MATT HARLOCK & PAUL THOMAS, “AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY”
Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the Texas stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, who died in 1994 at age 32, having found resounding success overseas and little more than professional respect at home. Since then, I’ve devoured several hours of his comedy specials on my Netflix Instant account, marveling at the way this artist managed to blend blisteringly caustic commentaries on sex, politics, rock music, religion, and drug addiction with a weirdly humane, almost holistic philosophy of life. Stand-up comedy in any form is not normally my thing, but I’ve become rather attached to The World According to Hicks.
Heir to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Hicks was a hard-working club habitué who built his material from life experience — he was raised in a strict Southern Baptist home in Houston and was transformed head to toe by an experience with psychedelic mushrooms before he ever touched a drop of alcohol. As he matured and moved away from aping family members and mugging like Jerry Lewis, Hicks began to target elements of American culture (hypocrisy, militarism, anti-intellectualism, crass commercialism) with a satirical firepower rare for his time, the effects of which are still being felt. In their documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas retrace Hicks’s beginnings from Polaroids, Super 8 home movies, rare footage, TV specials, and the testimony of old friends and colleagues, whose fondly admiring, often hilarious accounts of his antics are visualized in rollicking photo-based animations that evoke Terry Gilliam-meets-Robert Evans. By the time we glimpse Hicks’s all-or-nothing performance at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival (the “Cannes of comedy”), it is clear that a hugely confident talent had emerged from the dreary limbo of alcoholism, which nearly consumed him, and that his brand of humor brought a new critical rigor to the U.S. comedy scene. “If you look at Twitter, he’s part of the collective mindstream now,” says Thomas. “Every day people are quoting him and wondering what he would say about today’s events. And the relevance of things he said twenty years ago still apply. It’s like he’s still here.”
Filmmaker spoke with Harlock and Thomas about satire, enlightenment, the difference between British and American humor, and why Jon Stewart is heir to the Hicks legacy. Variance Films releases American: The Bill Hicks Story on April 8.
Filmmaker: There’s a certain irony in the fact that two British filmmakers have set out to tell the life story of a largely underappreciated American comedian. Do you wonder why Bill Hicks wasn’t better known in his native country?
Harlock: Bill was a real viral phenomenon here before the Internet. It was something we have seen in the States too, particularly in places like Austin, where he’s a real name, and in the comedic communities in New York and Los Angeles. But outside of that, we’re endlessly mystified as to why he hasn’t received wider recognition and notoriety.
Filmmaker: What was the draw for audiences in the U.K.?
Harlock: We spent some time with John Lahr, the critic for The New Yorker, in September of last year and he summed it up very succinctly. He felt the essential difference was that the American sense of humor is about enchantment, and in the U.K. it’s about disenchantment. So Bill was looking at what was wrong with the world and finding it funny. At the time, Bill was played without cuts [on television] in the U.K. and he’d never had that shot in the U.S.
Thomas: Satire and taking apart the establishment was very much a part of what British comedy was doing then. Channel 4 had launched in the ’80s and part of its remit was to be antagonistic and to explore new ideas and challenge thinking. The comedy festival at Edinburgh had a similar ethos about it as well, breaking boundaries. So I think he met with a public who for several years had been going down this route and were hungry for people who explored new ideas in the way Bill did.
Filmmaker: What he often targeted in his act were the various forms of stupidity and anti-intellectualism that he found at home.
Harlock: Absolutely. It seems to me that the anger came out of disappointment. He saw so many possibilities in the world, creatively and in terms of human nature, and how wonderful people can be to each other if they want to. I think he felt one of his goals was to try to show people what the possibilities were, that there were things you could aspire to which were the embodiment of the human condition fulfilled. He tried to do it in a way that included people.
Thomas: One of the central things he was absorbed in was freedom and the potential of life versus the manipulation of power by the few. I think he saw the middle American audience as being the result of an entertainment industry that delivered exactly the same fodder across its channels, and that these were people who would have been much different had they been exposed to much broader ideas throughout their lives.
Filmmaker: Hicks grew up Southern Baptist and drew on that background for his material. What’s interesting is how the role of the stand-up comedian echoes that of a preacher speaking truth to his flock.
Thomas: Yeah, people have drawn that parallel, how like a preacher he is sometimes. I think he was fascinated by it.
Harlock: Bill was someone who, from a very young age, was searching for enlightenment. If you have someone who considers himself to have seen the light, in whatever terms you want to use for that, whether it’s a specific religion or a more personal set of values like the ones Bill had, then you want to tell other people about it. So that leads to a slightly fervent aspect to the way you describe and spread ideas that you feel are important.
Filmmaker: There’s a caustic side to his humor as well, which is part of what makes it so effective. Yet behind all of that bitterness is a desire for us to recognize our unity.
Harlock: One of the famous quotations about Bill from a U.S. journalist was “He’s as American as apple pie á la cyanide,” so the idea of giving somebody a gift which is poisoned is quite a nice one. Once you’ve been exposed to an idea you can’t be unexposed to it. Those ideas may not be palatable, even though they might be the “truth,” particularly when he was talking about American foreign policy under Reagan and Bush One. You marvel in the fact that he’s able to turn the number of tanks sold to Kuwait in the lead-up to the first Gulf War into a routine which is not only hilarious, but enlightening. He had this unique ability to distill a rather big and complex subject down to its essence and then turn that on its head for the audience. It was something many people hadn’t come across before. He really did have a way of making people see the world in a new way.
Filmmaker: Was it his artistic journey that motivated you to tell Hicks’s story, or the fact that you became fascinated with these videotapes that were circulating in Britain at a certain time?
Harlock: When we looked at the material we realized his full story had never been told. It seemed to be fertile ground for exploring not only what he was up to as a comedian and performer, but also trying to find out where that came from. I think the jumping off point was that he was someone of cultural significance, but for some reason that [success] had not happened for him yet in the States – and why?
Thomas: The family had been very cautious over the years about who they were going to give access to all these tapes. Matt got to know them very well, and it was a two-year process before we finally went ahead. But part of what we needed to do was come up with a significant treatment and not just do another talking-heads documentary. I think they’d all come to this realization, ten or eleven years after Bill had died, that if we don’t do something now, then it’s never going to happen.
Filmmaker: Did your connection to the family come from this film project?
Harlock: I had put on a tribute night to Bill on the tenth anniversary of his death. We sent the documentaries we made about those tribute nights — there were three, I think — to the family to let them know what was going on here in the U.K. That was something we were just doing on the side. As more of the footage began to appear, we thought maybe there is something we could do here.
Filmmaker: The animation adds a vivid layer to the story you are telling here. What was the process through which you discovered this technique?
Thomas: It began with his father, who endlessly filmed the family on Super 8. You can see it in the film, the light shining in their faces at Christmas. I think Bill got familiar with the camera lens at a young age but was really fortunate that one of his close teenage friends was a budding photographer. I think he was lucky through his career to find people who could really capture him. So these photos began to tell their own story. I’d been making TV for years at this stage, and I wasn’t really that interested in docs, but the idea of doing something in a more narrative form did interest me. We’d seen The Kid Stays in the Picture, which used a similar technique, but in a much more slideshow fashion. It was really when we did the interviews and came back with over 100 hours of footage that the full potential showed itself to us — the vividness with which people had recorded events 25 years previous was astonishing.
Harlock: The other thing [this technique] does wonderfully is it puts Bill back in the story. Obviously with a talking-heads doc he would be featured in the performance footage but in terms of the story being told it would be the recollections of a 50-year-old friend of his talking about when they were drunk in a bar at age 19. The way those Polaroids from late ’60s Houston feel like they are of that time and place is wonderful. Putting those friends and family members back into those scenes they describe — people like Dwight Slade, who’s doing impressions of Bill’s mom and dad and Bill all having an argument at the same time. The interviewees were kind of creating scenes for us, vividly recalling moments, and we want to see that. One of the most famous pieces of Bill folklore is the sneaking out of the house incident — Mary to this day denies that he could have unlocked the storm shutter window and got out over the roof. One part of the technique that allowed us to make it even more personal was that we went back to find his real childhood house, so the roof he’s climbing out over is not random, and that’s actually his bedroom window. That kind of veracity for the animations we applied throughout the film. The settings were all made up out of original photographs which are then re-created in semi 3D environments.
Filmmaker: We never see Hicks speak except when he’s onstage. Is that a choice you made for artistic reasons or because there’s no extant footage of him talking and philosophizing?
Thomas: There’s a brief section in L.A. where he’s talking to tape and really unsure about his future. And he did keep some audio journals, but not vast amounts. But it was really more the case that when he was interviewed on television, he would fall back into doing his act. There wasn’t much of the real Bill Hicks captured, so we were left with having to do it with the stage material. We worked very hard on the clips we chose — that process went through many iterations. We looked for clips that conveyed a sense of who Bill the person was.
Filmmaker: What is the legacy of Bill Hicks?
Harlock: What’s changed most since he was performing is that the political-comedic landscape has changed in the States. Now you have The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and filmmakers like Michael Moore who have consistently shown that they can find audiences for satirical thinking. Bill Hicks is the precursor to Jon Stewart in that he was the one who showed comedians where the boundaries were — and that they were false boundaries and could be broken. To this day he’s known as the comedian’s comedian and performers tend to hold him up as a bastion of purity in terms of what a comedian’s job is and how you go about it. You don’t do commercials, you don’t do sit-coms, you go and work the road, and hone your act to the point where you’ll be able to take people to a new place with your ideas. And those ideas should be important and meaningful and help to illuminate the human condition. He showed comedians and performers what they’re supposed to do, and gave people license to do it, like any pioneer.