Bill Hicks: the scorching standup who thought comedy could change the world

<span>‘He had a great love of people, and a great disdain for people’ … Bill Hicks’ Relentless tour in Cardiff, 1992.</span><span>Photograph: Rob Watkins/Alamy</span>
‘He had a great love of people, and a great disdain for people’ … Bill Hicks’ Relentless tour in Cardiff, 1992.Photograph: Rob Watkins/Alamy

I could mark out my comedy critic’s life in Bill Hicks anniversaries. When I first started writing about standup, Hicks was – well, not warm in his grave exactly, but not long gone either. His cult still throbbed with life and he was a personal favourite too. The idea of comedy as the new rock’n’roll might have crystallised around Newman and Baddiel at Wembley Arena, but Hicks was 90s comedy’s real rock star, and not by accident either. In the years after his death, you couldn’t move for articles by people like me, appraising the state of standup in the light of Hicks’ awesome example – a phenomenon Stewart Lee spoofed in his Observer column on the 20th anniversary of the Texan’s demise.

Then five years ago, I spoke about Hicks’ legacy with comics who weren’t born when he plied his trade – and was startled to discover in how low a regard they held his work. Of course, I knew some of his material was (to say the least) out of step with the times. But the extent to which his entire manner, the whole Bill Hicks way of being (as an outlaw comic, a teller of truth to power, a mansplainer) was now, for many, a thing hideous to behold. That caught me by surprise.

I pushed back against it a bit – I still would now. But revisiting Hicks’ material 30 years since he died, I see more clearly what they meant. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that my tastes and standards, like anyone else’s, can’t help but be shaped by the changing world around me. And with each passing half-decade, each arbitrary anniversary, I get a bit more distant from the teen comedy fan that held Hicks to be just about as good as comedy gets.

Does anyone perform standup like Hicks nowadays? I’ve watched, and listened to, a handful of his sets over the last week or so, and the way he styles himself takes some readjusting to. It’s not just the rock star posturing, the idea of himself as fearless rebel against the powers-that-be. It’s the lack of irony, the authority he assumes to preach to us about “those fuckers who want to tell you what to think” (as if he weren’t one of them). Very few standups do that now, and the ones that do – Dave Chappelle leaps to mind – are considered deeply suspect. In an age when “telling the audience what to think” is performance’s cardinal sin, it’s jarring to watch someone who’s trying to do just that – someone who didn’t present himself in inverted commas; someone who believed, naively or otherwise, in standup’s power to change the world.

Is that such a bad thing? Couldn’t we do with a bit more faith in the possibility of “telling the truth and exposing lies”, as Hicks described his mission? You might agree with that principle – but then you come up against Hicks’ actual material, the chauvinism of which might defeat you all over again. You can see what he’s trying to do with his sex-monster alter ego Goat Boy, and there’s something bracing about his anti-“George Michaels” [sic] material too. But the sexism and homophobia lands with a helluva clunk in the 2020s. And the conspiracy theorising – about the Kennedy assassination, primarily – and libertarian tirades against the controlling state contain too many uncomfortable echoes in the age of Trump. (A niche body of opinion in the US contends that “alt-right” broadcaster Alex Jones is a still-living Bill Hicks in disguise.)

It’s not just that the times have changed, of course. Plenty of people would have been riled by this stuff first time around, just as Hicks intended. The tension in his work, his friend and fellow comic Dwight Slade once told me, was that “he had a great love of people, and a great disdain for people”. Even 30 years ago, audiences could perceive that some of this stuff was angry, even hateful. But there was more of a sense three decades ago that rage and disdain could be positive qualities in a standup, if (some of) it was blasting in the right direction.

It’s the flipside of Slade’s tension that redeems Hicks’ work, of course – well, that and the man’s extraordinary performance skills. Even the wince-while-you-watch routines are terrifically delivered by a performer with an absolute mastery of voice, timing and atmospherics – see, for example, his act-out of Jack Palance and the sheep herder (purportedly from the movie Shane) as a metaphor for America’s geopolitical role. That, and the “great love of people”, make his comedy still worth tuning into. Unlike Chappelle, Bill Burr and the few other macho-comedy stragglers, Hicks’ comedy was underpinned by idealism, an urge to cast off the hypocrisy and corruption of modern life in pursuit of – well, universal love, another thing no one talks about these days with a straight face.

Related: Brendon Burns on Bill Hicks: ‘I felt like he was speaking directly to me’

“To me,” Hicks once told an interviewer (in terms – once again – that no one would use nowadays), “the comic is a flame, like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are”. Perhaps he’d be happy that his own idol has teetered these last 10 years, that the hero-worship has given way to something more nuanced. He wanted us to think for ourselves, after all. Now we’re doing so, about his out-of-time, neither left nor right, sometimes right-sometimes wrong, frequently brilliant comedy. In those changing perceptions around his work, there’s plenty to be revealed about his art form – and about ourselves too.