Rough and Angry Love
There are few things more ironic and more poetic than the discovery that the legendary dark comic Bill Hicks is buried on the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi. Hicks was the great satirist of “Jacksonian” America. By “Jacksonian” I mean the populist worldview of rugged individualism and shoot-first mentality. I mean the idealization of insular, sentimental religiosity and gentlemanly charm. No comedian skewered these sacred cows of Reagan’s America more thoroughly and effectively than Hicks. And yet, there is something decidedly unpleasant in his comedy. He is consistently hilarious, but there are times when his bite is so vicious that it becomes off-putting, like a man who has had a few too many at a bar and begins to rant conspiratorially.
Hicks spent most of his childhood in Texas and died at his parents’ house in Arkansas. His comedic body of work was a long wrestling with his southern upbringing and heritage. These were the people he had come from, and he directed a good part of his comedy in both mocking where he felt his people had gone wrong and directing his righteous anger at those leading them astray. Hicks is most often praised as the comedian who held a mirror to US society at the end of the 20th century. This is only fitting. The South is the mirror through which the US stares at itself.
What Hicks most objected to and rebelled against in Jacksonian culture and politics was the way in which it served corporate conformity and the military industrial complex. Hicks himself was a Jacksonian in the sense of being a rugged individualist. He always looked comfortable in a cowboy hat. But the ultimate goal of his humor was to pick apart and criticize many of the basic Jacksonian influences in US politics.
He was a contrarian by nature. He embodied the Horatian Ode, “I hate the vulgar mob and keep at a distance.” His goal was to speak to a society in which most believe they are exceptional and are content, and through his satire show how absurd and hypocritical many of their basic assumptions are; then show how they are in fact being manipulated by corporate power. This is not a message most want to hear. It is nearly impossible to successfully perform Hicks’s kind of satire in front of the audience he was aiming it at. Those who laughed at Hicks’s comedy were in all likelihood those of an entirely different cultural background from his own, and/or those who had, like him, rejected much of that cultural upbringing. Hicks was fond of recounting shows performed in front of hostile crowds in the rural South. He usually got good material from these shows which he could tell in front of more sympathetic crowds. I can’t help but imagine that those shows themselves must have been pretty torturous and awkward for both Hicks and the audience. People can stand to have themselves made fun of, but only if it’s done gently and only up to a certain point. It is impossible to find Hicks funny unless you feel that you are outside of the group he is making fun of.
Sometimes he comes across as elitist and classist. But he did come from the demographic he was satirizing, which gives him a certain authenticity. Someone raised in Manhattan would have sounded insufferable telling the kind of jokes Hicks told about the South. Take, for instance, the bit in which Hicks talks about UFOs in Fyffe, Alabama and getting accosted by a Waffle House waitress for reading a book. It is sneering elitism at the working classes of the South. Hicks does make rather horrifying references to sterilization. But you do get the sense that he isn’t just a cultural tourist in Fyffe, that he recognizes a part of himself in the place. Perhaps the bitterness of the piece comes from a desperate quest to separate himself from his background, as well as convince his neighbors of the wrongness of the way they are doing things. The piece does nail a strain of anti-intellectualism that can exist across the rural South.
“Shock Comedy” reached its apotheosis in the US during Hicks’s career. Whatever the merits of this kind of humor, I’m convinced that it weakened his message and limited his audience. His infamous
Nevertheless, there are numerous instances where Hicks’s satire is pitch perfect. He was a satirical pioneer in exposing our ridiculously insecure, hypocritical, and bizarre attitudes towards sex, drugs, war, and religion. Nearly every modern US comedian owes a debt to Hicks in these areas. And few modern comedians are as thought-provoking.
On the subject of sex, he showed that the traditional definition of pornography in the US is an arbitrary social construct. A good many advertisements and TV shows are in fact pornographic under the definition set by the Supreme Court: “causes sexual thoughts, no artistic merit.” Hicks was superb at using his body to drive home a point. Few things are funnier than Hicks announcing “here’s the commercial they’d like to do” and slowly contorting his body into the image of a naked woman pleasuring herself over a Coke symbol. What’s especially prescient about this is it’s barely a step removed from what advertisers do with sex on a regular basis. The rule is you can’t show nipples or genitalia, but you can show or do anything else in the selling of your product.
This kind of cultural taboo has probably contributed a great deal to the general sexual dysfunction and perversion in US society. From the youngest of ages men are bombarded in the media with sexualized images of the female body, with only a few strategic parts off limits. The effect on male brains is to titillate up to a certain point, then deny payoff. Thus it’s no wonder that the majority of men seek out pornography that does show everything, right after they’ve consumed the fast food or product that was being sold in the first place. The basic hypocrisy is that the sexualized female body in a commercial is considered socially acceptable, while the female genitalia in full sexual contact is considered pornography and relegated to shameful corners of the Internet which most males manage to view with about the same frequency as they view the advertisements. Hicks knew we are all perverts, and the efficacy of his humor is in showing up the absurdity in the line of social acceptance that separates sexualized media from full-blown pornography.
He had been raised with the Puritan attitudes of sex as transferred from Europe to the Bible Belt. His discomfort with the intersections of guilt and sexuality probably played a large role in his hostility towards institutional Christianity in both its Protestant and Catholic forms. He talked of “Vampire Priests who stick their twin fangs of sin and guilt into you and suck out your joy of life.” For Hicks, Christianity was a sex-suppressing hypocritical system with the same weird and falsely repressed sexual ethic he observed in advertising. And yet, Hicks himself comes across as something of a Calvinist in many of his sketches, albeit a secular Calvinist. Total depravity was a real thing for him, it just didn’t have anything to do with sex. Consider his brutally funny quip against feel-good smile on your brother philosophy: “Tired of this back slappin’ aren’t humanity neat bullshit; we’re a virus with shoes.”
For Hicks, depravity and sin were not to be found in the fulfillment of our sexual desires and feelings but in the larger societal proclivity towards violence, greed, and exploitation. Yet here we see the limits of Hicks’s philosophy, because the very behaviors he condemned in US society, and in Jacksonian politics, were themselves the result of desires. Sexual freedom is the fulfillment of a desire. So is the economic exploitation of your neighbor. So is the political elevation of yourself by the exclusion of your neighbor because of their skin color or sexual orientation. Hicks makes a typical 20th century mistake in assuming that guilt is always a bad thing because it interferes with the fulfillment of our desires. But guilt can in fact be a good thing when it shows us where our desires can go wrong. He himself was using shame and guilt as a way of attacking those he disagreed with.
He came from the Bible Belt and he was probably the funniest satirist of fundamentalist Christianity in comedy. He was in no sense picking on a weak opponent. Reagan and H.W. Bush calculated much of their social policy to appease this part of the Jacksonian voter base(many of whom were still registered Democrats). The long and difficult struggle to teach basic evolutionary theory in red state high schools shows the very real damage religious fundamentalism has inflicted on US society. Like any great satirist, Hicks knew that the best way to undermine his targets was to make them look stupid, and use their own words to do it. The logic behind young earth creationism collapses as soon as you bother to seriously think it through. Hicks gave the best verbal and visual destruction of it there is. His timing on stage was incredible, and never more so than when he impersonated the “prankster” Creationist God hiding dinosaur fossils as a way to test human belief.
US foreign policy came in for a similar drubbing. Whatever the justifications for the first Gulf War, no one can deny how funny and devastating Hicks’s take on it was. He points out that Iraq posed no real security threat to the mainline US, mercilessly parodying the media obsession with Iraq’s “Elite Republican Guard” who turned out to be nothing more than mosquitoes when up against US weaponry. His impression of US generals testing out weaponry from a magazine is a hilarious visual representation of the worst aspects of what Eisenhower warned against. Hicks’s question of why we can’t use such technology to target bananas to starving mouths is not irrelevant nonsense but a deadly serious point. Too often US foreign policy has leaned too heavily on weapons as a means for change and too little on moral influence. One need not be a Chomskyite to admit that the world would benefit if the US spent a little less on defense and a little more on humanitarian aid.
Hicks’s comedy was dark, but it would be wrong to call him a total pessimist. He left his own beautiful meditation and summation of his worldview with his “life is just a ride” sketch. Some might write it off as drug-induced hokum, but I’ve always been touched by the sincerity and grace of those words. They echo, in a sharper form, the transcendentalism of Emerson’s essays and Whitman’s “This is what you shall do” preface to Leaves of Grass. I think those words came out of Hicks’s deep and abiding love for Jacksonian America and the South in particular. It was a rough and angry love. Hicks felt that these people, the Jacksonians he grew up with, were those who had been most led astray by the anxiety-pushers at the front of the ride. Whatever else is true about the South, it has always had its share of social fear and shame. As such there have always been those in power who have been all too willing to play on those feelings of fear and shame for their own benefit and advancement. Yet the South has always had a special kind of grace as well. I don’t think there’s a big dividing line between the feelings of Ronnie Van Zant in “Simple Man” and Hicks’s “It’s Just a Ride.” What Hicks did was turn his harsh satirical bite towards all those he believed were keeping us from being more fully human and alive It may sound foolish for him to say we can convert our defense spending into clothing and feeding the poor and exploring space. But if that’s foolish, then so is The Sermon on the Mount. Hicks never could sever himself from his upbringing. That’s the secret to his comedic genius, in all its discomfort and rage.
Bert Clere is a writer in North Carolina. He likes late-Victorian fiction but wonders if he should have been a Poll-Sci major. After years of emailing Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, he figured it was time to give the writing thing a try. A number of his essays have appeared in Ethos Review. And he posts shorter and more random musings about literature and politics here.