A comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms. He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality,” said Bill Hicks in an interview with John Lahr in The New Yorker in 1993.
Hicks’ view that the function of comedy is to examine what lies beneath the surface and so subvert received opinion is borne out in three recent films. American: The Bill Hicks Story, released in Britain next week, is a feature-length documentary on the comedian whom Richard Pryor once described as “an inspired and inspiring truth-teller, dangerous and brave and scary”. The Infidel, a British-made comedy directed by Josh Appignanesi and just released in the US, follows a Muslim who finds out he was born Jewish. The most recent is Four Lions, co-written and directed by Chris Morris, a film released on Friday in the UK. It defangs our nightmarish visions of a sleek terrorist organisation that could wipe out western civilisation by portraying a group of Sheffield-born jihadis blundering and bickering over plans to blow themselves up while dressed as fun-runners in the London Marathon.
What Bill Hicks and Chris Morris have in common, says Matt Harlock, co-director of American, is that “both are fiercely independent and have a strong sense of integrity”. Consequently, both films, as well as being engaging and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, explore the boundaries of taste and ask viewers to think for themselves.
Sixteen years after the comedian’s death at 32, American provides both an introduction to those new to the phenomenon that is Bill Hicks and also a tribute for devoted fans (it will come as no surprise that Harlock used to run Hicks tribute nights). The documentary, which combines animation, archive footage and interviews with friends and family, chronicles his short life from his origins in the leafy suburbs of 1970s Houston and his first forays onstage in local comedy clubs as a cute 15-year-old.
In the years of his rising popularity, beset by drink and drug problems, he came to resemble a bloated Johnny Cash but, after his arrival in Britain in 1991, there was an explosion of success. Harlock believes that Hicks’s material hasn’t dated, and his high ranking in best-comedian-of-all-time polls shows a popularity with no sign of abating.
Hicks disdained what he described as “stupid, banal, trite, puerile jokes” about everyday life, like the differences between the genders, fodder for many stand-up routines. Instead, Hicks went for the big issues – the Gulf war of 1990-1991 or mass consumerism. His savage attack on advertising (“by the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself”) was met with applause from those who felt angry with Reaganomics and a president who, as a former actor, knew a thing or two about promoting his image. The British-Iranian stand-up Omid Djalili, a Hicks fan, says, “He was reacting to the sickness of capitalism. He had no idea he was being so subversive, he just told it as it was and went for the jugular.”
Despite his attacks on the US government and media, Hicks was in many ways a patriot, demanding freedom of speech and calling for authority to be held to account. Paul Thomas, co-director of American, says the timeless appeal stems from the fact that “Bill asks his audiences to always keep their eyes open and be aware of the dangers, to keep vigilant”.
Hicks’s performances can resemble those of a preacher with missionary zeal. His sister Lynn once described him as “wanting to be like Jesus – but angry Jesus: Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple”. His parents were religious, as Hicks’s brother Steve describes it in the film: “People say we were fundamentalist Christians. We weren’t. We were something far worse – Southern Baptists.” According to Thomas, Hicks was spiritual but had problems with the dogma of religion (Hicks once said, “Christianity has a built-in defence system: anything that questions a belief ... is the work of Satan”) and its unquestioning followers.
The lunacy of religious followers is an issue Four Lions explores. Djalili, who starred in The Infidel, stresses the distinction between laughing at religious doctrine and at its followers. “Life of Brian was attacked by people who believed it made fun of Jesus when in fact its targets were religious followers, how Jesus was interpreted.” Four Lions makes fun of jihadists, not of Muslims. “It’s important to separate them. Conflating them is racist. We never called the IRA ‘Catholic terrorists’.”
Nonetheless both The Infidel and Four Lions, he says, show that humour can be derived from ethnic groups and religion without being racist. “Jewish humour has a long heritage in the likes of Jackie Mason and Woody Allen.” He believes that humour can be socially restorative – he hopes The Infidel, which pokes fun at the historic tensions between Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities, will ease those very tensions: “If you laugh at your own culture, people will warm to you.”
Chris Morris is best known for the darkly satirical Channel Four series Brass Eye (1997), which he co-wrote and presented. The most controversial episode was the “Peadogeddon” special, broadcast in 2001, which attacked the media hysteria over paedophilia epitomised by the News of the World’s controversial “name and shame” campaign in the wake of the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000.
Lucian Randall, the author of the biography Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris, calls the writer-director’s methods “investigative comedy. Morris spends a lot of time researching his material, digging around and exposing things. He explores the sensitivities around a subject, for example paedophilia or terrorism, unpicks it and then leaves you to draw your own conclusions. He doesn’t
dictate your interpretation.”
Brass Eye and Morris’s previous series, The Day Today (BBC, 1994), pilloried grand-standing news organs for whipping the public into a panic. And in Four Lions, Morris seeks to dig out the truth behind another panic, the phobia that the western world is about to be blown up by a well-oiled suicide-bombing machine, fuelled by legions of organised Islamic radicals.
By painting the wannabe terrorists as hapless, affable losers, Chris Morris removes some of that fear and, in presenting this human face of terrorism, invites us to deal with a more complex reality instead of generalising the problem as a demonised “other”. The reception to the film has been relatively controversy-free. Djalili believes the timing of its release is key – had the film come out when emotion was still raw over the London bombings in July 2005, people would not have found it so funny. “I started doing suicide bombing jokes two weeks after 9/11.” The reaction from the audience was shock: “They thought I was brave but didn’t find it funny. Eight months later I got more laughs.”
While the humour in Four Lions is often slapstick, it has a serious and subversive point, according to Joseph Bullman, who wrote and directed The Enemy Within, a 2009 Channel Four documentary dealing with radical Islam in Britain. This stems, he says, from the film’s willingness to explore the “messy and incoherent roots of terrorism”. “I’ve watched a thousand documentaries which have tried to explore the rational bases for terrorism. But as I watched Four Lions, I had the sinking feeling that the documentaries had all been a waste of time.”
By examining the subject in an intellectual way, Bullman says, documentary-makers “allowed the ideologues to make their speeches and missed the point”. Perhaps surprisingly, it is through their pratfalls and blunders that we gain insight into what really motivates the young jihadis. “As well as the foreign policy and injustice,” he says, the reasons are “often messy, mindless, emotional, psychological – reactions against feeling humiliated, being overlooked or mugged off”.
Thus Morris, like Hicks, shows that comedy can change our minds.
‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’ is released on May 14 in the UK; ‘Four Lions’ and ‘The Infidel’ are on general release