"Colleen, are you there?..... I can't do this anymore."
These were the last words spoken on stage by William Melville Hicks, better known as Bill, the man regularly cited (especially by comedians) as the greatest stand up comic of all time. Just over six months earlier he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and a month and a half later he would be dead. He was a little over 32 years old.
He didn't die on stage like Tommy Cooper, with laughter ringing in his ears, but when he finally admitted defeat there must have been tears. Perhaps that is more fitting for a comic who was about more than just jokes and argued that humour â"has to ring true emotionally, coupled with justified anger at how the world is, and how you know in your heart the world can be."
But is it merely his premature death that has made him this cult status as the Messiah of comedy and to some possibly the actual Messiah? Timandra Harkness claims "His unique status seems to stem from the fact that he died tragically young, and therefore retains the seductive perfume of unfulfilled promise. It's the Princess Diana syndrome". Some believe that the canonisation and hero worship has made Hicks become something that he never was. Comedian Michael Legge writes "Bill Hicks wasn't cool. He was a brilliant comedian with terrible taste in music and a sideline in sanctimony. I really wish that Bill Hicks had never died because then he would have fucked up by doing an advert and all the people who play dress-up as him on the comedy circuit would never have existed."
But those who knew him seem to genuinely believe that he was the exemplar of stand up comedy. Henry Rollins proclaims him as âhilarious, brilliant, brave and right about everything.â Jon Stewart of the Daily Show called Hicks "a legendary figure," adding, "He was the guy you looked to. He wasn't trying to be mediocre; he wasn't trying to satisfy some need for fame; he wasn't trying to get a sitcom; he was trying to be an expert."
And Hicks himself, seemed to have himself and his position in the world in perspective. He saw himself as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes" or more tellingly as, "Just a joke-blower. That's basically all I am, a joke-blower on the back of some Mexican gardener, blowing jokes all over the driveway, a fairly harmless guy."
Though he immediately demonstrated that there was more to him than that by adding, "Believer in love and truth, anti-war, believer in the values under which this country was originally founded: Freedom of fucking expression."
You can't really imagine Peter Kay saying that can you?
So is Hicks worthy of the accolades and had he lived would he still be held up as this prophet and genius?
Yes he is and yes he would.
When I first got into Hicks, fifteen years ago, I loved his attitude and his material. He railed against religious hypocrisy - "I love the Pope, I love seeing him in his Pope-Mobile, his three feet of bullet proof plexi-glass. That's faith in action folks! You know he's got God on his side"; against advertisers, "if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.. you are Satan's spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and you are fucking us, kill yourselves, it's the only way to save your fucking soul; against mankind itself - I'm tired of this back-slapping "Isn't humanity neat?" bullshit. We're a virus with shoes, okay? That's all we are."
Now I am 41, much older than he will ever be and what jars and amazes me is how technically brilliant he was, how sophisticated he was compared to 99% of his contemporaries and how complete his world view was for a man in his early 30s. In comedic terms you're still a baby at that age, yet he had the assurance of a seasoned pro. Most of these performance predate his cancer diagnosis, so this is not a case of imminent death giving him perspective. He was a prodigy and one can only assume he would have become even better had he been given more time.
His mastery may be down to starting young. He wanted to be a stand up when he was 13. In a futile attempt to stop him cracking jokes during lessons his teacher let him do five minutes in front of the class.
At 17 his Southern Baptist parents took him to a therapist to attempt to find the root causes of his rebellion, but the psychoanalyst thought that Bill was fine and suggested maybe it was the parents who could do with his help.
He had started in the clubs around this time and impressively was earning money by his sixth gig. The next ten years saw him working his way up the comedy ladder and also experimenting heavily with drugs and alcohol. Though he would later clean up, he continued to extol the virtues of the narcotics that he still loved. "They lie about marijuana," he revealed, "Tell you pot-smoking makes you unmotivated. Lie! When you're high, you can do everything you normally do just as well â you just realise that it's not worth the fucking effort. There is a difference."
In the early 90s he became a big cult hit in the UK and Ireland and in October 1993 on his twelfth appearance on the David Letterman show, achieved even greater notoriety when he had his entire routine censored and his appearance excised from the show. Neither the producers nor the network seemed to take responsibility for this decision, but it can't be a coincidence that there was a pro-life advertisement in one of the commercial breaks. Perhaps some of Hicks' material that night didn't quite gel with the sponsors- "If you're so pro-life, do me a favour, don't lock arms and block medical centres. If you're so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries! I want to see pro-lifers at funerals opening caskets "Get out!""
Just as the world was turning on to him, frustratingly, he was coping with the illness that would kill him.
Hicks political and religious material is exquisite, but what sets him apart is the way he could take a subject that most comedians will tackle, like the drudgery and boredom of travelling on planes, but make something magical about it. Rather than going on about leg room or the safety announcements he conjured up this weary, dark and explosive piece of poetry - "Just so sick of airports. Sitting on planes on runways and the planes won't take off. Every time I read about a hijacking in the news I just think to myself - do it! Let's see how far you get. I paid and didn't get off the ground. I've thought about that too. Dreamed of putting a gun to a pilot's head. That would feel so good. "This is a hijacking!"
"Where d'ya want to go, Cuba?"
"No I want to go where this plane was supposed to be five hours ago. That's right I'm hijacking this plane to its scheduled destination."
The way he vents his frustration at hecklers who are too drunk or stupid to realise that they are lucky enough to be witnessing a comedy legend is mind blowing in its justified viciousness and anger - "Hitler had the right idea," he screams at one persistent and stupid drunk, "He was just an underachiever. Kill them all Adolf! All of them! Jew, Mexican, American, white. Start over the experiment didn't work!"
Hicks' material stays relevant fifteen years after his death, not only because of the neat and spooky coincidence that he was dealing with the last days of another President Bush and another bullying war in Iraq (During the Persian Gulf war, those intelligence reports would come out: "Iraq: incredible weapons, incredible weapons." "How do you know that?" "Uh, well... we looked at the receipts."), but also because he addresses the human condition, rather than more obvious and hackneyed comedy targets. A few gags about New Kids on the Block or Gladiators seem outdated and cheap, but one must remember that Hicks did not see himself as a Messiah, whose every word would be picked over and analysed; he saw himself as a comedian. He wasnât trying to be cool, like some of the comics who have attempted to emulate him or making po-faced political points to aggrandise himself; he was trying to be funny. Not for posterity, but for the people in front of him, in that moment. And what often gets missed out of the retrospectives of his short career is that as well as being smart and passionate and truthful, he was blisteringly funny. He makes you laugh til you hurt.
Perhaps in some ways he was like Christ, if you believe Christ was a man, not a god. Both spoke movingly and truthfully about important subjects, in ways that were simple, yet compelling. Some Biblical scholar see Jesus as an iconoclast, pointing out the hypocrisy and illogicality of religion, and trying to affect change - Hicks did that too. Yet in death, there's a danger that iconoclasts became icons. Hicks (and arguably Jesus too) should be remembered primarily as a comedian. He was that at 13, he was that at 32. His death, though tragic and adding poignancy to his story, is not the reason he is remembered. It is the rigour, the craft and the devastating wit behind his brilliant work.
And it's worth remembering that Jesus got an extra year than Hicks and did most of his best work in those last twelve months, so it's not fair to compare them. And Hicks is not going to come back to life however many pro-lifers rip open his coffin. Although it is gratifying that his work lives on, that is little consolation for him. It is awful to have to imagine how torturous it must have been to have got to the point where things were finally about to happen and then have his pancreas decide that it was time to pack things in.
This is what he said about it, "On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having 'liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas'. One of life's weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I'd been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams, that it just stood me on my head for a while. 'Why me!?', I would cry out, and 'Why now!?'"
Life is stupid, unfair and tragic and brilliant, breathtaking and hilarious. If only there were more people like Hicks and less like those who heckled him.