For most of my adult life, had you asked me who was the most brilliant, wise, perceptive, brave and penetrating stand up comedian of the modern era I would have said without hesitation Lenny Bruce. I discovered him when I was about 20, and worshiped everything about him: his lengthy, crazy flights of imagination, the way he knocked the lofty off their pedestals and the complacent off their perches. Above all I loved the way he talked — the very soul of post-war Bohemianism, an argot mixing hep-cat slang, be bop, beat poetry, and Yiddish. I soaked it up like a sponge and imitated it. If you listen to me closely to this day you will catch me channeling him.
In the late 90s, my pal and occasional collaborator Beau Mansfield opined that, no, Bill Hicks was vastly more brilliant than Lenny Bruce. I considered the idea so preposterous I didn’t even bother looking into it, never even having heard of Hicks. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I finally was exposed to Hicks’ comedy. (I was introduced to it by my good friend the Illimitable Mr. Pinnock, my instructor in all things worthy). And I’ll be damned if Beau wasn’t right. Hicks is an eye opener. He takes on the same stalking horses of religion, politicians, big business etc that Bruce had, issues that ought to have been settled matters after the presumed social revolution of the sixties. Hicks wakes you up to the evil and injustices we are still swimming in, and maybe don’t even think about, and frames them so perfectly you are just in awe, not just of his heart and his mind, but of his bravery. (Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion all rolled into one).
Unfortunately, he passed away in 1994 at the age of 32 before becoming truly famous in the U.S., making him even more of an underground figure than Lenny Bruce. Today is his birthday.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.