April 14, 2010

Gimme some truth

I recently ran across a copy of “Love All the People: The Essential Bill Hicks,” a collection of articles and profiles that I hadn’t seen, as well as transcriptions of what seems to be every recorded performance from the late comedian’s astonishingly brief career. Who would have thought a “mere” comedian would warrant such a massive, academic tome? Or that the man’s aggressive wit would translate so vibrantly to print, even 16 years after his death (from pancreatic cancer, at age 32, in February 1994)?

The book opens with John Lahr’s New Yorker magazine profile of Hicks, from November 1993, which appeared hard on the heels of the comedian’s notoriously aborted appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” taped on Oct. 1 of that year. While it was not clear who pulled Hicks’ appearance at the time, Letterman has admitted he made the final decision, and while he offered no explanation, it is rumored that he feared Hicks’ jokes about the pro-life movement would have alienated a particular advertiser.

Last February, within a few days of the 15th anniversary of Bill’s death, the comedian’s mother, Mary Hicks, appeared on the show, and the heretofore unseen bit was finally aired. You can find it on YouTube. A transcript of the appearance is included in the book. Ironically, the material comes across entirely contemporary, perhaps even conventional all these years later. Such is Hicks’ legacy: His approach has had a profound influence on comedy over the last dozen years. In 2004, Comedy Central listed him as the 19th-greatest comedian of all time. Three years later, he was No. 6 on the same list.

Basic to Hicks’ comedy was his Texas-bred belief in personal freedom. He found clever, biting ways to chastise any behavior that infringed upon another person’s right to be happy and/or free. He argued for smokers’ rights (even during a nine-month period when he wasn’t smoking), he didn’t specifically endorse drug use, but he credited hallucinogens for a significant element of his philosophy, the part that led him to refer to his fellow humans as “vibrations in the mind of the one true God who’s name is love,” and the part wherein he tended to believe “that we are all one and that there is no such thing as death.” He was, indeed, a weird holy man.

The presidency of George W. Bush seems to have boosted Hicks’ legacy in that a large part of his political humor was based on the first President Bush’s Iraq “war.” Listening to his recordings 10 years later, as Junior re-invaded Iraq, it seemed like Bill had come back from the dead. I’m sure this irony would have tickled him, sadly.

Over the last 15 years, it seems like the cause of Truth has been losing ground. There is nothing “real” anymore, only a rapidly expanding gray area, with this one brilliant moment represented by a narrow edge of bright light on one side and a blackening landfill of discredited beliefs slowly blotting out the sun on the horizon.

Meanwhile, it seems the light refuses to die. Every once in a while, somebody comes along with a hopeful message and the means to achieve a positive cultural change. British chef Jamie Oliver, the star of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” (9 p.m. Fridays on ABC), is such a person. He comes across as Candide and Prometheus at the same time, a caring innocent with a message of genuine compassion and practical empowerment. Ostensibly a “reality” program, the “Food Revolution” represents Oliver’s mission to change America’s eating habits, to educate the television audience by targeting the food culture of Huntington, W.Va., America’s “Most Unhealthy City” (according to a November 2008 MSNBC report).

The first four episodes of the six-part series showed Oliver attempting to change the menu at one local elementary school, teaching a group of seven high school students how to prepare a meal from raw ingredients for 80 guests in two days, and teaching more than a thousand individual Huntington residents how to prepare a simple stir fry dish over the course of five days. The resistance to Oliver’s message and campaign has been most profound in the person of DJ Rod, the most popular morning disc jockey in the area, but by the end of episode four, even DJ Rod had embraced Oliver’s work. And the Truth goes marching on …

 

For further review: The pears at (your local grocery store) have been unusually good lately.