Monday, March 29, 2004

Anger is an energy

Time for this week’s shameful SWSL confession: until I read ‘Love All The People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines’ I knew precious little about Bill Hicks apart from the fact that He Who Cannot Be Named swears by him - and, indeed, like him. As an introduction to the man and his perspective on life, the book is very readable. Comprised (as the title might suggest) of transcripts of live stand-up shows, brief sketches and rants, TV ideas, letters and interviews, it gives you the sense of a comic whose star was at long last deservedly in the ascendancy at the time of his death from cancer in February 1994.

An informative framing foreword is supplied by John Lahr, recipient of by far the longest letter reproduced in the book, which details Hicks’s version of events when his performance was cut from ‘The Late Show With David Letterman’ in October 1993. The impassioned critique of television and censorship which follows makes the letter arguably the most important document in the whole book, Hicks hammering home point after point, every one of which is even more relevant now than it was then: “The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers, and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems that they, and only they might one day, somewhere in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve” As regards the book’s contents, my only hope would have been for more interviews or press features, perhaps in place of a couple of the live transcripts which often overlap in terms of material.

Aside, of course, from the fact that he’s damn funny, what I admire about Hicks (at least, about the Hicks that emerges from these pages) is that he is unafraid of challenging his audience and taking them on. During some of the live shows, when his act is being received with something less than enthusiasm, his dogged and undaunted persistence seems to approach masochism. I also like the way he has evidently thought carefully about what it means to be a comic and, even more fundamentally, about what comedy is. Far from being the sort of careerist stand-up looking for a way into the more glamorous world of television who deals in cheap and mindless comedy that allows the audience to switch off while being passively entertained, Hicks engages with people, often in an amusingly aggressive fashion, and refuses to allow them to relax. As he writes in a letter responding to criticism from a priest about his C4 programme ‘Revelations’, “Good comedy helps people know they’re not alone. Great comedy provides an answer.” In other words, comedy should not be just about providing sheer escapist pleasure. More than most stand-up comedians he actually has something to say, and is perfectly prepared to use the stage as a platform from which to say it. In his act the pill of political polemic may be sugared with a sprinkling of dick jokes, but it’s always there. For Hicks it’s not enough to point out the follies of human existence and contemporary society to an audience just so they can laugh and then happily go back to their old ways of thinking and behaving; behind it all stands the message that these absurdities are contingent, that we don’t have to accept things the way they are, and that change can happen. This might not in itself be particularly earth-shattering, but it’s the forcefulness and conviction with which Hicks expresses his arguments that resonates longest in the memory.

On a more personal note ‘Love All The People’ has had quite a significant impact on me, particularly in coincidental conjunction with my ongoing reading of Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s biography of D H Lawrence. As regular SWSL readers are probably aware, I’ve grown rather fond of venting my spleen in numerous different directions, and lately I’ve been feeling that my irritability at and intolerance of people is getting out of control. Both Hicks and Lawrence are renowned for the potential savagery of their remarks about others, but both endorse the view that such vitriol, when piercingly acute and directed at well-chosen targets, can ultimately be constructive and creative rather than simply destructive and divisive. Though both can be mercilessly and dismissively scathing about large groups of people, they nevertheless at root maintain an undimmed sense of humanity’s worth. Reading Hicks’s thoughts on the subject – “I am a misanthropic humanist. It’s a weird conflict when you are your own bete noire. ‘Do you like people?’ ‘They’re great in theory’” – reassured me, as he claims the best comedy should, that I’m not alone in feeling torn between hate and love. Feelings of scepticism, cynicism and contempt can only arise from the belief that there exists the possibility of something better.

An edited version of John Lahr’s foreword from The Guardian.

A more critical perspective on the book.

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