THE MODERN FORM of stand-up comedy is an American art. More than just punchlines, which have existed since the beginning of time, American comedians share bits of themselves—what they think, how they feel, what they desire, and how they cope.
And now, in the era of super-charged, hyper-partisan, bombshell-politics, arrives American: The Bill Hicks Story. A stand-up who frequently found himself in bitter polemics, Hicks' short life and career spanned the late '80s and early '90s. Hicks seems almost like a precursor for this modern political age, but in an era of expansive, world-wide fanaticism, both in politics and art, he doesn't stand out quite as boldly as he did during life.
Hicks died at 32, not of drugs but pancreatic cancer. The Texas-raised comic did, however, have runs with coke and alcohol in stand-up's go-go '80s boom, putting his own twist on self-medicating with elaborate magic mushroom trips on a friend's farm.
Rather than following in Hicks' reckless, Dionysian spirit, American follows with a pencil and pad: Other than clips of Hicks performing, the documentary is a sometimes-confusing clip-art reconstruction. Hicks' life is traced by his family and friends, and aside from a general, looming reverence, American doesn't try to place Hicks in comedy's greater history. No comedians are interviewed other than those who came up with Hicks.
While he's certainly respected by today's working comics, Hicks never overcame his cult-like status in America. He blew up in England, though, which perhaps explains why America's only now seeing stateside release, two years after premiering in England.
Political comedians often say that jokes must come before politics—if they're laughing, audiences will allow ideas in. But watching Hicks, I wondered if he felt the same way: Even in this glowing documentary, he sometimes seems to lord over his audience as a vindictive know-it-all. While there may come a time when Hicks' screaming message might again take hold, it's not the 24-hour Twitter cycle of today.