God Wept

"This machine kills fascists."
Those were the words scrawled on Woody Guthrie's guitar, but the same proclamation could just as fittingly have been etched into the microphone of Bill Hicks, the Houston, Texas-raised comedian who was on a mission to expose repression, hypocrisy, and greed through humor until he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in February 1994. Using his voice of reason like a machete on such targets as patriotism, religion, drug laws, corporate America, the media, and the military, the baby-faced laugh assassin didn't merely "question authority," like so many bumper-sticker comics. Hicks hacked authority into guffaw-size pieces and asked questions later.

His theory was that the power elite does its best to lull society into some sort of enchanted trance , and it was his job to say, "Hey, wait a minute." When the rest of the country was spellbound during the Gulf War, for instance, watching the high-tech weapons at work, Hicks wondered out loud why the same technology couldn't be used to shoot food at hungry people. A wide-ranging idealist who often ended his shows with an uplifting vision of world harmony, Hicks stood at the midpoint between the way things are and the way things could be.

"I was born screaming in America" is how the narration to his HBO special, Revelations, begins. The shrieks of indignation only got louder as he got older. But don't worry -- as Hicks used to say in the midst of heavy moments -- there are dick jokes on the way.

Like Lenny Bruce, who died 30 years before him, Hicks went for the throat of forbidden topics and had the moral courage to back up his fearless stance. But where Bruce was more groundbreaking and insightful than ha-ha funny, Hicks was piss-your-pants hilarious.

Although he died ridiculously early, at age 32, the sixteen-year comedy club veteran left behind an incredible body of work, including four brand-new CDs released by Rykodisc -- Hicks's brilliant first two albums, Dangerous (1990) and Relentless (1992), as well as the Los Angeles-bashing Arizona Bay, which was completed before his death, and Rant in E Minor, assembled and produced by his friend Kevin Booth in Austin, Texas. The latter two albums are curiously colored (and somewhat weakened) by the Pat Metheny-like soundtrack music Hicks wrote and played. The material is savagely funny at times, especially Rant's observation that Rush Limbaugh looks like "one of those gay guys who like to lie in a tub while men piss on him," but the music attests that if Hicks had any downside as a comedian, it was that he was a musician on the side.

Hicks was treated like a rock star in England, which he attributed to the fact that his first brutally funny HBO special was shown, uncut, on BBC. He also was idolized by a host of rock bands, including Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, and Hamell on Trial, who all wrote songs or dedicated albums to Hicks.

But Hicks was not a "rock and roll comedian" in the way his mentor Sam Kinison was. Instead of trying to rock out and party down with the bands at the Rainbow, Hicks usually hung with his friends from high school when he came back off the road. He did introduce Tool at a concert in L.A., but not until he asked the kids to stop moshing so he could look for his contact lens in the pit.

Because of his dedication to his craft and his nonstop touring schedule, Hicks didn't use standup as a springboard to sitcoms or movies. Getting in front of a crowd with only a microphone in his hand and a script of topics in his head was all Hicks ever wanted to do. And he could do it for two hours at a time, where most comics start scraping bottom after about ten minutes. "Let's not mince words," he'd say. "Our very lives depend on the truth."

And no occupation comes with a license for candor like stand-up comedy. Virtually naked, with no rock beat to hide behind or other actors to play off, comedians practice pure art. They don't have to answer to a boss or a corporation or a studio or a network. They need answer only to themselves, and that's a task to which Hicks was born.

Deemed too "over the top" to be booked on the Tonight Show (even when it was taken over by Bill fan Jay Leno), Hicks was a semiregular on the later, hipper Late Night with David Letterman. He played the program eleven times in three years, but on October 1, 1993, in his first appearance after Letterman had moved to CBS in an earlier time slot, Hicks became the first comedian to have his segment completely cut from the show. He pushed too many hot buttons, Letterman producer Robert Morton said of a six-minute set during which he attacked the religious right on the abortion issue and wondered why Christians wear crosses around their necks.