WATCH: The five greatest Bill Hicks moments
As the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks approaches we look back on his five greatest moments.
Warning: These clips contain graphic and potentially offensive content. Please proceed with caution.
By Ian Dunt
Wednesday sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, a fascinating, complex political figure who became one of Britain's all-time favourite comedians.
Hicks was always most famous here in Britain, where his brand of furious indignation and outrageous sexually-imbued asides was more readily accepted than in his native America. In the two decades since his death, he has been elevated to an almost messianic figure among his fans, who often resort to the stock phrase that he was "right about everything".
He most certainly was not. There is a nasty line of machismo in his work – often veering on homophobia – which modern audiences might find unappetising. He resorts quite often to conspiracy theory and his oft-quoted thoughts on how 'life is just a ride' come close to the vague metaphors of new age spiritualists.
Hick's appeal is less about the specific content of what he had to say than his refusal to be co-opted into a corporate world where brands and advertising play a greater role than integrity. His anger has been shared in the decades since his death by millions of young people, who yearn for more meaning than their career opportunities seem to offer.
Below are five of his greatest moments available online, in no particularly order. Most film available of the comedian is from a couple of gigs late in his career. There is better stuff available on audio, but here I've stuck to video. I've left out some of the more grotesque moments, like his evisceration of Rush Limbaugh or the long, strange journeys with goatboy, because even with a warning at the top you can't put it anywhere near a mainstream website. Even then, proceed with caution: these clips contain swearing, graphic sexual descriptions and views on drugs and politics which some people might find objectionable.
Bill Hicks on marketing
Hick's appeal for anyone in advertising or marketing to kill themselves is one of his most famous asides. It perfectly encapsulates that easy way in which he combined laughter with indignation. It is a strange combination and it took an alchemist of his standing to make it possible. The later section, in which he imagines marketing people stamping a dollar sign on his protest, is a rare expression of how capitalism commodifies even the resistance to itself. With consummate ease, Hicks combines academic discourse, laughter and righteous anger.
Bill Hicks on playing from your heart
This is Hicks at his most livid, screaming for musicians with passion and against the corporate sheen which has taken over pop music. Since his death, the process has become even more depressing. The cameras toured backstage at the Brits last week, asking pop acts their view on David Bowie's request for Scotland to "stay with us". They were as baffled by the question as a bird presented with a mathematics problem. The clip also highlights that strange ability Hicks had to be funny specifically because of how furious he was. He seems as if he is about to lose control, but the expert comic timing of his final sentence shows the professional is always in there somewhere, keeping things ticking over even as he screams bitterly into his microphone.
Bill Hicks on no- smokers
Hicks always prefaced his attacks on non-smokers with a section in which he gave every indication of being one of them. He would lure them into the open and then launch an extraordinary broadside against the public health hysteria which has only become more severe since he died. His willingness to taunt his audience was further evidence of his fearless ability to say whatever he perceived to be true, regardless of popularity. It showed he stuck to his principles in the way he demanded of others. His was a rare, welcome voice of autonomy and individual responsibility in a debate which has little respect for either. The sight of him smoking on stage already seems like an image from another time.
Bill Hicks on George Bush Sn. and creationism
It's an easy target, but Hicks puts creationists through their paces in this famous clip. His description of the "prankster God" necessary for their weird ideas to be true is still very funny. Hicks unwraps Christian thoughts in a resolutely rational manner, but without the snobbish superiority of the current crop of atheists. Instead, the comedian uses the inaccuracies and leaps of imagination to make religion seem more silly than it is dangerous. For frustrated secularists going through the Bush presidency, it would have been a welcome palate cleanser.
Bill Hicks on the war in Iraq
The remarkable and depressing thing about Hick's anti-Iraq war comments is how easily they could be transposed to the 2003 conflict. Even the names barely need changing. His comments on how media coverage proceeded – including the building up and then instant redundancy of the 'Elite Republican Guard' – proved uncannily similar to what took place just over a decade later. His point that the same technology used to pinpoint missile strikes could conceivably be used to send starving people food is one of those radical ideas which is never really mentioned in mainstream political discourse: that if people can be employed to find ways to kill people, they can be employed to help people. The observation of the power imbalance in modern conflict is particularly perceptive. "A war is when two sides are fighting," he remarks.