Remembering Bill Hicks
On this day, twenty years after his untimely death, let us stop for a moment and reflect on the legacy of Bill Hicks, whose timeless smackdowns of Americana Christianity inspired me to begin penning my own religious satire.
On February 26, 1994, he transcended this physical plane, leaving behind a comedic legacy cut way too short by the curse of cancer. Born December 16, 1961, in Valdosta, Georgia, he breathed in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor and spit on the backsides of those who believed in a savior that seemed to be inspired more by the KKK than by Christ. While accepting a lifetime achievement award in cultural humanism from the Harvard Humanists, comedian, actor, marathoner, and aspiring politician Eddie Izzard remembered how Hicks’s move to take on bigger subjects influenced him to do likewise with his surreal humor.
When I interviewed comic and actor Paul Provenza for a forthcoming issue of American Atheist magazine, we reflected briefly on the cost Hicks paid for bucking the system. He came upon the stage during an era where studio executives had the power to annoint artists worthy of airtime–or not. Fortunately for Provenza and others who wish to do likewise, social media tools now provide opportunities to practice one’s craft and engage directly with an audience without having to appease the network gods. (Check out for Provenza and Troy Conrad’s Set List if you want to see comics discard their shticks and reclaim the spaces left by Hicks, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and others of their ilk.)
Hicks’s name recently got bandied about in yet another Commercial Christian social media blitz. As I tweeted at the time: “Do not quote @billhicksdotcom if you market yourself as edgy artist/academic but allow yourself to be branded. That is insult to his legacy.” As a broke-ass religious satirist and storyteller, I have been tempted more than once to join the Christian crew in peddling my wares to the masses who made millionaires out of the likes of Rob Bell, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. Setting aside my inability to actually pen such faith fluff without losing my lunch, I am haunted by Hicks’s the astute words: “You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story, OK? You’re another corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang bang.” (“Artistic Roll Call,” Bill Hicks Rant in E-Minor (1997)).
In his rant, Hicks acknowledges he will look the other way if a struggling artist takes the occasional gig because the rent money is overdue, or they need to eat, or to afford other basic necessities of life. Even my idol George Carlin cut a commercial during a time of genuine financial hardship. But Hicks zeros in on the proclivity for those in the spotlight to cash in on their talents by churning out what sells rather than what speaks to their heart. Over time, this spiritual spin cycle snuffs out the creative sparks that made their original work sing. Carlin remains one of the few artists who could go commercial for a bit and then emerge with his integrity intact.
I know firsthand how difficult this can be. In 2008 I penned a book called The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, based partly on a talk I gave at the Greenbelt Festival, because I thought that if people could only recognize the existence of a non-Gingrich god who doesn’t proclaim Santorum-like spirituality, they would surely come over and see the light. But if I could have known that the book would end up poorly edited, replete with a Christian-branded PR campaign, I would have said no to this venture from the get-go. Lessons learned.
I have now come to realize that trying to “Christianize” a Carlin (or anyone else for that matter) proves to be not only an exercise in futility but also an act of outright cruelty. As Carlin taught his daughter Kelly, we all must be free to exercise our liberty of conscience. In the words of my ancestor Roger Williams,“Men’s consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained.” (The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience).
Instead of this evangelical/emergent proclivity to convert the other over to their form of ungodly group-think, why can’t we just embrace the mystery that is life? Whether one is a freethinking agnostic, as Carlin was, an atheist like Hicks, Izzard and Provenza, or an apophatic/agnostic Anglican like me, we need to be free to follow our souls as we understand them, unfettered from the sanctions of any governmental entity. For as Hicks reminds us all, how can we have free will if it is force-fed to us by a fundamentalist state?
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).