James Delingpole

Edge of darkness

I’ve got this idea for a book, when I get the time, called Everything You Know Is Wrong. Its job will be to attack all the idiot received ideas of our age — what my father-in-law calls ‘notions’. High on the list of candidates, most definitely, is the commonly held belief (especially among stand-up comics) that Bill Hicks was the greatest comedian who ever lived.

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I’ve got this idea for a book, when I get the time, called Everything You Know Is Wrong. Its job will be to attack all the idiot received ideas of our age — what my father-in-law calls ‘notions’. High on the list of candidates, most definitely, is the commonly held belief (especially among stand-up comics) that Bill Hicks was the greatest comedian who ever lived.

I’ve got this idea for a book, when I get the time, called Everything You Know Is Wrong. Its job will be to attack all the idiot received ideas of our age — what my father-in-law calls ‘notions’. High on the list of candidates, most definitely, is the commonly held belief (especially among stand-up comics) that Bill Hicks was the greatest comedian who ever lived.

Would people be saying this if Hicks hadn’t died of pancreatic cancer at 32? Probably not. Dead young people are so much easier to project your fantasies of unimpeachable greatness on to than people who are alive and fat and ageing and part of the establishment and just not as funny as they used to be. ‘He never sold out,’ say all his fans. Well, sure. He never had the time.

Having just sat through a lavish, nearly two-hour documentary about his life — American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC4, Saturday) — I can see that he was a likeable, complex, talented character with lots of fascinating hinterland, who had a loving family, good friends and very compelling stage act. But stand-up comedy’s rival to Jesus?

Puh-leese.

Hicks was born into a middle-class Southern Baptist family in 1961 and raised in the suburbs of Houston. As is the way with almost any celebrity’s biography, by far the most interesting part concerned his years of struggle as he developed his artistic voice. It began in the schoolyard, where, with his best friend Dwight, he’d bound up to groups of kids and practise guerilla comedy sketches on them. When Houston opened its first comedy club, his youth, energy, easy charm and clean-cut observational comic riffs about being a middle-class kid with upstanding, God-fearing parents quickly won him a loyal following.

But what his act was missing, Hicks decided as he grew more polished, was edge. So one night, just before he went on stage, the young teetotaller asked his comedy buddies, ‘I wanna try a drink. What’s a drink people drink?’ A Margarita, someone suggested. So Hicks ordered seven Margaritas, lined them up on the bar, and downed them one by one. It was the first alcohol he had ever touched.

You could argue that this was the liberating moment when he achieved true greatness or the beginning of the downward spiral. Soon, audience members were passing Hicks more and more free drinks during his sets just to see how drunk he’d get; then later, dealers began offering free cocaine, too. Hicks’s act grew angrier; less predictable; and, of course, as some pillocks will insist on seeing it, more authentic.

Today, the comedy clubs are chock full of comedians who’d like more than anything to be Bill Hicks and the reasons for this are obvious. 1. If you’re Bill Hicks, you are rock’n’roll personified and girls will offer lines of cocaine to you on their enormous bare breasts, whereas they wouldn’t for that nice, middle-class Michael McIntyre. 2.You scarcely need to do anything so safe and bourgeois as construct your material for you’ll be sweating it quite naturally out of your pores, boiling and erupting like a human volcano of intense comedic righteousness. (Unlike Michael McIntyre.) 3. You don’t even need to be funny — unlike that bloody Michael McIntyre — because what you’re saying is so visionary and true and pure that your genius transcends mere laughter.

Another reason the kids like him, of course, is his stance on drugs and smoking. Having taken lots of magic mushrooms, Hicks understood that love is the thing and that we are all part of one universal consciousness, and so on; plus, he smoked a lot on stage (his crutch after he quit the booze) and harangued all the non-smokers thus: ‘I’d quit smoking if I didn’t think I’d become one of you.’ Great. I’ve taken psychotropics too. And I’ve smoked cigarettes. So I guess that means you should all take me much more seriously, too.

There’s one sketch he did — shown in the documentary — where he recalls sitting in a diner, reading a book, and the waitress asks him why he’s reading a book. Hicks riffs for a while on the ineffable stupidity of the question, then concludes that one reason he reads books is so as not to end up serving in a diner. Again, you can see why this goes down well with the kids: ‘I’m an intellectual me. I read actual books and I’m not ashamed to admit it.’ But there’s a misdirected rage, a snobbery here, which doesn’t reflect well on him. The world has many, much bigger menaces than semi-literate redneck waitresses. (Or, indeed, marketing men and advertisers — another of his pet hates.)

This is perhaps my biggest beef with Hicks. As a comedian, he could really be quite funny on occasion; as a performer, he was undoubtedly magisterial; but as a visionary seer who dared say the unsayable (which is the thing most of his admirers really rate him for) — he was totally bloody useless. No way did he confront his audience’s

prejudices. He just did what almost all stand-ups do: stroke liberal-lefties’ smug egos by telling them exactly what they want to hear. 

Written byJames Delingpole

James Delingpole is officially the world's best political blogger. (Well, that's what the 2013 Bloggies said). Besides the Spectator, he is executive editor of Breitbart London and writes for Bogpaper.com and Ricochet.com. His website is www.jamesdelingpole.com and his latest book is Watermelons.

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