Stand-Up Comedy on DVD

Listening to Bill Hicks' rants about Bush being a child of Satan sent to destroy the Earth, it's easy to imagine he is talking about our current president rather than George H.W.

 

Recently, some great stand-up comedy DVDs have seen American release, such that there seems to be something of a renaissance in the field of stand-up comedians right now. (Just look at the out-of-nowhere success of films like the good-but-not-great Jesus Is Magic, or The Aristocrats.) Or maybe I'm mistaken, and stand-up never really went away.

I have mentioned in a previous "Celluloid Atrocities" my predilection for the Netflix exclusive documentary The Comedians of Comedy, which predates the Comedy Central show with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, and Maria Bamford (the former three are some of the best and most consistent comedians working today), and the recently released Patton Oswalt: No Reason to Complain DVD, while edited horribly, is a good starter course for someone getting into modern stand-up comedians. (As classic Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and George Carlin acts have been available on relatively cruddy DVDs for some time, those will be ignored for the purposes of this article.)

Although they've been out for a little while now, the releases that are truly exciting are Ryko's two DVDs of Bill Hicks' stand-up, Bill Hicks: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian and Bill Hicks: Sane Man; SSCSUC contains three complete performances, two of which I had previously imported from the always Hicks-friendly England (those performances being One Night Stand and Revelations), while the third is Relentless, which was readily available on CD before the DVD was released, not to mention a sub-par documentary about his life and work called Just a Ride. Sane Man contains the performance of the same name which I could only find from a bootleg DVD Web site before its official release.

Hicks is probably more popular in America now than he ever was during his short lifetime (he died abruptly in 1994). Listening to his rants about Bush being a child of Satan sent to destroy the Earth, it's easy to imagine he is talking about our current president rather than George H.W. In fact, most of Hicks' material is arguably more relevant now than when he performed it more than a decade ago, which is wholly unnerving, at least when he's dealing with subjects that should have been topical (like presidents named Bush) rather than material that never gets old (he loves to talk about the Kennedy assassination).

Of the four performances spread over the two discs, Revelations, the most recent of the four, remains the best, as it contains all of the classic Hicks material-his love of cigarettes and any sort of drugs, his hate of conservatives, his astute social commentary, especially regarding artists of all varieties-as well as some of his best known bits, like his Goat Boy character (not that unfunny Saturday Night Live shit, but instead a randy man-beast with a predilection for young girls) or his "Suck Satan's Cock" bit, wherein he shows (rather graphically) how he imagines artists like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice become popular.

For newcomers to Hicks' oeuvre, it might be kind of disconcerting that a lot of the material across the two discs is repeated; Hicks' life was so short that he didn't have a chance to accumulate the material that someone like Carlin has. But once he has won you over, it's kind of fun to watch the way the same material evolves (or at least mutates) over the years-like why did he switch from describing the ejaculate of pure evil as being "a cloud of silverfish" in Sane Man to "black worm jism" in Revelations? And why, most glaringly, did someone who seemingly enjoyed smoking more than anyone else in the world eventually quit? Little things like this make for fun pondering, and make the repetition between the acts a little more palatable, where it could have felt like a shrill cash-in on his name. The also recently released book Love All the People contains many transcribed performances of Hicks', so the real hardcore fan can take this dissection of the evolution of his work as far as they want to.

It's also kind of telling to watch all four performances chronologically for other reasons; Relentless, for example, was his breakout performance at the Montreal Comedy Festival back in 1991, so one can assume that a great deal of the audience knew little to nothing about him. This makes it all the more fun to imagine them squirm during his extended imploration of modern musicians to "play from [their] fucking heart," which gets really uncomfortable really quick as Hicks starts to lose it on stage. You'll notice that as you start watching the later performances, the audiences start laughing audibly more; that is, if you can hear them over your own chortles.

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