The Old Scheherazade Bit
Kevin Booth’s Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution
E.B. Bergmann’s Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd
Both Bill Hicks and Jean Shepherd have needlessly fallen into pop cultural shorthand; most remember Hicks as “the comedian censored on Letterman” due to the CBS Standards and Practices’ fear of his jibes at pro-lifers and the religious right. To many of Generation X and beyond, Jean Shepherd is the voice of the nostalgic TBS staple “A Christmas Story.” Bergmann and Booth manage to create fuller portraits of their subjects while acknowledging that the notion of a definitive understanding of either is impossible.
Bergmann eschews an objective portrait of Shepherd in his title: not only does he refer to the cult radio monologist as an “enigma,” much of the book documents the process by which a near mania for anecdotal monologue rendered the true details of Shepherd’s life indistinct. Fundamentally, Shepherd was of the school that believes if the lie is better than the truth, then the lie will serve. I personally remember an aircheck tape of a four hour New York radio interview of Shepherd in which he dexterously placed his father in James T. Farrell’s Lonigan novels, described the ins and outs of working in a steel mill, and talked about his father supporting his siblings as a pool shark in Chicago. Shepherd’s con included substantiating his more outrageous connections with “this really happened” and “now, this is true.” What emerged was a collage of gutsy American life, yet there is some debate over how many of these things actually happened. Shepherd made his tall tales representative of American reality through a clever seduction of the audience.
Does this yarn-spinning approach of Shepherd’s seem nostalgic? It shouldn’t, for nothing aroused Shepherd’s ire like the sentimental rehashing of the past, among other forms of lazy thinking. In his tales the past was found to be somehow inadequate, filled with continual disappointment, albeit in a humorous way. To make his standpoint compelling, Shepherd familiarly labeled his overnight audience “night people” to contrast them with the mediocracy that ruled America’s daylight hours. Shepherd’s rhythms are missing from Bergmann’s book, but, in his defense, how could they not be? No number of transcriptions (and the book is dense with them) could truly capture the essence of Shepherd’s craft, an illusion of shared history and a common mission against the “creeping meatballism” endemic in post-war America. One of Shepherd’s few heroes, turn of the century humorist George Ade, once simply stated, “Avoid Crowds.” Shepherd revealingly chose this basic statement of cultural skepticism to end an essay on George Ade that was just as much an essay on the origins of Jean Shepherd. Bergmann illustrates how time has falsely dulled Shepherd’s non-political radicalism, mostly due to the transitory nature of his medium. Though Shepherd wrote books, his autobiographical radio novel of an American life was his masterpiece; a legacy occasionally recorded by a worshipful fandom, but unfortunately fragmentary in its survival.
Bergmann does not shrink from the drawbacks of someone so content with self-mythologizing. While there are many fans who felt a human touch in Shepherd’s work, in his personal life Shepherd was less of a warm presence. The absorption with which Shepherd delved into his life often made him divorced from others (including his own children, whom he often claimed didn’t exist for the sake of his hipster image) and at other times megalomaniacal. Many of us can remember the moment when a breezy raconteur at a party turned into a self-aggrandizing bore; Shepherd was a tightrope walker in this sense. In his personal life as well as in his work, Shepherd saw himself as distinct even as he created a sense of empathy with his listeners.
Shepherd as a pioneer defied the medium’s rhythms, often showed contempt for its practices and means of financial support, and above all its hypnosis of what H.L. Mencken, a philosophical cousin of Shepherd’s, called the “booboisie.” For this, Shepherd substituted his own form of hypnosis. As with Henry Miller’s autobiographies, digression was the destination, brilliant or maddening depending on the vagaries of individual taste. Shepherd, as a very public and pop cultural voice of dissent, seems unique for the 50’s and early 60’s of his heyday. Bergmann’s book may never get at the truth of Shepherd’s anecdotal self-history (at times Bergmann can’t even substantiate the basic facts of Shepherd’s life), but it’s a noble stab.
In the end, Bergmann’s book is an admirable attempt at the unknowable: what was behind Shepherd’s pasteboard mask. Kevin Booth supplements the process for his friend Bill Hicks in Agent of Evolution, fighting rumors, revealing uncomfortable truths and substituting the man for the martyr at every step. Agent of Evolution also accepts that its subject can be enigmatic, not because of deliberate fictionalizing as in Shepherd’s case, but because we are all ultimately enigmatic to our friends and relatives. Booth’s book focuses on the mystery of Hicks’ motivations. Why did Hicks approach stand-up comedy (an overexposed, crowded field by the late 80’s) with the zeal of a preacher, challenging the limits of humor? Hicks’ approach contained both the darkest gallows humor and a neo-hippie optimism about human nature, a combination familiar to anyone who has read Mark Twain’s early humane masterpieces (Huck, Tom, etc.) before his slow slide into the brilliant venom of his later years.
Booth’s book of personal recollections and biographical reminiscences from friends creates an oral biography that reveals Hicks as a vulnerable man who often, like Twain, saw the discrepancy between human capabilities and human endeavor too clearly. The young Hicks grew up in the Bible Belt bourgeoisie with a concealed weapon of irony, stealing glimpses at the pioneers of stand-up comedy despite parental disapproval and an early bedtime. From the beginning, comedy was an opposition for Hicks, straining at the boundaries of the acceptable, and ultimately a means of escape. The professional and personal were one in Hicks’ life, and Booth’s book demonstrates how everything from psychedelic experiences to the idiosyncrasies of Hicks’ parents became fodder.
Substance abuse and difficulty with relationships characterized Hicks’ off stage life until a few years before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994. With his head clear from sobriety, Hicks delivered a series of focused, classic performances from 1989 until his death which were captured for posterity on CD and television. In these, Hicks mainly attacked the lip service we pay to our ideals. Hicks was dangerous, often to himself, for the sake of the truth. Although Hicks had his admirers in certain parts of the country, his “Flying Saucer Tour” landed in strange hostile outposts, making Margaret Cho’s “edgy” rants before an agreeable audience seem like a mutual admiration society.
Because of this mirror holding, Hicks’ humor caught on much faster in the UK, where irony and the piss-take are touchstones of the culture (anyone who thinks we have a “culture of irony” should compare prime time television comedies). In the end, it was the appreciation of UK audiences that preserved Hicks’ legacy, allowing him to do two extensive, uncensored performances for television, Relentless and Revelations.
Hicks and Shepherd were satirists with a love for their audiences like a mother has for a wayward child. In Shepherd’s case, the result was ultimately a benign monomania. The fundamental similarity between the two, other than their status as world-class talkers, was the way in which their styles demanded that listeners choose on the fly whether to be part of a conspiracy against received ideas. Shepherd’s approach was seductive. Hicks indicated that one didn’t have a choice and that until people lived in freedom and with respect for each other, life was spiritual war. How both managed to be funny and engaging without being coldly didactic was perhaps the most impressive among their many skills. Booth and Bergmann grasp this fundamental quality and thus deepen the reader’s appreciation of their subjects’ art.