Go Back to Bed, America! by David Bax
Given that Battleship Pretension has, for what its worth, established itself as the chief (and probably only) outpost for those who fall in the middle of the film snob/comedy geek Venn diagram, I feel a certain amount of pressure to get this one right.
“This one” is Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ American: The Bill Hicks Story. And its subject, among stand-up comedy acolytes, is definitely a big one. Much has been said and thought and puzzled and pondered, written and recorded about the late comedian Bill Hicks and where he falls in the history of the form. To many, his place in history is a foregone conclusion. These fans would rank him among the all-time greats; Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. Others would place him alongside a more divisive figure; Lenny Bruce. Those comedians listed previously were all tremendously funny and particularly important to the development of stand-up comedy in their own ways. Lenny Bruce was doubtlessly an important figure, maybe even more important than those other four. But when it comes to how funny he was, it’s not as cut and dried. Certainly people were laughing at the time, but truly great art is timeless and timelessness is harder to achieve in comedy than in anything else. The latter camp of fans would argue that Hicks – and Bruce before him – represents a landmark turning point but failed to produce comedy that would last for decades.
I would side mostly with that division. While Bill Hicks was funny and masterful in the craft of holding a crowd in his sway, the things that make him an historical figure often get in the way of his jokes. Hicks was raw and honest on stage and was truly possessed of a desire to use his comedy to uncover truth. His philosophy of life required him to first and foremost engage it face to face and he required no less of his audience. He was completely unwilling to varnish his opinions or make them more palatable. That’s very honorable and it did a great deal to make stand-up comedy a more respectable form of expression but what is one to do if he or she just plain disagrees with Hicks?
The documentary (is that what we were talking about?) gives you more than enough chances to disagree with him, which is to its credit. American, made by fans of Hicks and with the cooperation of his family, is unafraid to present Hicks’ whole life, including things that don’t make him look good, such as his occasional mean-spirited and disrespectful treatment of his parents and his friends. It also details, in its best segments, Hicks’ relationship with and thoughts about mind-altering substances. From alcohol to mushrooms to marijuana, Hicks was not afraid to indulge as a younger man. But he didn’t do so just to get “fucked up.” He saw these things as legitimate tools to be used in the service of a better understanding of one’s self and the universe one inhabits. Even after alcohol took control of his life and he switched to sobriety in all forms for most of his last years on the planet, he still preached the useful on expanding the parameter of perception through hallucinogens and intoxicants. The documentary gives equal time and consideration to the benefits and the dangers of these practices, leaving the viewer to make her or his own mind up.
That was a trait Bill Hicks did not possess, though. He, or at least his stage persona, was overwhelmingly assured of his own correctness at all times. Despite the well-read and reasoned individual he purported to be, he was frustratingly given to the broad, dismissive generalizations of a lesser propagandist. My one real problem with American is the fact that, while this tendency is very much on display in the clips presented, it is completely ignored as a facet of his complicated personality. One of the main reasons Hicks’ legend persists is because he is the patron saint of the guy who smugly assumes he’s the smartest person in the room and this documentary does nothing at all to address that.
I’ve done a lot of talking about Hicks’ place in the world of stand-up comedy. That’s essentially because a person with my interests can’t help but look at him that way. The good news is that my interests aren’t a prerequisite to seeing and enjoying American: The Bill Hicks Story. Whether you agree with Hicks or even know who he is, this documentary makes for an exciting and entertaining biopic of a troubled, groundbreaking artist whose career was cut short. It’s exactly the sort of inspiring and emotional story that Bill Hicks likely would have hated. But that’s an irony he also might have enjoyed.