A Man Walks into a Bar…

By Dirk Hanson 04/12/11

The performer who influenced the best of our angry comedians could not tame his own furious appetities.

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Comedy is not pretty.
Photo via totalfilm

He died 17 years ago, but comedian Bill Hicks made an indelible mark on the American comedy scene before burning out in a haze of booze and drugs, dying of cancer a the age of 32. A new documentary called American: The Bill Hicks Story, wrestles with the contradictions of a politically angry, deeply addicted comic from the Bible Belt who was mentored by Sam Kinison, and who influenced comedians from Ricky Gervais to Chris Rock. Writing for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir says that Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, the film’s creators, “make no bones about Hicks' long-running battle with booze and drugs and cigarettes, nor about the fact that he believed that taking hallucinogenics pushed him to deeper insights. In Hicks' most widely quoted line, he imagined a TV newscast that puts a positive spin on mind-altering chemicals: ‘Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration--that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather!’" The controversial Hicks, who called himself “Noam Chomsky with dick jokes,” may have died as an unfortunate member of the Lenny Bruce/John Belushi Club. O’Hehir writes that although no one can be certain that drug abuse contributed to his cancer, “it’s certainly plausible.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]