Yes, Where Are You Bill Hicks?
In the end, all that’s left will be Stan Getz, blowing his horn on Jobim’s “P’ra Muchucar Meu Coracao,” calling out in a desire to rewrite songs themselves, to find melodies in the contortion of limbs, the furrows of brows, the death in grimaces. All that’s left will be Billy Holiday, subtly cooing out for languorous help from the depths of a heroin addiction; Charlie Parker resting forever on an augmented fourth like a simile of insanity.
As I ponder these apocalyptically musical thoughts in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I can’t help but think of the tone of unwarranted optimism that plagues our political discourse. Plagues. It was the source, I think, of my recently having put a damper on an already weakening friendship by consistently pointing to the human rights violations in Obama’s drone strike policies; his shameless yet furtive promotion of neoliberal trade agreements which, among other things, abandon AIDS patients to the greed of multinational pharmaceutical companies; his emphasis on “growth” and American exceptionalism over a clear vision of something even resembling a moral good. He is in fact a politician, a deft pragmatist, taking what he can get, politically maneuvering in the name of compromise. Even Keeled. Rights and goals fall into the vacuum of procedure as an end in itself.
And me? The world I inhabit allows for such easy spurts of vitriol. It is a world in which everyone has an opinion (as they should), half of which are now made public in some way or another, or none at all. I can wade through the chorus of harsh critics and staunch supporters of whatever view, opinion, or ideology, with an eye toward arriving at an informed position of my own. Politics today-a din playing out 24/7, to which we can contribute or abstain without making much of a difference either way.
In the recent issue of The Baffler, Steve Almond has criticized John Stewart’s efforts to condemn this partisan noise and his calls for civilized public debate. Stewart encourages complacency, says Almond, by never engaging in any radical politics, never bringing on guests that go further than just merely calling for more regulation of the financial sector and increased spending for social programs. An incisive piece, Almond indirectly indicts those of my generation who sit enthralled to the tepid, meliorist Stewart, watching in a self-congratulatory way as we revel in our own good judgment, confirmed by his witty condemnation of obscene partisanship and political gaffes. Interestingly, Almond compares Stewart to a more radical comic of the early 90s, Bill Hicks. Hicks was, in fact, a more radical, idealistic social critic than Stewart. Less pointed sarcasm, more biting, direct provocation, all in the name of calling out our own hypocrisy.
In the end, all that’s left will be Hicks telling us that “if you work in advertising, kill yourself…no, really.” But what was behind the effectiveness of statements like these? Hicks’s approach to comedy was that, above all, of the social critic. But he was unique among comedians because his approach came from a place of disgust and disillusionment so great that it had no time for compromise or mere observational irony. No, Hicks wanted to attune his audience to the urgency and absurdity of the Gulf-War and military imperialism, the self-congratulation of non-smokers and joggers, our increasing anti-intellectualism, our hypocrisy in the habits of our substance-abuse qua mere consumption (“You can’t smoke pot; but go ahead, drink your drug-and we’ll sell it to you through advertising all the while”), all of which were, for him, of the same piece: our having relinquished any sense of responsibility to others in the name of an increasingly voracious, complacent, society, supported by imperialism and exploitation.
Since Hicks’s tragically early death in 1994, it seems that those following most closely in his footsteps have become increasingly adept at making us laugh by pointing out the ugly absurdities inherent to life in post-industrial culture. But it seems to be that this is the case because their humor comes from a place of utter hopelessness, so close to the precipice of complete resignation to the futility of life in the U.S that our laughter contains tears.
The poles between which Hicks made people laugh were unbridled optimism and utter despair and nihilism. Somewhere in the middle, Hicks’s rage was a sense of radical hope, the sense that speaking truth to power was not some bygone function of intellectuals and social critics.
Somehow, I find that those comedians following the closest on Hick’s heels, Louis C.K and Eddie Pepitone, are arguably funnier than Hicks, but precisely because their comic lamentations border so closely to despair and nihilism, a sense latent in so many of us that we respond with thunderous laughter when confronted with its truth. They are in keeping with a tradition borne of the discontents of affluence and progress, best represented, I think, in the birth of hip-hop, punk rock, and no-wave, the results of which are confrontations with nihilism and despair that produced, arguably, the most innovative, creative, and sustaining art of the twentieth-century.
Take, for example, a recent episode of C.K’s show Louie, in which we are subjected to the irony of Louie’s crippling fear of seeing his father. After having been cajoled by his wonky uncle, Louie, out of guilt, decides to visit his father in Boston. But as the date comes closer, he experiences a series of bizarre health problems, including spontaneous vomiting, which the doctor tells him is a result of his crippling fear. We think, as the end of the episode nears, that Louie will in fact overcome his fear and visit his father, giving us the happy ending that we seek in television (or at least a “to be continued”). But the episode ends with Louie, after finally having reached the porch of his father’s house, running away after ringing the doorbell, comically and absurdly stealing a motorcycle to high-tail it to the pier, where he steals a speedboat and takes it out to the middle of the ocean. The episode ends with the boat in rest while Louie sits silently onboard, utterly alone and stultified by fear and guilt, with the viewer left to reflect on the fact that his limitation was in fact just that, something not so easily, or sometimes ever, overcome. The camera focuses on Louie in the boat for the last thirty seconds of the episode, which ends in silence; no reconciliation or sense of continuation supported by an ending soundtrack.
The episode was a realization of and commentary on an earlier episode, where Louie meets with a T.V producer who wants to give him a show, only to rescind the offer when he informs her that his vision is of program about a guy who always loses, without any mitigating reconciliation other than the irony and truth of failure and death. Apparently Louie really did make that show.
What separates Louie C.K’s style of comedy from that of Bill Hicks, why he is arguably funnier than Hicks, is his capacity for brutal self-revelation and reflection. But his self-revelation and hilarious deprecation seem to be symptoms of the fact that speaking truth to power in our culture has become so pointless that we are left to defer to nothing but our own self-exposure, revealing ourselves as frustrated mortals without meaningful avenues for change. We expose ourselves because we can no longer expose the system; or perhaps because we’re dying to, but can’t. Combatting what Wittgenstein called our “fantasy of a private language” has become the imperative behind this need for self-exposure. (Why else would I be blogging?) But the combat has taken on the form of self-exposure as merely catharsis, as a symptom of our having pushed the fact of our political resignation to the depths of our collective unconscious, rather than self-exposure as a spur to change.
While humor and creativity have become incredibly conscious of themselves, our attraction to this self-consciousness seems in so many ways based on the unrealizability of basic social and individual goals under late-capitalism; our laughter is a reflection of our moving further away from Hick’s hope and closer to C.K’s despair.
The best artists and performers of this generation are ever more conscious of themselves, their place as human beings striving for expression in a culture which promotes plurality and diversity, but only insofar as these things are supported by shitty jobs, massive college debt, and tepid politicians. And as long as this is the case, art will only get more interesting. Self-creation in the face of limitation is not the postmodern condition, but the condition of modernity, and modern art itself.
Insofar as this imperative of art remains a fundamental form of our recourse in light of the fact that we feel so stuck, so hard-pressed for meaningful outlets of communication or political engagement, we’ll be graced left with the incisive political commentaries of a John Stewart, the existential conundrums of a Louie C.K, the loud rants of an Eddie Pepitone, all of which, to be sure, are political expressions. But these misgivings necessarily fall on deaf ears if we fail to see what they really reflect: deep crisis. If in fact we cannot recognize this beyond the point of laughing at our politicians, laughing at our own ironies, then we may in fact be doomed to perpetual laughter as merely another form of therapy, rather than the beginning of change.