Bill Hicks had been dead for more than 5 years when I first encountered him, indirectly, via cult 90s movie Human Traffic. In a scene that sees the central character, Jip (John Simm), getting himself fired up for a night of hedonism, he turns to a VHS of Hicks for an “injection of the late prophet”. That one snippet (on the hypocrisy of “the war on drugs”) was all it took. As well as making me laugh, the joke resonated in the way that only unrealised yet fundamental truths can, and I was utterly hooked, quickly devouring every word the great man ever recorded.
Owing to his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32, Hicks has now fulfilled the role of enshrined legend of the comedy firmament for significantly longer than he ever existed within it as a working stand-up. Happily, the Texan lived just long enough to bask a short while in the beginnings of a cultish fan following (even if it was in the UK, rather than in his homeland, that it was most avid), yet the degree to which his standing has continued to rise since he left this mortal realm is unprecedented. What is it that sets Bill Hicks apart?
The timelessness of the material is perhaps the key to Hicks’ enduring appeal. While his sets were laced with pop-culture references, his comic angle always came from such a primal core that they’re no less relevant today. Hicks’ exasperation at the agents that confounded and confused his base human instinct for compassion is so relatable that modern audiences can easily mentally replace New Kids on The Block with One Direction, George Bush snr for Donald Trump, and war in the Middle East with… well, war in the Middle East (I guess evil endures too).
Beyond the subject matter, a huge part of the wonder of Hicks lies in his total mastery of his art form. First performing at the age of 16, he quickly learned how to pitch a set for maximum impact. Intuitively knowing when the most effective connection with his audience would be made by leaning into the front row with a conspiratorial whisper, or by assaulting them with an ear-shattering scream, Hicks commanded the stage with absolute authority.
Recorded in Montreal during the 1992 Just For Laughs festival, Relentless sees Hicks in his prime, skewering the targets of his sardonic ire with laser-sharp precision, yet ultimately imparting an uplifting message of love and peace, all the while maintaining an improbably high laugh-count. Whether you’re an already-devoted fan or a yet-to-be-initiated newcomer, it presents a chance to revel in the type of comedy genius that tends to come only once in a generation.
By Stuart Boyland