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Rykodisc presents
Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-up Comedian (2004)

"It's an insane world and I'm proud to be part of it."
- Bill Hicks

Review By: Jesse Shanks   
Published: November 01, 2004

Stars: Bill Hicks
Director: various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, adult themes)
Run Time: 03h:25m:02s
Release Date: October 26, 2004
UPC: 014431069192
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+BB- A-

DVD Review

During the 1980s, there was an explosion of stand-up comedy that produced many of the most prominent comic actors of today, including Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy. Further outside the mainstream were many other niche comedians vying for their shot who did not achieve the larger success of these performers. Andrew Dice Clay led those who used an overtly vulgar style to achieve notoriety. Sam Kinison was a screaming preacher and reached some level of success before his early death. Gallagher slammed watermelons and was the king of prop comedy. Throughout the Reagan years, Bill Hicks developed what he referred to as "the comedy of hate." He tackled the conservative right, the advertising industry, non-smokers, pro-lifers, mainstream pop culture, religious, fundamentalists, and the Warren Commission (the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a lifelong obsession). Soon, Hicks' seething and provocative, spiteful ranting led many to lump him in with the angry shock comics.

Somehow, a comedian had to find a way to preserve his individuality and yet morph into a broader, more accessible performance style to grab the brass ring of film and network TV. One might look at a Steve Martin bit from early in his career juxtaposed with a scene from Father of the Bride to see this process. Another example is the smoothing out of the "edgies" by the likes of David Letterman when making the leap from late, late night to the comfort zone of bedtime America. There is no way to know if Bill HIcks could have made such a leap, or if he'd even wanted. It is difficult, but not completely impossible to see Hicks as a dad on an ABC sit-com with two precocious kids and a perky wife, just like Daman Wayans, Jim Belushi, George Lopez, or Bernie Mac, ad nauseam. Maybe, on the other hand, it does seem impossible to imagine such a thing.

It seems diminishing to lump Bill Hicks with either group. But perhaps Hicks was destined to occupy some middle ground as a Mort Sahl type, endlessly touring clubs and being trotted out every now and then on late night when a host want to pay tribute to a type of comedy that is a little dangerous every night, but titilating enough taken in small doses. It is certain that he now belongs to one group, that of dead comedians frozen in time with a few signature bits and a place in the history of comedy, no matter how small or large.

Bill Hicks was funny and he walked an edge of comedy madness that is attractive in retrospect and endearing, like college hi-jinks. This is not his fault, because his career was stopped short in the middle of 1993, when Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Keeping his condition a secret, he began chemotherapy treatments and continued working on a projected book, as well as a British television series. That October, Hicks' entire performance on the Late Show with David Letterman was held from broadcast and the resulting controversy made him a media cause celebre. Then, Bill Hicks died February 26, 1994, at the age of 32.

The Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-up Comedian DVD features three full-length filmed performances: HBO's One Night Stand (28m:18s) from the Old Vic Theatre in Chicago, Revelations (1h:14m:59s) from the Dominion Theatre in London and Relentless (1h:00m:41s), Hicks' notorious breakout performance at the Montreal Comedy Festival. Relentless is presented in both an edited version and a full version with a lesser quality segment inserted. Preserved in time here is the stage presence of a unique performance artist who made comedy his life. There is repetition of some bits but, overall, the acerbic magic of Bill Hicks at the height of his popularity shines through in the three shows.

His satirical takes on religion, patriotism, and other vices were more than most mainstream audiences could handle and his frustration and aggravation with society increased towards the end of his life. Ultimately, it was the uncompromising quality of his nature that created the comedy he performed and that led to his deletion from Letterman's show. This same quality would have probably prevented Bill Hicks from becoming a Robin, or Eddie, or even a Will Ferrell.

Most people prefer a safe comedy that pokes gentle fun at foibles of sex and toilet habits. When comedy shines it light on ethics and morality, things become less comfortable. Bill Hicks aimed his light and kept it focused and never stepped back with a wink and a nod, to let us know that it was just a joke. Comedy is not just a joking matter for comedians like Hicks. Listening to an antecedent like Lenny Bruce, one might wonder what the big deal was. With Bruce, like Hicks, there is no "performance" in the normal sense but rather "performance art," almost like a reality show. Each performance is like a breakdown. The comic embodies the humor he performs and becomes a lightning rod for the fears and prejudices of his audience as the thin veneer of vaudeville is stripped away.

Hicks was known for saying that life was "just a ride." With his comedy, it was like the operator of a familiar roller coaster was laughing devilishly and taking us places we never expected to go. This disc is for fans of Bill Hicks, fans of the history of comedy, and fans of unexpected humor.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The video here starts very poor and a great job has been done to make it watchable. The resulting full-frame transfer is nothing special, but certainly good enough.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: They've done a decent job cleaning some pretty muffled audio from the original programs.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: As a bonus, the DVD also includes It's Just a Ride (41m:04s), the acclaimed 1994 documentary that explores the life and legacy of Bill Hicks, featuring additional performance clips and insights from peers including Brett Butler, David Letterman, Richard Belzer, Eddie Izzard, and Eric Bogosian. Also included are reminiscences of Hicks' early life from his family and friends. A good mark for including the documentary, but it seems there could have been some other Hicks material that might have added value to the disc, without going too far. Maybe for the special edition. Bill would appreciate the work of the marketing department on this.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Three performances and a documentary make Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-up Comedian an essential part of any comedy library. Shocking, hilarious and compelling—this release documents that Bill Hicks was undeniably unique.


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