“This idea of ‘I’m offended’. Well I’ve got news for you. I’m offended by a lot of things too. Where do I send my list? Life is offensive. You know what I mean? Just get in touch with your outer adult. And grow up. And move on. Reasonable people don’t write letters.”
Bill Hicks said this in conversation with Howard Stern on the latter’s WXRK radio show in October 1993, four months before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 32.
Repeated a quarter of a century on, the remark stands as a fine example of the contrarianism the southerner was known for, but it also takes on a fresh resonance.
Taking offence has become a global pastime in recent years. We hungrily take to Twitter every morning to see which public figure has said the wrong thing overnight, about race or sexuality, and drawn a storm of condemnation.
Such is the appetite for this moral tar-and-feathering that users were recently forced to turn to an archive Playboy interview with John Wayne from 1971, for sustenance on a rare quiet day for indignation.
The Western actor’s opinions on white supremacy were as plainly racist as they come, but the news that a hard-right Republican and gung-ho advocate of the Vietnam War held objectionable views will have surprised no one with any prior knowledge of the man’s character and politics.
Bill Hicks – who presented himself as a cowboy in his Revelations TV special for Channel 4, arriving on stage at London’s Dominion Theatre like Johnny Cash’s Man in Black in a Stetson and slicker, speaking against a backdrop of Monument Valley at sunset – would have had fun with the hypersensitivity of our current comment culture, bogged down as it is in personality politics and missing far greater social injustices because of it.
He would have been disgusted by the hurried recirculation of trending offences on social media and the crowing counter-blast of memes from those who claim to know better than the “virtue signallers” apparently expecting sainthood from their celebrities.
The prevailing climate would have provided plenty of ripe material for the fearless provocateur, whose primary theme was the hypocrisy and mendacity of those in power. That Hicks isn’t here to rail against the Donald Trump administration is a tragedy.
But he would also have found himself a ready-made target for call-outs, rightly so with regard to his penchant for casual misogyny and homophobia and tendency to sneer at the working class, channelled through his derision for the “rednecks” he grew up around.
Like Ricky Gervais, his most obvious contemporary imitator, he would probably be disdained for his attacks on “easy targets” like Creationists and organised religion. But unlike Gervais, to whom the charge sticks, Hicks’s excoriations were never about courting controversy for the sake of it. His observations took American hucksterism to task in all seriousness.
“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing”, he famously said, “kill yourself… Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good. Seriously. No this is not a joke… You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are f**ked and you are f**king us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your f**king soul. Kill yourself.”
The point of his pro-drugs routines – born from years of cheery experimentation with everything from LSD to magic mushrooms and Quaaludes – was not to shock us with the surprise of his advocacy but to challenge our blind acceptance of an illogical status quo.
His real target was the hypocrisy of selling and advertising alcohol on television when smoking marijuana is prohibited by law, the former demonstrably more harmful than the latter, not that The Beatles were high when they recorded “Yellow Submarine” ergo weed should be legalised and passed around to build a better world.
The cult of Bill Hicks – which began to thrive among British students in particular following the comedian’s barnstorming run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991 – has already faced one heavy backlash since his death.
The news that actor Russell Crowe planned to direct a biopic in 2012 provoked a take-down from Vice in which the stand-up was written off as “sabotaged by his own smugness” and “an entry-level comic for aspiring left-wingers” new to Noam Chomsky.
The prospect of any comedian presenting himself as a messianic dealer in hard truths before a whooping congregation of adulators can certainly appear self-aggrandising and narcissistic to the unsympathetic. And Bill Hicks never shied away from doing so.
“Like many kids growing up on a steady diet of Westerns, I always wanted to be the cowboy hero. That lone voice in the wilderness fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth and justice,” he says in the introduction to Revelations. “And in my heart of hearts, I still track the remnants of that dream, wherever I go, on my never-ending ride into the setting sun.”
Hicks gets away with such a declaration because of the astuteness of his best observations and the clarity and coherence of his vision.
His attack on George HW Bush’s government for selling arms to developing nations and then decrying danger overseas is particularly fine, Hicks likening America’s stance to that of Jack Palance’s villainous gunslinger goading the pacifist hero of George Stevens’ Western Shane (1953) to pick up his six-shooter and fire.
His skill as an orator should also not be underestimated.
A highly skilled mimic, Hicks bears comparison with the most mesmerising televangelist or revivalist pastor. The son of “Yuppie Baptists”, he rebelled against his parents’ religious fervour as a youth but was exposed to plenty of their church’s craft during a childhood spent moving from Georgia to Alabama, Florida and New Jersey before the family finally settled in Houston, Texas.
He echoed the rhetorical flights he had observed from the pews when he first took to the stage at 13, imitating Woody Allen at a summer camp talent show. This raw energy was then honed at the Comedy Workshop in Houston in the late Seventies, a venue he first visited with high school friends and where he met the anarchic Sam Kinison and learnt quickly how best to tame an impatient crowd on a sticky night.
“Bill Hicks had to make his voice heard through the amorphous, ever-shifting fog of Reagan-era comfort and complacency,” the comic Patton Oswalt wrote in an essay on his hero. “Comedy club audiences in the Eighties actually thought they were being revolutionary and dangerous, listening to a sport-coated, sleeves-rolled-up comedian railing against the absurdities of airplane food, the plot holes on Gilligan’s Island and the differences between cats and dogs.”
That he dared to direct his righteous anger at more meaningful targets should not be taken for granted in an era when our own stand-ups are all-too-readily seduced into the cosy banality of panel shows, skipping across the stage between observations at the Apollo or O2 or touring introspective hours about their latest relationship disasters.
The idea that Bill Hicks might have been received much less warmly were he still working today is a shame given that he joked about such topics as the pro-life movement, the gun lobby and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, all issues with which the world is still grappling.
“The next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas. A bloodless revolution,” he once predicted. “And if I can take part in it by transforming my own consciousness, then someone else’s, I’m happy to do it.”
Ultimately, it’s probably for the best that a passionate chain-smoker who already considered humankind “a virus with shoes” should be spared a century in which vaping and Logan Paul are popular.
But perhaps he hasn’t been. Bill Hicks’s love of conspiracy theories, particularly those concerning the assassination of John F Kennedy, has given rise to a bizarre internet myth that he faked his own death and has been hiding in plain sight ever since in the person of raving InfoWars blowhard Alex Jones. Huge if true, as they say.