By Paul Krueger
Dig any deeper than the surface level of stand-up comedy, and it’s only a matter of time until you hear Bill Hicks’ name. The firebrand comedian, dead of cancer at thirty-two almost twenty years ago, is cited by a certain generation of comics as one of their greatest inspirations. Eschewing the standard setup-punchline routine, Hicks’ sets were sermons that espoused disgust at the state of the world and its people, but also hope that things could--and would--get better. Listening to them for the first time, I found them insightful and enlightening.
What I didn’t find them, to my great surprise, was particularly funny.
I don’t write this as any kind of expert on the art of comedy. I’m just a tourist in the lifestyle he gave everything for. But where lightning struck the brains of my forebears every time they cued up Rant in E Minor, I find myself offering a smile and a nod but little else. Some decay’s to be expected, as with any comedian: a routine about a hypothetical TV show called Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus, for instance, doesn’t pack quite the same wallop it did in the heyday of “Achey-Breaky Heart.” And since he was such a strong influence on today’s greats, a lot of the tricks in his bag, surprising and fresh at the time, were old hat to me long before I ever knew who he was. But the disconnect goes deeper than that. He had great ideas that he expressed with thought and eloquence, and yet something about it left me cold.
I’ve expressed this sentiment to my comedian friends, and the invariable reaction is a cry of apostasy. It’s reminiscent of all the times I read “classic” novels in high school English and found myself disenchanted. Of course Wuthering Heights is a great book, my teachers argued; if it weren’t a great book, why would so many schools teach it? And what should the alternative be? One of the vapid things offered up on today’s bookshelves?
Well, actually, yes.
I often ponder the question of whether old art really is intrinsically better, or if it’s just protected by layers of nostalgia and emperor-has-no-clothes groupthink. I think it’s fairly clear by now at which conclusion I tend to arrive. Writers haven’t gotten worse. If anything, the demands of an increasingly sophisticated audience have forced them to get more innovative in turn. For every time I hear something old hailed as a classic or a masterpiece, my immediate reaction is a question: “Why?” And in my time, I’ve yet to get a satisfactory answer.
Consider the Avengers, Marvel’s flagship superteam. There’s been a “classic” lineup that includes some combination of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and assorted others. But built into the team’s history is a tendency for fluid rosters, its membership a revolving door in constant motion. In 2005, Marvel canceled that classic team and installed the New Avengers in their place: a team comprised of characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Luke Cage that had little to no historical ties with the Avengers. Their stories were dynamic and entertaining, and the disparate personalities bounced off each other in new and interesting ways.
And the whole time, all the fandom did was bay for a return to the way things used to be.
New Avengers ranged, in my estimation, between good and great, while the “classic” team had over the years found themselves at the center of a few very rotten stories. But that vocal population of the fanbase didn’t care; all they saw were pretenders to the throne that couldn’t measure up to the Avengers they’d known. Even an objective measurement of quality wasn’t enough to dissuade them, and each time I defended the new direction I found myself under attack for my perceived lack of taste or respect for history.
In literary circles, it’s much the same. I expressed an antipathy once to the works of Herman Melville, citing issues I had with his prose. The conversation could have kept its focus just on the merit of the material in question. Instead, my companions merely expressed shock that I was spitting in the face of the literary establishment. The subject ceased to be about the work itself, and instead about what people thought it was.
I’m not saying we should bust into America’s libraries and burn every book that predates the 1970’s. Study of older works can be very important to understand how it changed things and influenced the creators that came after. And some older works genuinely are as good as their reputation suggests. But “influential” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “great.” My English teachers alleged that what they taught us was critical thinking, but how critical can one’s thought process be if one dives into the work already blinded by the aura that surrounds it?
Which brings us back to Mr. Hicks, a man to whom hero worship was anathema. I have to wonder what Hicks would do today if he could see how he was remembered. The man who railed against blindly falling in line now has his face immortalized on t-shirts a la Che Guevara. A two hour-long hagiography to him exists in the form of the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. While I’m certain the man wanted appreciation and was grateful whenever he received it, all evidence suggests that the very last thing Bill Hicks ever wanted to have was a halo.