This is not a review of American: The Bill Hicks Story. There’s plenty of that going around the web that breaks down the story stringed together of Hicks’ life and the intriguing animation utilized to convey all the interview clips, stand up, etc. filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. Instead of wasting time repeating what everyone else is saying, I’ll just go ahead and say see the movie. It’s good.
Instead, this will be my collected and (semi) processed thoughts on watching American: The Bill Hicks Story at the Comedy Store, no less, with a room full of comics and comedy folks.
Whilst sitting at a booth in the main room, there were many feelings floating around my head watching a teenage Hicks emulating one of his first comedy heroes, Woody Allen. The amount of evolution and re-invention he went through as an artist to go from working almost exclusively clean and talking about his parents to trying to free people’s mind and redefining an individual’s purpose in life, to me, was simultaneously inspiring and daunting. Seeing the almost stereotypical downward Hollywood spiral that’s overplayed in nearly every movie about the entertainment industry was painful for me, as a comic, to watch. As Hicks started to “expand” his mind with drugs and see where he could find his limits in how much he could take, it almost seemed necessary to Hicks’ development that he struggle out of hole that he kept digging.
I’m on the opposite end of this spectrum. I personally have never ingested any type of hallucinogenic and have very rarely ever gotten drunk, much less belligerent. Sure, I struggle through depression, had one break down or two, but I can’t let go out of the notion that Hicks had to suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally to such an extreme to find his own way to espouse his views while making people laugh. I know that it’s not a prerequisite to greatness, especially as an artist, that you become addicted to alcohol, coke, etc., but in thinking of what Hicks’ went through, that tired old phrase of “you’ve got a long way to go,” starts ringing in my head.
That’s not to say that I’m on the verge of quitting or even close to it. In watching the Comedy Store’s very own Mack Lindsay to attempt to do 15 minutes to open for the screening to a bunch of comics and comment, “Even when Hicks is dead, it’s hard to open for him,” I found a weird sense of comfort in one of the reasons why I perform stand up comedy.
I know, for a fact, that I’m an infinitely better guitarist than I am a comic. In having a decade in sporadically picking strings and ultimately being a lazy musician, I’ve developed a level of proficiency to where people enjoy seeing me play. Yet, I don’t get nearly the same fulfillment and validation from soloing on a guitar in front of bunch of drunks and subsequently getting free drinks as much as I do struggling to make recovering alcoholics and drug addicts to laugh and get an applause break. In short, I love/obsess about the purity of stand up comedy.
As Hicks found after walking entire rooms while yelling into the mic, being on stage alone poses an artistic challenge unlike any other where, no matter what you talk about, there is a responsibility to entertain. With music, poetry, painting, films, an individual may do as they place without validation from anyone else. Their art can be just for them. In such media, you can chalk up silence or a lack of adoration/compliments to people just “not getting it”. Though no joke/bit/act will ever be universally funny, a few people have to laugh at it for it to ever develop artistically.
This functioning principle of comedy is what largely attracts me to performing over other art forms. No matter how much I’ve been “eating it” on stage lately spouting off about my own self-imposed isolation, the feeling of expressing your true self and then genuine validation is transcendent. In fact, it’s addicting, even more so than drugs could ever be. Having literally nothing to hide behind on stage, being one person against many, expecting you to do something for them while trying to not pander/sell out and even going so far as to enlightening people is daunting, but I love it. I love that it’s daunting. I love that there is my own personal point of view in both what I find funny and what I want to say on stage and people might not find it funny. Actually, real people most likely, especially on material’s first time out, probably won’t find it funny. Yet, I will revel in their silence for collective hours on end to find that intersection of myself, my ideas, opinions, personal truths, etc. and what’s funny to everyone else because that’s my addiction.
Even if I never become a junkie or find myself strewn across a bar drooling on myself, the obsession for truth in art like Hicks, no matter how it manifests itself, reaffirms my own personal journey as a comedian.
Still, I got a hell of a long way to go.