We looked back on some of the best bits of Bill Hicks career earlier, but Patton Oswalt provided possibly the best tribute to the man on the 20th anniversary of passing. Oswalt has talked about Hicks before on Twitter, pondering what his take on today’s events would’ve been, but his piece over at Slate is like a meandering tour of comedy history. Oswalt’s look back provides perspective to the period when Hicks’ work was prevalent and what allowed it to stand out during the time period. From Slate:
By the time Bill Hicks started doing stand-up comedy, the form itself had calcified into the comfortable, brick-wall-and-two-drink-minimum that all of America saw on basic cable all through the ’80s. The feats of derring-do that Bruce and Carlin did with language in the ’60s and ’70s had become crass wordplay. Dick Gregory’s gentle yet explosive racial truth-telling had soured into facile “white people/black people” comparisons. Cosby realized, to his horror, that his opening the door for comedians who just happened to be black created a generation of comedians who only talked about being black. The same fate befell Pryor—he’d opened a door that led to a deeper emotional freedom for performers who followed him, yet most of them never went deeper than saying “motherfucker” constantly. And Steve Martin’s meta-textual commentary on smarmy, shallow comedians created a new breed of … smarmy, shallow comedians. Barrier-breaking, darkness, risk, and danger had all been co-opted, and any taste the audience had for the new had been dulled by a thousand baskets of mozzarella sticks and an ocean of over-priced blender drinks.
Which is what makes Bill Hicks’ achievement all the more miraculous, when you put his comedy into the context of the time he did it. Lenny Bruce had to punch through an icy wall of Eisenhower-era repression. But Bill Hicks had to make his voice heard through the amorphous, ever-shifting fog of Reagan-era comfort and complacency. Comedy club audiences in the ’80s actually thought they were being revolutionary and dangerous, listening to a sport-coated, sleeves-rolled-up comedian railing against the absurdities of airplane food, the plot holes on Gilligan’s Island and the differences between cats and dogs. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, laying down world-saving truths in the pages of disposable stroke magazines, Bill Hicks was trying to light the way into the 21st century—on the stained-carpet stages of strip mall chuckle huts, usually following a juggler.
Oswalt also provided his own personal experience working with Hicks and the effect it had on his career:
I emceed for Bill Hicks in 1991, at Charlie Goodnights in Raleigh, N.C. It changed what I wanted to do with comedy, almost instantly. Before Hicks, I was focused only on being liked. After Hicks, I was focused on discovering, together with each audience I stood in front of, why I liked what I liked. And how far I could take the things I liked and still get laughs…We only spoke once, all those years ago at Charlie Goodnight’s where, after a particularly rough set of mine, where I was more focused on impressing him than actually making the audience laugh, he said, “You gotta walk ’em to the edge, Patton.” (via)
The whole piece is a nice read and you should go through the entire thing. It really shows a lot of respect to comedy and stands as the perfect note on a day when we were already looking back.