August 10, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2011)

I’VE BEEN A FAN OF comedian Bill Hicks since I first saw him on a Rodney Dangerfield HBO special in the late ‘80s. He was different, funny, and smart – a trio of traits that stand-up comedy desperately needed at the time.

In his best work from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hicks proudly talked and joked about his smoking, and the holier-than-thou attitude of non-smokers; his use of mind-altering (or as he saw it, mind-expanding) drugs such as mushrooms and LSD; and his insatiable thirst for challenging the status quo, the beliefs of the masses, and the lies of the government.

Yet Hicks did not achieve comedy superstardom before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32 – nor has he achieved it since then. But in recent years, more and more people are discovering Hicks and his inimitable form of comedy (despite Denis Leary’s best efforts; more on that later). And Hicks’ exposure to the mainstream increased even more this year with the full-length documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Since his tragic death, comedian Bill Hicks’ legend and stature have only grown, and this unique documentary tells his story – blending live footage, home movies, interviews, and animation to fill in the details of a life cut short. A comic's comic and unflagging critic of hypocrisy and cultural emptiness, Hicks was one of a kind – a Lenny Bruce for the late 20th century.


Knowing that Hicks was lionized in England when U.S. audiences weren’t “getting him,” it’s a bit ironic that American’s Brit directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas couldn’t pull off a definitive and wholly engaging documentary about their subject.

American is a full-length feature documentary, but it feels incomplete for several reasons: Footage of Hicks at his best is shown, but not until almost the third act; there are no interviews with comedians Hicks worked with during his peak; and there is no mention of the long-standing claim by many that Denis Leary stole Hicks’ act to launch his own stand-up career.

For true fans of Bill Hicks, the early rare footage in American is great, but clips of his best performances are overly familiar…and a bit scarce. For the uninitiated, American is a passable introduction to the man who once described the human race as “a virus with shoes.” Both parties will much more rewarded watching Comedy Central’s 1995 documentary on Hicks, It’s Just a Ride; view Part 1 here.

American is essentially shot from one collective perspective: That of his family, childhood friends (and creative partners), and comedians from his early stand-up days in Houston and Austin. It comes off more like a well-produced home movie than a comprehensive, from-all-angles dissection of Hicks and his wicked brilliance.

For more on Bill Hicks:
Required listening - Relentless, Arizona Bay
Additional listening/viewing - Rant in E-Minor, Dangerous, It’s Just a Ride


Is it suitable for your kids?
American features clips of Hicks that, while brilliant and often scathing, are populated with lots of profanities and adult language. There are also frequent mentions of drug use, and some very brief nudity.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she knows and loves Bill Hicks – especially if she loves him – American will be a bit of a disappointment. You’re both better off watching It’s Just a Ride or listening to the albums shown below.

One of my favorite Bill bits (a tad NSFW).

American: The Bill Hicks Story
* Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
* Stars: Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault, Dwight Slade
* MPAA Rating: NR

Buy American: The Bill Hicks Story (DVD) at >>
Buy American: The Bill Hicks Story (Blu-ray) at >>
Rent American: The Bill Hicks Story from Netflix >>


Bob Ignizio said...

You're absolutely right in how you describe the differences in the two films, but for me seeing the family stuff and learning about Bill's early years was more of what I wanted than performance footage. I'd rather watch one of the full length concerts on video for that. Still, both docs have their pros and cons, and if you watch one you'll probably want to see the other. As for the Leary stuff, you're dead on. I can't remember if 'Just a Ride' touched on that either, though. Either way, anyone who listens to Bill's first two albums and then listens to 'No Cure For Cancer' can't help but be struck by some major similarities.

Gemma said...

I didn't know about the Leary theft rumor. I think I believe it.

StuartOhQueue said...

I don't have any of his albums. I do love Hicks so I think I'll take your advice and skip "American."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this page. I too became a fan of Bill Hicks when i 1st saw him on the Rodney Dangerfield HBO special. My friends and I would repeat our favorite jokes from the show, and one of everyone's favorites was a simple/fun Hicks joke;
"I was doing a show out in Oklahoma- if you've never been to Oklahoma I'll give you a quick description, " (sound of wind across barren plains - (blowing into the microphone) "Yeah that was in the club one night while I was doing a show. :) People in Oklahoma are... a lil' different from you and I - Like I was in a movie theater watching a horror flick and I hear the guy behind me say, (funny hick/psycho voice) 'I remember the 1st time i cut off a head.' ("am I in your way, cuz I can crouch down!") - - - After that I only saw him on occasion, maybe once every 3 years - I didn't know why. As I became much older, and luckily I went through (or am I still going through it?) the big change-over into becoming a MUCH more intelligent person, I looked into smart people; whilst doing so Bill Hicks's name would turn-up quite a bit - So I looked into him more and more - now he has become my 2nd fav' comedian of all time. (Just behind George Carlin!) :)
- Like many Americans, I have lists. Top 5 favorite bands. Top 168 favorite music videos. Etc... One of the lists I have been keeping for about 10 years is "copyCatters" (Plagiarism) So many times I have seen a weak comedian use another comedians bit or joke and try to get away with it. SADLY, they most always do. I have so many video tapes and dvd's just for this reason alone. (website being built as we converse this). Just like Joe Rogan said, I was a Denis Leary fan. I saw him do 'his' jokes and over-act 'those' especially, (as if those bits really fired him-up personally-- to make it seem more 'his', ungh...) and then my friend had his album on cassette, 'no cure for Cancer' featuring the song, "(I'm an) asshxle!" I learned every word - I liked it. Then.... almost 2 decades after my friend bought that cassette, (world of youtube) - I started hearing from many people, including Joe Rogan, that Denis stole most of his material. And his biggest stuff he stole from Bill Hicks. And he used to do the circuit tour with bill hicks. (*most people don't know this, sam kinison even stole his famous yell from bill hicks!) [Comedians now a days say, 'Do you know why Leary thrived and Hicks died? - Because there's no cure for Cancer.'] Comedians are INTO smart people - they obviously Liked / respected / wanted to be more like Bill Hicks - and some just took what he wrote and called it theirs. :(
- There are a bunch of videos on youtube that talk about this. Louis C.K. even mentions & explains how Denis Leary stole his "asshxle" bit from him.
Judd Apatow did a bit about a throat cancer guy with a voice box talking funny, using the mic' on the side of his throat - talking about using it at the drive-thru at McDonald's. Leary took that whole joke and said it was his own. Eric C. Heiss

Anonymous said...

Also, when Leary was confronted with stealing Louis C.K's 'asshxle premis, Leary changed the story and said, 'my friend helped write the song, so is louis saying that i stole his lines and my friend didn't- oh just me?' - (then the weak-minded audience falls for it) - but it was the premise, the idea of it- "why do i do it? because I'm an asshxle!!!!!" (and listing many things). Louis never said he stole the joke, especially not line for line, he actually made it clear that it was the idea of the joke. ungh.
- My a.d.h.d. is kicking-in... Bill Hicks said some super important things aside from funny things... mentioning that the only true 'God' is LOVE. Rock n' Roll doesn't cause suicide, We are all one, and my favorite and I think Very important one,
"I'm so sick of us (U.S.A.) arming these smaller countries and then later blowing the shxt out of them - I mean we're like Jack Palance in "Shane", throwing the gun at the sheep herder's feet; (Jack Palance voice)- 'Pick it up!' (me?- i don't want no trouble mister.) Pick up the gun. (Look mister, i just came here to get some candy for kids, (etc) i don't want no trouble.) (pick it UP).... (acts out picking up the gun after being told it's safe) - Gun shots - Jack Palance voice: You all saw him, he had a Gun!" :)
- Bill Hicks has already gone down in History as a super smart Comedian (and so young- died at 32 !) and well respected. Leary will go down in History as the guy who stole, became famous from it, and hides behind a fireman's t-shirt. - Eric C. Heiss


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