February 26, 1994 in his parent’s home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The title of this article is a reference to the song “The Bends” from the Radiohead album of the same name. In the album booklet, after the recording acknowledgements, it says, “Dedicated to the late Bill Hicks.” At the time of his death, Hicks was beginning to break into the mainstream comedy scene, but he had already garnered quite a reputation in the underground arena, and was a cult-like figure overseas, specifically in England. He was well known in many circles in the United States, but his harsh criticisms against social norms in this country made him a bit of an outlaw comic, which is a specific reference to the comedy team he was a part of in the early 1980s.

As stated previously, it is hard for people to accept and submit to suffering and most turn the occasion into laughter. In the book titled “Comic Lives,”  Comedy Cellar owner Bill Grundfest sheds light onto why people go to a comedy club: “Visiting a comedy club is like going to a hooker. You don’t want to the flowers, romance, and candy; you want to get it and go” (Borns 13). Most audiences don’t want the material sugar-coated, according to this club owner’s experience, the norm is for the audience not to be danced around, or engaged with; they, almost always, want to go, get a laugh for however long the show is, and be on their way.

This way of thinking holds true to many stand up comedians that have had large success since starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hicks was starting out. Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and Denis Leary all have become incredibly successful, but with completely different styles of performance: Jerry Seinfeld draws attention to everyday occurrences and routines that lack the attention and commentary they get. Eddie Murphy, during his stand up career, was characterized by cursing and insulting different sectors of America. Denis Leary was the most similar to Bill Hicks, and many Leary critics have accused him of stealing bits from Hicks – there are actually youtube videos that compare the two. The one thing that draws these three together, however, was their lack of acknowledging and expecting the audience to do anything other than sit and enjoy their set, which is fine, but Bill Hicks wanted his audience walking away from his shows pondering what he said, and taking it to heart.

“American: The Bill Hicks Story,” Courtesy of Variance Films, 2009.
 This image was used as the cover for the Bill Hicks documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. Further reading of the image may suggest that, as a comedian, he is being silenced by an American flag bandana. Hicks changed his stand up delivery style from relying on punch lines to simply preaching about his beliefs and aspirations to create a better country and what his audience can do to participate.

The question has been raised whether or not Hicks was really a comedian, if he should be compared to the likes of Louis CK, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Woody Allen. Early in his career Hicks did rely on stories about his parents, and living in Houston, Texas; similar to the style of his idols growing up. At this time, yes, Hicks was most definitely a comedian. As time wore on, however, and as his audiences grew larger, he realized that the stage and his routine were not a weapon against the injustices of society, and the oppression we live in that we are unaware of. He saw the stage as a platform to enlighten the public and not battle against authority, but to question the motives behind it.

One of Hicks’ childhood friends and comedy partners, Dwight Slade, admitted to Hicks when they were childhood friends that he wanted to be an actor, which resonated in Bill and he admitted that he had been writing jokes. Hicks and Slade wrote routines, which seemed to be based more theatrically than comically. The theatrical tone was not evident in Hicks’ early career but he used it when his routines became more philosophical, contemplative, and more based on spirituality and existentialism, while still making jokes about the state of American consumerism, pro-life advocates (a bit which got him edited out of his final Letterman performance).

Letterman transcript2

“Dear Bill,” Courtesy of Index of Censorship, 2000.

The transcript from Bill Hicks’ final performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Hicks recalled how Letterman thought his set was very funny, and congratulated him. By the time Bill had gotten back to his hotel room, the decision had been made to edit out his set, based on the fact that the material was, apparently, not clean enough for CBS.

In J.L. Styan’s book on modern comic tragedy, titled The Dark Comedy, he references an introduction to a book by Bernard Shaw where Shaw says: “You do not leave a modern play with the feeling that the affair is finished or the problem solved for you by the dramatist: ‘the curtain no longer comes down on a hero slain or married: it comes down when the audience has seen enough of the life presented to it to draw the moral’”(Styan, 283). At the end of his special “Revelations,” Bill leaves the audience with the idea that life is “just a ride.” After watching the video, and reading Shaw’s critique of the modern play, and the resolution revolving not around the dramatist, but the audience, the argument that Hicks is more of a dramatist, and satirical commentator on society becomes more feasible.

Make note of how Bill asks for the audience’s participation in taking away some message from his show. Most comedians will end their set by saving their best joke, but in this case it seems like Bill wanted to leave the audience with a message that would, ideally, change their view on life.
“Bill Hicks: Satirist; Social Critic; Stand-Up Comedian LIVE,” Courtesy of Rykodisk Studios, 2004.

It is evident that Bill wants the audience’s participation as he encourages the audience: “Is there a point? Let’s find a point to my act.” Despite the fact that at one point, Hicks says “there’s no fucking joke coming” in his bit about marketing which can be found here.

If you judge Bill Hicks among other comedians like Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, than it is easy to say that Hicks was a Wayward American. However, Hicks was more complex and more than just a stand-up comedian, as the title of his stand-up special suggests (“Bill Hicks: Satirist; Social Critic; Stand-Up Comedian”). The title of stand-up comedian is discursively placed onto anyone that stands on stage and proceeds to tell humorous anecdotes, jokes, stories but also those rare acts that question authority, and the foundation on which this country bases its ideals, and Bill Hicks was one of those rare acts, that may never be seen again.

Suggested Readings

Betsy Borns, Comic Lives: Inside the World of Stand-Up Comedy (New York, NY.: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

Ignacio L. Gotz, Faith, Humor, and Paradox (Praeger Publishers, 2002).

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s (New York, NY.: Pantheon Books, 2003).

J.L. Styan, The Development of Modern Tragedy: The Dark Comedy (New York, NY.: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

Cynthia True, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story (New York, NY.: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2002).

This entry was posted by adamcasadevall.

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