Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bill Hicks: 20 Years Gone - Patton Oswalt

The strange legacy of a great comedian. By Patton Oswalt

The great comedian Bill Hicks, who died Feb. 26, 1994.
Film still of American: The Bill Hicks Story courtesy Variance Films

The following piece was written as the introduction to a new edition of Cynthia True’sAmerican Scream: The Bill Hicks Story. The new edition didn’t happen, but Oswalt published the essay on his website today, 20 years after Hicks’ death. It is reprinted here with his permission.

I never thought Lenny Bruce was funny.

I am very aware of how important he was. But his stuff never made me laugh.

He was just … before my time. Too, too soon for me, and me born too, too late. Growing up on Bill Cosby and George Carlin and Richard Pryor and then Steve Martin and Monty Python—all of them, and so many more—I couldn’t go back and listen to Lenny Bruce with new ears. I knew enough about history, about the sterile, cultural neck brace that America wore in the late ’50s and early ’60s, to realize just how revolutionary and foolhardy and essential Lenny Bruce was, but …

… he never made me laugh.

There are a startling number of comedians my age (and younger!) who say how funny they thought Lenny Bruce was, how much he cracked them up. And I suspect—fuck it, I know—they’re lying. They’re not lying out of self-aggrandizement or even fear. It’s just—they know how important Lenny was, especially in terms of what they do now, onstage, that they assume he’s also, to them, hilarious. Maybe they even convince themselves, when they listen to an old concert, that he’s genuinely making them laugh.

None of what I’m saying is meant to lessen Lenny Bruce, as a performer or barrier-breaker. If anything, it’s a tribute to how iconic his material is—like Ornette Coleman’s music, or Ozu’s films, or Wallace Stevens’ poetry—there’s an ever-renewing army of connoisseurs within his field who will always assert that he’s hilarious, that he’s a primal influence, that he’s a source.

Which brings me to Bill Hicks, and the equally strange legacy he leaves behind after his death. We’ll get to that later. And no, I’m not going to make the silly claim that there’s a direct line between Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. The path of influence in any art form is never a straight line, nor is it ever a “passing on” of a real or symbolic baton. Influence and homage are a tangled radio-burst of infectious particles, and there are as many side-steps, diagonal shuffles, and pivots as there are clean strides forward. So let’s take a few steps backward here, to the people who followed Bruce, and laid the path for Hicks. 

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