Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the criminally short age of 32. With a career that spanned 15 years, Bill went from telling jokes about his parents coming home from PTA meetings to jokes about conspiracy theories, politicians and what he saw as the banality of America. He received a cult following, particularly in the UK, where he was held aloft as a prophet for Generation X. Bill just saw himself as someone trying to help people see the truth about America and get paid doing it. He was an angry, funny man and EBFS could probably drown you in his quotes.
American recounts Bill’s short life through a series of talking heads, photos and footage from many of his shows. Same old, same old then? What’s the difference between this and Channel 4’s much celebrated, Just a Ride? Well, what makes American different is how they try to present this information. Disembodied voices of Bill’s friends and family narrate his life over images digitally manipulated into animation. The whole thing becomes a stream of consciousness; a dream like affair. Almost less po-faced and matter of fact as Just a Ride.
And maybe that’s where American is a let down as well. Whilst the whole affair is appealing and easy to watch, it never really gets down to who Hicks was as a person. No one is suggesting we go down the route of Kevin Booth’s biography, Agent of Evolution (a rather tawdry affair that reduces Hicks down to pub stories about heroin and anal sex with prostitutes), but there’s only so much love-in one can take. There is next to no discussion about his battle with drugs, except where it makes them out to be really, really good; but it does acknowledge his alcohol dependency. One of the more meatier subjects of being censored from David Letterman is dealt with almost too succinctly and as for Dennis Leary? Well, it’s as if their feud, whether staged or not, never happened.
Then again, maybe there’s only so much you can say about one of the comedic geniuses of our time before you have to start sifting the coals and, maybe then, you have to think long and hard before you do. Does it ever really add anything to his name? Agent of Evolution sure didn’t. I watched this with someone who knew nothing about Bill Hicks and they were enthralled. Which I guess proves that even if you only scratch the surface, you can be in for an entertaining ride.