Patton Oswalt on the Strange Comic Legacy of Bill Hicks

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Feb. 26 2014 2:52 PM

Bill Hicks: 20 Years Gone

The strange legacy of a great comedian.

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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.”

At Walnut Creek, after a table of suburbanites quietly walked out, a woman asked him, “Don’t you believe in God?”

Bill said, “I do believe in God. I just don’t believe in people.” 

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I’m telling you all of this so it’s on record—I worked with Bill Hicks once, saw him live three more times, and had a single, brief, back-and-forth conversation with him. That’s it. 

Because here’s where we get to, I think, the true, eerie similarity between Bruce and Hicks. Bruce is a comedian whose comedy remains very much of its time, but whose importance has swelled outside of the short space he was allowed to stomp through history. Yet there is a cult of comedians who claim him as an influence, even though they don’t really laugh at anything he said. 

Now here’s Hicks, whose comedy becomes funnier (and, especially these last few years, more prophetic) as history swallows him up, who’s generating a cult of comedians who claim they were his best friend

I’ve seen at least half a dozen instances of this. And I’m not going to call anyone out on it, or name names, because I understand the impulse. But their claims of friendship and brotherhood can’t be true. Bill Hicks was friendly, and polite despite his cynicism, but one thing he did not gather around him in abundance were “comedian” friends. He had a vast network of close relationships, but not with the people I see now, people who worked with him for the same short time I did, who now claim they were “best friends” with Bill. He more often than not kept his own counsel, and watched the world.

I don’t know what sparked this phenomenon. Did the same thing happen to Lenny Bruce after he died? Is that another sign of the greatness of one’s spirit, that after you’re gone people try to gin up their personal stories by writing you into them? I don’t know. Maybe it’s their waking wish to go back in time and become friends which someone like Bill Hicks. Hell, if I were back in the early ’60s, I’d want to hang out with Lenny Bruce. Or Jonathan Winters. 

None of us is ever going to hang out with Bill Hicks, ever again. I never did, not really. Does this desire for closeness to Bill come from the gut-wrenching fact that the frenzied lead-up to and vertiginous arrival of the 21st century happened without Bill Hicks commenting on it? The O.J. trial, the Lewinsky scandal, the explosion of the Internet, the 2000 election, the collapsing of the towers. Everything. 

Luckily, Bill Hicks’ influence and legacy is more focused and active than what Bruce, Carlin, Cosby, Gregory, Pryor, and Martin wrought. Because even now, on countless, stained-carpet stages, and a galaxy of grainy YouTube channels, the same righteous, exasperated wonder with this new millennium—and the same weary love that Bill Hicks had for all of humanity—is making itself heard. We can’t ever have Bill Hicks again, but there’s time enough, and talent enough, to walk through the doors he opened. 

Patton Oswalt is a stand-up comedian who's appeared in videos by Bruce Hornsby and American Hi-Fi. Check out his MySpace page for tour dates and merchandise.

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