Truth, American Style

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Published on April 7th, 2011 | by Daniel Guzmán

The title “comedian’s comedian” is a frustrating one. Like all variations of that phrasal template (ex: “writer’s writer”), it implies that the person is loved (and often imitated) by fellow professionals – however, when it comes to his/her audience, those meant to actually receive the final product…not as much. Usually, those that wear this label end up being the forerunner to someone else that knows how to better capitalize on the same approach, smoothing out the edges and making it more accessible to the mainstream (Roky Erickson is a fine example of a “musician’s musician.” If you don’t know who he is, slap yourself hard, then go watch the 2005 documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me”).

In a paradox bordering on modern myth, these heralds of new creativity tend to find themselves ignored, abbreviated, and/or ostracized by their own countrymen; often doing better in far-off lands (Europe) than in that wide expanse of Middle America that serves to keep the matter and anti-matter universes of LA and New York from colliding.

Bill Hicks fits into this category. His is the kind of genius that gets quoted endlessly at parties, even if no one remembers who said it. Fortunately, the rise of the internet, where yesterday’s faux pas is today’s hashtag, has helped to keep his act firmly associated with his name.

Riding on the crest of this new era, comes the Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas documentary “American:  The Bill Hicks Story” (opening April 8th at Cinema Village). Merging digital animation with archival footage, the film attempts to make the case of why Hicks matters now more than ever, introducing new audiences to the painful-but-true quality of his scalding humor, while also confirming in veteran fans that their late-night college dorm diatribes were not without merit.

The film takes the familiar approach of all biographies, offering up the formative years that would define Hicks as a comedian. Starting out in the suburbs of Houston, Hicks began practicing comedy with his friend Dwight Slade at the age of 15, performing impromptu sketches around school. When a comedy club opened in Houston, Hicks snuck out at night and had a friend drive him downtown (he was still too young for a driver’s license). It was this determination that would be the dominant factor throughout his entire career, a professional life cut short in 1994 when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

With any documentary about a performer, the best thing for a filmmaker to do is just show the man in action. Aside from the clips already available on video, we see bits of his earliest shows, including an audiotape recording of a young Hicks in LA, exhausted and fed up with the entertainment machine, confessing that he feels his career is already over.  These moments are worth the price of admission – it shows just how hell-bent Hicks was to develop his act into something that reflected his thoughts. He was constantly revising himself, trying to be original and daring, often enraging his audience in order to wake them up.

The film relies heavily on digital animation, moving photos with glowing screensaver-like effects. When it works, one is given a chance to immerse in a moment that no longer exists, like early unrecorded comedy club gigs, or private moments in the Hicks household. However, when it doesn’t, the effects are distracting, drawing too much attention to itself. Rather than building to something profound about Hicks, it feels like visuals for the sake of visuals, muddying up the man’s insights.  “Waking Life” brought to you by “Adult Swim.”

Still, “American” has its heart in the right place. Overall, the film succeeds in its goal of showing why Hicks matters.  One feels a pang of sorrow that he is gone, wondering what observations he would have brought to new idiocies like Glenn Beck or the Tea Party. It’s not a classic documentary, and it tends to focus too much on his early days and not enough on when Hicks was working with a vengeance to get his message out before his death (and completely ignores his thoughts on comedy vacuums like Carrot Top and Gallagher, or his anger about Denis Leary’s wholesale theft of his “smoking” act). However, if after watching this film, you go home and start looking up his footage on YouTube or renting his videos, then the filmmakers succeeded in their mission. Welcome to Bill Hicks’ America, a land not of Big Macs or big cars, just big ideas.

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About the Author

is a writer of fiction, articles, and critical essays. He lives in New York.

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