Two-thousand-four was a pretty good year for smart, culturally conscious comedians; election years inevitably are. And every time somebody like Jon Stewart speaks loudly, we hear echoes of Bill Hicks, the acclaimed, innately controversial stand-up comic who — despite never achieving widespread recognition in America — succeeded in influencing a generation of socially critical humorists before dying of cancer, at the young age of 32, in 1994.
Even better, every time insurgent comedy makes a ping on the pop-culture radar, we also usually get an opportunity to hear from Hicks himself. Reissue-king music label Rykodisc has been releasing the late comic's provocative rhetoric sporadically, on audio CD, for a while now; new titles tend to appear whenever edgy comedians obviously inspired by Hicks (David Cross and Patton Oswalt, for example) capture the nation's attention. This time around, it's a DVD rather than a CD, the first compendium of Hicks' hilarious and thoughtful rants available in the format.
Bill Hicks Live trumps the majority of the canonized stand-up's previous releases, and is a near must-have for both Hicks devotees and comedy fiends in general, for three reasons.
1. Most of his top-notch material is represented. The collection of three large-hall performances from 1991 and '92 includes the famous bits (on subjects like smoking, why drugs are good and the use of terminally ill patients as stunt-people in action movies) and the not-so-famous (moths, untalented wannabes fellating Satan in exchange for stardom, British pornography). Also included is a mid-'90s Comedy Central Hicks biography It's Just A Ride. It's pretty much all here.
2. These shows — a taping for HBO's One Night Stand in Chicago, a one-man show from the '91 Montreal International Comedy Festival, and a fairly widely circulated headlining set at London's Dominion Theater — are from a critical point in Hicks' career. Relentless touring, countless recommendations by more famous peers, and a few late-night talk-show appearances had placed him at the edge of a breakthrough. The breakthrough never happened, but here we see Hicks refining prodigious natural talent into an expertly compelling performance; in fact, we see it happen over the course of these gigs.
3. Hicks was an eminently watchable comic, often incorporating contortions, stage-stalking, hand gestures and outrageous, hyperbolic action. In-concert comedy albums always suffer from a lack of such integral, illustrative physical movement, but everything is presented here. Hicks was also, like Lenny Bruce, a master at building tension during his routine, going long minutes without triggering a laugh. What might come off as empty air on an audio CD becomes tautly alive on DVD — seeing it helps you feel it.
Bill Hicks Live isn't perfect. There's material that hardcore fans have heard over and over. There's a noticeable drop in the video quality of the Montreal set, lasting several minutes. And there's a dearth of Hicks' infamous interaction with audience members — he suffered neither ignorance nor disinterest gladly, and small-club performances often degenerated into confrontation. (Hunt down the VHS release Sane Man for some excruciating early-days footage of him going at it with a crowd.) But on the whole, it's both a thorough, excellent introduction for interested parties, and yet another worthy collectible for those of us who can't get enough of Hicks' singular blend of anger, instigation and hope. (www.rykodisc.com) —Scott Harrell