Twenty years ago today, the funniest comedian that I ever saw–or ever will see–died at the insanely young age of 33. Bill Hicks was, in a word, brilliant. He made you laugh and he made you think. And he said whatever he wanted to say, about anyone and everything. He truly did not care what anyone thought about it, either. The loss of his voice was hard to swallow back in the 1990s, and it’s hard to think about it today, too.
Life is short, and Bill Hicks proved just how short it can actually be. I’m convinced that he would have been declared an enemy combatant by George Bush and Dick Cheney and all of those other people who led us into a disastrous war a decade ago. Bill Hicks would not have sat down and rolled over and played nice. You think the Dixie Chicks were something? Bill Hicks would have carved up Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, and that whole crowd on stage every single night.
But cancer took him away, several years before we really needed him. And I’m grateful that,on a summer night back in 1990 when I was 22 years old and fresh out of college, I got to see him perform onstage at the Funny Firm in Chicago.
I remember two things about that night very well. The first was at one point where he noticed a waitress bringing a blue mixed drink to a patron in front of the stage. He asked what the drink was, and was told that it was a house concoction that had been named after him. The blue drink was supposed to be to honor his blue material. When he heard this, he literally fell on the floor with laughter. It would be many years before anyone used the term ROTFLMAO, and yet Bill Hicks did it right there onstage. Watching someone who made his living at making other people laugh being overcome with laughter himself felt like a privilege, on some level.
After he got up and got his laughing under control, he first said that if he did drink, it wouldn’t be anything that looked like that. And then he said that people should consider brushing their teeth with it, instead of actually drinking it. Yes, he was ballsy enough to insult the drink that had been named after him.
But the second thing I remember was his attack on the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President Kennedy. I had been skeptical of the lone gunman theory myself, after my high school history teacher showed my class a black and white copy of the Zapruder film. Several years before Kevin Costner made Back, and to the left a household phrase, I knew that something wasn’t right with the Oswald story. But nobody seemed very interested in examining what had happened in Dallas two decades earlier.
Bill Hicks tore into the official version of what happened, and made it sound just as ridiculous as it is. I cheered him on, knowing that he was speaking the truth. He riffed on some other things that night too, but the Kennedy bit hit home for me, and everyone else in the audience, as well.
Years later, when I was a history teacher in the Chicago public schools, I made it a point to look at the Kennedy assassination in great detail. We watched the Zapruder film (my version was in full color, by the way), and we recreated the motorcade on that day using an equipment cart, a foam ball, and a roll of paper towels which served as President Kennedy’s head. I called it a physics lab in history class, and we would watch which way the president’s head would move when it was hit from various angles. It always felt like Bill Hicks would have approved, because none of my students ever came away with the idea that Oswald acted alone.
In the quarter century that has passed since I saw him on stage, I’ve gone from a young man to something not quite so young anymore. I’ve outlived Bill Hicks by more than a decade now, and I’m grateful to have made it as far as I am. And one of the ways I celebrate this is by acting on the second part of the quote up above. Creating and sharing is what we’re supposed to do on this earth, according to Bill Hicks. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been creating little thoughtbursts and putting them on this site, or some of the other websites that I write for.
The internet has an amazing capacity for allowing people like me–and anyone else with a blog or a social media account–to share their pictures, share their ideas, share their dreams, share their irritations, share their art, share their stories, and share whatever they want to with the rest of the online world. Not everybody does this, of course, and the human instinct is often to do the exact opposite. And that’s certainly anyone’s prerogative to do so. But overcoming this guarded nature is the most liberating feeling that I’ve encountered in life.
One day I’m going to move on from this life to whatever else comes next. But before that happens I’m creating new things, and sharing them after they’re finished. These creations will live on, just as Bill Hicks’ material lives on in cyberspace, twenty years after his death. The internet allows each of us to make our mark, in a medium that will endure long after we’re gone. And I, for one, will not allow that opportunity to pass by.
The title of this post comes from the final thing that Bill Hicks wrote, a few weeks before the end came for him. He wrote that he left this world in love, in laughter, and in truth, and that wherever these things abide, he will be there in spirit. I can’t think of three better things to align yourself with, either. Many thanks to him for bringing each of them along in his short stay on earth.