Review: Bill Hicks -- The Essential Collection

10/18/2010 06:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

When Bill Hicks died in 1994, he was not a household name in the world of pop culture, though his fans were truly heartbroken by the loss. In the years since, Hicks' legend has grown as more and more people have discovered his often dark and satirical comedy and he's now regarded as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. And yet, calling his work "comedy" falls short of a true description for what he was really doing. Not to say he wasn't funny; Hicks at his best could make you double over in laughter and he was as relentless in delivering his well-oiled material as we was when he'd go off the cuff. But behind the funny business was a serious social critic who saw the ugliest flaws in our society and was not afraid to hold a well-lit mirror to our hypocrisies and deficiencies. Whether it was politics, religion or the rampant consumerist mentality (and the marketing and media manipulation that fostered it), Hicks spoke the truths that even those who felt the same were reluctant to admit. Instead of truth to power, he told truth to the people, wrapped in a few "purple-veined dick jokes" to keep em laughing along the way.

In his own way, Hicks gave people the permission to discuss and debate things that were a little (or a lot) taboo. Most importantly, he gave people the opportunity to think beyond the social veneer of society, to examine our role in the superficial and rethink our connection to the spiritual. Comedian Brett Butler compared Hicks to Jesus at his angriest, overturning the moneychangers tables in the temple and decrying their greed and sins against humanity: "It was Jesus, Bill wanted to be. He wanted to save us all. Except he was freeze-framed in the scene when Jesus went into the temple and said 'This is my father's house and you've turned it into a den of thieves.' That's what Bill always wanted to do; he wanted to be Christ at his angriest." Hicks wove anger into his comedy in such a way that as you were laughing, your "third eye" was being "squeegeed" as Hicks might have stated. He ripped off the veneer of ignorance that is spread across our culture and excoriated those who were blinded by it. He knew that fascism is a creeping entity and that those most easily swayed by it were oblivious. He knew the worst tendencies of our species and how susceptible people were to being controlled. Though his caustic commentary on our consumer-marketed society, he hoped to free or enlighten them a bit. There are some shackles that people cannot see and Hicks knew they just had to be aware enough to know they were being controlled to conform by those who set the norms in society. It is amazing to think of what Hicks would do if he were alive in the age of the internet and all it's connectivity (aside from perusing copious amounts of online porn). I think he would have the same feel of horror and amazement that he did back then but perhaps have more avenues to express himself and connect with his fans. Surely his Tweets would be legendary rips on every phony in the biz! But sadly, he is no longer here to fight the good fight. However, there are quite a few CD's and DVD's for you to check him out, including the recently released Essential Collection.

The CDs and DVDs that comprise The Essential Collection are quite a mix of material, much of it previously unseen. The two CDs feature some of Hicks best known bits and comprise the Essential part, meaning if you haven't heard Hicks, these are some choice bits to begin with. The DVDs, however, are where more hardcore fans will start; novice Hicks fans should watch his scathing and polished performances on Relentless, Revelations and One Night Stand to get their first dose on video. Before Hicks was a hit, he honed his skills across the middle of America and chewed up audiences across the deep South. The first of the two DVDs offer early career performances from the early '80s in Houston and Indianapolis as well as interviews and performance footage from his Outlaws of Comedy troupe. These early performances feature Bill in his formative years, unleashing his ferocious wit on crowd after crowd to perfect his message. Calling it an "act" wouldn't do justice to the underlying politics or philosophical threads, though there was more of the traditional stand-up feel to his early performances. Those 80's clips are interesting to watch as Hicks evolved his material in the trenches of American comedy. However, the Austin Bootleg series from the 90's show Hicks in full swing, ripping pop culture and the shallow end of the gene pool as he cut loose in a smoky Austin nightclub that was a regular haunt of his. Those clips were shot on videotape for Hicks private use but now that he is gone, they are wonderful to be able to view so we can enjoy more of Hicks than we were able to in the time since they were recorded.

The self-made Hicks-created film Ninja Bachelor Party is on here as well and quite frankly, it is for Hicks hardcore fans only. However, it came from the mind of Hicks and represents a creative and artistic endeavor that for better or worse is saved for posterity. Being able to pore through all this material gives the viewer/listener a deeper sense of where Hicks came from creatively and new perspective on where he wound up. Add to all this extra pictures, interviews and a bunch of Hicks original songs to download, and you've got an important chapter for your Hicks collection. Whether you are a long time fan or are just finding out about him, the legend of Bill Hicks burns bright in the annals of comedic history as well as sociopolitical commentary. The Essential Collection helps us to appreciate how much time and effort went into honing his act. It is to our great detriment that Hicks is no longer with us, but at least we can still watch and listen to him dish out the medicine for what ails our society and give us reason to laugh as well as think critically for ourselves. The one sad part of viewing Hicks live is seeing his incessant chain-smoking onstage while being all too aware that his life would be cut drastically short due to cancer. Sure, the cigs were part of his act and he got some great laughs with them as props, but it was at the cost of his health and ultimately, his life. Hicks light burned bright and his untimely death at 32 cut short the vast potential of this "satirist, social critic, stand-up comedian" who only strived to rip our blinders off and show us the folly of our ways. May we someday actually evolve our collective consciousness and learn to live together in peace. I'll leave you with one of Hicks' signature bits:

The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, "Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?" And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, "Hey, don't worry; don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride." And we...kill those people. "Shut him up! I've got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real." It's just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok... But it doesn't matter, because it's just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.