Comedy Thieves... Remembering Bill Hicks
I know for myself, like a lot of comics, I have a ton of influences. These range from Andy Kaufman; to Richard Pryor; to Emo Phillips; to Patton Oswalt; to Scott Thompson; to Carol Burnett; to Carl Reiner; to George Carlin and so on into oblivion. There are so many comics that have influenced what I do, and how I approach my writing, that it gets tough to name my biggest influence whenever I'm asked that question. But easily one of the top 5 comedians who's influenced me was Bill Hicks. I'm sure most of you have heard the name, maybe you even saw the amazing documentary by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, but since February 26, 1994 (the day Bill lost his battle with cancer) it's really started to feel like his influence and talent may be lost forever. Which is truly sad, and a crime to anyone who appreciates or endeavors to do this craft.
Even in early footage, none of what he did on stage seemed forced. It was if he was always playing off the emotions of the crowd. While stalking the stage and occasionally physically animating punchlines Bill would express hate, apathy, anger, and disgust all in a casual tone as if he were just having a conversation with you. I've been really struggling for the past hour on how to explain Hick's style of comedy. I've come up with examples like: "part Lenny Bruce, part George Carlin, with a sprinkle of Sam Kinison for good measure;" or "part social commentator, part comedian, and a true US patriot." There are like 20 more like that in my notes for this blog, but none of them seem to capture the true explosiveness, insight, and true comic genius that Hicks' had.
The most recent, and possibly the best story that explains the force of nature Hick's was is included in Marc Maron's latest comedy special Thinky Pain (watch it, it's on Netflix). He opens the show with a story of opening for Bill at the very same theater he's now shooting his special in. Now I've searched high and low for even an audio clip of this bit, and I have found nothing. So I will paraphrase it as best I can from memory below:
"So I asked Bill if he wanted to me to on first, I mean he had the Letterman spots under his belt and a bunch of other TV appearances so it made sense. Bill just quietly said, 'No, I gotta go play chess with a guy after this.' Who am I to question what Bill does in his free time in New York? So Bill goes up, and I go to the bathroom. Now I don't know what happened while I was in there, but when I come back Bill is at the lip of the stage screaming at this poor woman, 'I'M A FUCKING POET! I AM A FUUCCKKIINNGG POET!' And this poor lady looks into Hick's face and with the smallest and most sincere voice says, 'then tell us a poem then.'"
That, at least to me, almost sums up Bill Hicks perfectly. He also had a the best penchant for dealing with hecklers. I'm sure by now you've all heard the infamous Bill Burr take down of the city of Philly on the Opie and Anthony Comedy Tour almost a decade ago. It is hilarious and very impressive. Personally it is my second favorite take down of a heckler I've ever seen or heard. The first one will always go to Hicks:
Sure the video quality isn't great, but the impact is there. He never backed down, he struck back with immediate force when someone challenged him or interrupted his set, and still had the talent and wit to mock the situation and get the rest of the audience back into the spirit of his show. It always impresses me.
To this day it still confuses me why the American audience didn't embrace Bill's comedy as quickly as audience's in Canada and the UK did. Regardless of his multiple appearances on late night talk shows and the early incarnations of MTV's Half Hour Comedy Hour, and HBO's One Night Stand he could really never seem to crack the U.S. market in a big way. I first saw Bill Hicks in 1991 on the CBC for his Just for Laughs Special (later released as an album and home video with the title Relentless). Looking back, when it came to comedy we were pretty lucky in Canada. The Just For Laughs Festival brand had a weekly prime time comedy show, with the acts from the most recent festival being shown a mere few months after the festival concluded. All of these acts were PG in nature, due to the fact it was prime time but every Saturday at midnight they would air one of the hour long specials from JFL and those were always uncut. It's a night I still remember, and still feel the effects of today. My love and obsession of stand-up had already begun, and Hicks' performance, timing, and delivery stuck with me even though I had only watched that single time.
About a year later I was in a car with my uncle and my younger cousin. This was the "cool" uncle, he was a drummer, fixed cars, the kind of dude who would smoke your first joint with you (he never did that, but I'm sure he would). The three of us were heading to family Thanksgiving speeding down the 401 in his GTX. Holding up a cassette tape he leveled his eyes at both of us, "don't let your parents know I played this for you."
She and I both nodded in silent agreement, knowing full well this was another right of passage that he was offering. Within moments music filled the car, with an angry Irish man singing/screaming about being an Asshole. We all erupted into laughter! In that moment it was one of the funniest things I had ever heard! I would sadly find out later that this bit had been stolen from Louis C.K.
For the entirety of that track I felt like I had discovered this incredible comedy secret, then the tape stopped and switched sides. "His comedy is pretty great too," my uncle chuckled in anticipation over his shoulder.
As I listened, a pit began to form in my stomach. I had heard these jokes, I could feel it in my bones, but I couldn't recall from where. I just knew that I knew them. So I asked my uncle, "his name is Bill something right?"
My uncle laughed, "shit no! This guy is brand new, his name is Dennis Leary."
If You're Going To Take His Jokes At Least Pay The Man
Since the Vaudeville era comedians have borrowed, stolen, and even bought bits from one another. Milton Berle and Robin Williams were famous for it. But it was still very frowned upon. So much so, that there became an unwritten rule that if you were going to use another comic's bit you ask permission, and then compensate him/her in some way (generally with money, or a bit you felt they could use). If this rule wasn't followed well there was an entire network of comedians across North America keeping an eye on their peers to ensure there was no one breaking this now "second golden rule of comedy." The first always being, "do your time."
Now before I continue this I want to state that I don't hate Denis Leary. I think he's a great actor. I liked him in his firetruck TV show, and he was great as Gwen Stacey's dad in The Amazing Spider-man. I am just presenting the facts as they happened, and how Leary's decisions to use another comedian's material got him to the heights of stardom he is now. The very first incident of Leary performing Hicks' material came exactly one year after Bill had recorded his special Relentless at the Just For Laughs festival. Colleen [McGarr] was in charge of talent that year and this is what she witnessed:
"Leary was in Montreal hosting the "Nasty Show" at Club Soda, and I was coordinating the talent so while I stood backstage I overheard Leary doing material incredibly similar to old Hicks riffs, including his perennial Jim Fixx joke: 'Keith Richards outlived Jim Fixx, the runner and health nut. The plot thickens.' When Leary came offstage, I was more stunned than angry, and said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks's material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at me without saying a word, and briskly left the dressing room."
While all this was going on back in the U.S. Bill was in England playing to large theater crowds, and touring extensively. It seemed as though the UK and Canada had adopted this American as their own. It took a few months for word to reach Hicks as to what was going on back home in the comedy scene. When he did find out what Leary was doing it sickened him. Not only had this former "friend" of his steal his material, he also stole much, if not all of Hicks' persona and delivery.
However, Bill was a true professional and regardless of how angry and betrayed he felt, he never let it be dealt with publicly. There was the occasional jab, like the one time a journalist asked Bill why he quit smoking? Bill smiled, and said, "I just wanted to see if Leary would do it too."
Instead, knowing the huge transgression that Leary had done Bill opted to let their peers in the community handle it. And handle it they have. Even well after Bill's death many comics will NEVER let Denis Leary forget where is act came from. Greg Giraldo's is one of the best:
Now Greg's jab may seem innocuous at first, but when you see Denis' reaction it's obvious to every comic on that panel, and anyone who knows their comedy history exactly what Giraldo was getting at.
Even at Leary's 2003 Comedy Central Roast, he couldn't escape it. Lenny Clarke, who is a great friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes in the back with a note from Bill Hick's saying: "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." Sadly it was cut from the final broadcast.
The Lesson? If You Steal, They Will Know
Comedy is tough, we all know that. Especially when it comes to writing. We're all pulling from basically the same idea pool, so there's a good chance that premises, lines, and or tags may overlap. It's only natural. The key, at least for me, is to pay attention to other comics and if there is something in my act that is very close to theirs' I will either drop it completely or sit down with that comic and find some common ground where either we can both use the bit in our own way, or we co-write it and the comic who gives the better delivery gets the bit.
But stealing in comedy will probably always exist. Hell I was at an open mic a few weeks ago and a local comic not only used Bill Hicks' Jesus and the Cross bit, he followed it up with a Princess Diana joke. I'm still not sure if that counts as stealing or just someone with no talent. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWYZzLuy4LI]