It's been almost 20 years since the death of Bill Hicks and you could be forgiven for thinking that this revelation has been largely forgotten. The ‘Great Big British Comedians’ of the noughties are mild, are accessible, are safe. Gags about Asda, periods and the Tube run rife, whilst comedians who dare to take their toes off the ledge are instantly battered around the head by the PC brigade. Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay, Lee Evans, are just a few of Britain’s
biggest comedy hitters. These guys rake in millions every year from ticket and DVD sales. They fill arenas just as fast as any Rihanna or Lady Gaga concert can. And who’s to say that they don’t deserve the money, the fame, the popularity? Yes,of course it looks easy from an armchair in your front room. The reality is, if you mess up that important finance report tomorrow, you won’t get heckled/bottled/threatened or sworn at will you?
The tenacity of Britain’s comedians is not up for debate. But their spirit certainly is. Hicks was the first comedian to point a finger at society’s need to viciously attack and ‘kill’ those single individuals who attempt to enlighten themselves or others. Step up, Ricky Gervais. Writer and creator of The Office, he has in recent months been the victim of what can only be described an all out, media backlash. Journalists and broadcasters are still having proverbial kittens over Gervais’s cutthroat performance at the Golden Globes. Critics have lambasted his new show ‘Derek,’ claiming that the titular character is a vicious attack on disability. Where once he was comedy television’s newest darling, today he’s cruel, mocking and offensive. And he loves every single minute of it.
Like Bill Hicks, Ricky Gervais knows that comedy is a weapon. It’s a weapon against cheating, lying politicians. It's a weapon against the cruelty of religion. It's a weapon against the injustice of the justice system. It’s a weapon with which to fight all the evils of a society. Like Bill Hicks, Ricky Gervais wants to be more than funny. He wants to reach people in the very purest, strongest, most vital part of their being, their humour, their happiness.
And here we finally have it, the distinction between those who choose to understand the social power of comedy, and those who choose to ignore it. Gervais has often alluded to his fascination with the weird and the wonderful, with those who live on the fringes of society. But weird and disabled are two very different things right? Not to the British media it seems. Critics turn on Ricky Gervias because it's easy, because he’s willing to poke his head above the parapet and take a few blows for the sake of social commentary. Throughout the entirety of his stand up and writing career, Gervais has been committed to making comedy dangerous again.
Bill Hicks adored Britain. He brought his stand up tours to England as often as possible. He planned to make his first TV show with Channel 4. Britain was the only place in the world where Bill Hicks was NEVER censored. And the British returned that love, giving Hicks an artistic freedom and an understanding that his own country never would. In the 20 years since, it seems we’ve misplaced our comedy balls. Ricky Gervais has employed dozens of handicapped and disabled people throughout his career, on screen and off. In ‘Extra’s’ cerebral palsy sufferer and stand up comic Francesca Martinez is involved in a skit about her condition. Samuel L. Jackson appears in an episode that pokes fun at ‘white, middle class guilt.’ And Ian McKellen mocks the often shaky social tolerance of homosexuality by casting Gervais’s character Andy in a ‘gay play.’
So you can keep your Michael McIntyre’s and your Peter Kay’s. Keep your jokes about garlic bread and the differences between men and women. Oh they’re still important, of course they are. After all, not everyone and everything needs to change the world. But just remember what comedians like Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin gave for comedy.. Do a little research on Hicks’ infamous Letterman appearance, on Carlin’s involvement in the 1978 government attempt to censor the US airwaves. Read up on Lenny Bruce’s HELLISH fight for free speech. The man was sentenced to four months in a workhouse, for talking.
Britain, lets get our comedy balls back. And remember: ‘It’s only funny until someone gets hurt, and then it's just hilarious.’