Watching American: the Bill Hicks Story

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Bill Hicks is a legend. His name is spoken in rarefied tones; his reputation is outlandish. He was loud and mean, with a cigarette always in hand, screaming at the world and his own audience.

Unlike I Am Comic or Comedian , this isn’t a movie about the idea of comedy, but a look one particular comedian. Through interviews with Hicks’ family and friends, American: The Bill Hicks Story shows his childhood and initial stabs at comedy, his years of drug and alcohol use, and the evolution of his stand-up.

The film clearly wants the audience to like Bill, and in that respect, it really works. There are pictures, like the one above, that make him seem more approachable than the shouty TV clips ever do. He seems, in his softer moments, like a kind soul, trying to right things in a wrong world.

The film shies away from some of what made Hicks such a controversial and revered comic. There are clips of him yelling and swearing at his own audience members, but they’re couched in so much context that the shock value has drained from them. For a comedian who thrived on being shocking, it takes some of the edge off of him. His jokes still land — he was undoubtedly a brilliant comic mind — but gone is some of the feeling of rebelliousness that defined his comedy.

Hicks is still better known in the UK than in the US. Having worked in America for all of the eighties, he made is way to England in the early nineties. There, he found an audience who ate up his material about corporate America and the US government. It’s not a coincidence that the filmmakers are British.

The filmmakers clearly believe his success in the UK was a result of him finally finding his audience — that he simply had a more British style of comedy. To me, it’s seems possible that British audiences liked an American comedian willing to attack his own country, while leaving the Brits more or less unscathed.

Whether it was a conscious choice or a product of the era, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t contain more clips of Hicks off-stage. Because more than anything by the end of the film, I wished that I could have known this clearly brilliant man.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes, although at times a bit shallow. The filmmakers, and participants, clearly loved Bill, and the film is more a tribute to him than an objective documentary about his life.

What does it have to say about comedy? “Comedians are the only ones that you pay to hear them talk. Talk to me. Make me listen.” This voice over, at the very beginning of the film, sets up the both the film and Bill Hicks ideology — that comedians have a higher purpose than just making people laugh.

Is it funny? No. There are a lot of clips of Bill, some of them hysterical, but even they become more and more serious as the film goes on.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’ll be spending the next week watching Bill Hicks specials.

Watching American: the Bill Hicks Story