Dead funny

Bill Hicks in his signature black leather jacketBill Hicks in his signature black leather jacketMany famed comedians have made jokes about pot. From Richard Pryor to Steve Martin, from Chevy Chase to Chris Rock, from Cheech to Chong, cannabis has always been a rich source of humor.
Three of the most influential comedians of the last century were heavily influenced by marijuana. Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley all broke boundaries, took risks and shocked their audiences. All appreciated the fact that marijuana opens the mind, all made fun of the hypocrisies of pot prohibition, and all had a major impact on their craft.

Bill Hicks: pot prophet

In 2004, certain sections of the media awoke to the fact that Bill Hicks has been dead for a decade, yet his comedy is more relevant than ever. Of course, the circumstances are eerily similar, with another President Bush waging another war in Iraq. Hicks had dramatized the first Gulf War as if it were Shane, the Western in which Jack Palance as the sinister bully in a black hat insists that a humble peasant pick up the gun he’s thrown at his feet, then shoots him because he has a gun.

It’s not easy to say how Hicks would have reacted to this latest outburst of what he called, “the Persian Gulf Distraction.” Even the arch-satirist might have experienced a degree of sense of humor failure ? since Hicks was so publicly grateful when Clinton’s election ended 12 years of fundamentalist Christians in the White House ? to find those murderous pro-lifers had come back from the dead. Of course, Hicks was under no illusions. As he said, apropos of the prohibition of marijuana, “I hope you know ? I think you do ? that all politicians are lying cocksuckers.” One can only imagine what Hicks would have made of the revelation that Bill Clinton was also a lying cocksuckee!

Clinton had barely been in office five minutes before he launched 22 Cruise missiles against Baghdad in response to an alleged assassination attempt against Bush. Hicks suggested that the good citizens of the US could have saved the $66 million cost of the operation by taking out Bush themselves. That way, “there would have been no loss of innocent life.” Hicks pointed out, long ago, that however Americans vote, big business always wins. He really wasn’t joking when he advocated the overthrow of the US government in favor of a representative democracy.

Bill Hicks said things that, post 9/11, he probably wouldn’t get away with. Now, they’d probably lock him up as a terrorist. Back then, emerging from a school of Texan comedians in the early 1980’s who styled themselves as “outlaws,” Hicks’ incendiary humor never quite hid his essentially romantic nature, although cocaine and booze may have threatened to obliterate it. But Hicks cleaned up, went to AA meetings, and took to telling his increasingly devoted audiences at comedy clubs across the US, “I don’t do drugs anymore… Well, no more than the average touring funk band.”

Mandatory marijuana

Despite cleaning up his act, offstage, which made his fury all the more focused onstage, Bill Hicks never lamented his previous excesses, nor relented in his opposition to the war on drugs (“It’s not a war on drugs. It’s a war on personal freedom. Keep that in mind at all times.”) Naturally, he ridiculed the rhetoric: “George Bush says, ‘We are losing the war on drugs.’ You know what that implies? There’s a war being fought, and people on drugs are winning it. Well, what does that tell you about drugs? Some smart, creative people on that side. They’re winning a war, and they’re fucked up!”

The war on drugs was clearly an exercise in mendacity (“…it’s hypocrisy, man. That’s why it’s not gonna work. Because it’s a fucking lie.”) But as a recovering addict, what especially pissed Bill Hicks off was the incompetence of those running the show: “They lump all drugs together. It’s not gonna work. Pot and crack? Hey, hey, hey, dude! Don’t put pot in the drug category. It’s a herb, man… The extent of our drug education is a slogan: ‘Just Say No.’ That’s our drug education. To me, ‘Just Say No’ is very close-minded; it’s the opposite of open-minded, the opposite of learning. See, all my friends and myself, we just said, ‘Yes.’ And I guarantee you, we learned a whole bunch about drugs.”

Despite his view that, “not only do I think pot should be legalized, I think it should be mandatory,” the drug that most informed Hicks’ world view was not pot. Nor was it the coke ‘n booze combo that sloughed his career as a stand up comedian. Actually, the philosophy of Bill Hicks was refined via a series of carefully staged experiments with magic mushrooms.

On August 16, 1987, Hicks and his buddies celebrated the astrological phenomenon of the Harmonic Convergence by each ingesting what the pioneering psychonaut, Terence McKenna called a “heroic dose” ? five grams ? of psilocybin.

Trying to time their trip to peak as the sun came down, Hicks and his close friend, Kevin Booth, sat meditating by a tranquil pond, waiting for the mushrooms to kick in. Afterward, they weren’t sure how long they’d sat tripping in silence. But, as they began to talk, they realized that they had shared the same experience: they’d been taken up, as if into an alien space ship, and connected to the universal consciousness; as if their brains were modems being plugged into an inter-dimensional data stream. It was, as Hicks later tried to describe it, a transcendental feeling of pure love.

Frustratingly, however, people tended not to take him seriously: “Every time I tell the story, the first thing people ask is, ‘Were you tripping?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And they go, ‘Oh, yeah. Right.’ But it was really profound and I want to experience it again.”

“Not only do I think pot should be legalized, I think it should be mandatory… That’d be a nice world, wouldn’t it? Mellow, hungry, quiet, fucked-up people everywhere? Domino’s Pizza trucks passing each other on every highway…”

“Aaah, they lie about marijuana. Tell you pot-smoking makes you unmotivated. Liiie. When you’re high, you can do everything you normally do, just as well. You just realize, it’s not worth the fucking effort. There is a difference. (Miming a toke) ‘Sure I can get up at dawn (toke), go to a job I hate, that does not inspire me creatively whatsoever, for the rest of my fucking life… (Deep toke). Or I can wake up at noon and learn how to play the sitar!'”

“To make marijuana against the law is like saying God made a mistake. You know what I mean, it’s like God on the seventh day looked down on his creation: ‘There it is, my creation, perfect and holy in all ways. Now, I can rest… Oh my Me… I left fucking pot everywhere! I should never have smoked that joint on the third day… If I leave pot everywhere that’s gonna give humans the impression they’re supposed to use it. (Deep sigh). Now I have to create Republicans.’ And God wept, I believe, is the next verse.”

“If you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor, then. Go home tonight, take all your albums, your tapes, and your CDs, and burn ’em. Because, you know what? The musicians who made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years… real fuckin’ high on drugs.”

“Not all drugs are good, now. Okay? Some of ’em are great. Just gotta know your way around ’em, that’s all. Yeah, I’ve had good times on drugs. I’ve had bad times on drugs, too. I mean, shit, look at this haircut! There are dangers. One time me and three friends dropped acid and drove around in my Dad’s car. He’s got one of those talking cars, we’re tripping, the car goes, ‘The door is ajar.’ We pulled over and thought about that for 12 hours.”

Bill Hicks kills at the Comedy AnnexBill Hicks kills at the Comedy AnnexLenny Bruce was not afraid

Throughout his too-short life and ever since, Bill Hicks has been compared to, or acclaimed as the spiritual successor to, Lenny Bruce. You need to know about Lenny Bruce, not just because of the startling originality of his comedy ? although some of his routines remain relevant nearly 40 years after his tragic demise ? but because of what they did to him in retaliation for saying those things.

Between 1961 and 1963, Lenny was arrested 15 times. It started in Philadelphia, where charges for possession of narcotics were dropped because Bruce had prescriptions for the drugs. Plus, he had been offered a deal by a city law enforcement official. Bruce announced the offer, including the price, on TV. Within a week, on October 4, 1961, he was arrested in San Francisco for saying “cocksucker” on stage at the Jazz Workshop. “There seems to be a pattern,” said Lenny, “that I’m a mad dog and they have to get me no matter what. The end justifies the means.”

“He was prosecuted because of his words,” a former assistant district attorney told Paul Krassner, the editor of Lenny’s unreliable “autobiography,” How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 30 years later. “He didn’t harm anybody, he didn’t commit an assault, he didn’t steal; he didn’t engage in any conduct which directly harmed someone else. So, therefore, he was punished, first and foremost, because of the words he used… We drove him into poverty and used the law to kill him.”

For telling jokes, Bruce was prosecuted half a dozen times; he was banned and bankrupted. Finally, Lenny Bruce was hounded into an early grave. When his 39-year-old corpse was found on the floor of his Hollywood Hills home on August 3, 1966, the LA cops immediately announced to the press that he had died from an overdose of a narcotic, probably heroin. The official report admitted that the analysis was inconclusive and cause of death unknown. According to Phil Spector, Lenny died from “an overdose of police.”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Lenny the Martyr, the tale that’s dramatized in the 1974 movie, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, and in the 1998 documentary, Swear to Tell the Truth. However, the legend of Lenny the Martyr, the prophet of free speech who died for our right to swear, tends to obscure the fact that he was wickedly funny.

Hip messiah

Lenny Bruce really did revolutionize comedy. According to the sleeve notes of his 1958 recording, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, “[his]comedy is a dissent from a world gone mad. To him nothing is sacred except the ultimate truths of love and beauty and moral goodness ? all equating honesty… He takes people literally and what they say literally and by the use of his searing imagination and tongue of fire, he contrasts what they say with what they do. And he does this with the sardonic shoulder-shrug of the jazz man.”

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, while most stand-ups were doing mother-in-law jokes, Bruce was exploring the satirical implications of nuclear testing, racism, illegal drugs, homophobia, back-alley abortions and the death penalty. At his peak ? as at the famous Carnegie Hall concert, recorded live in New York at midnight on February 4, 1961 ? Lenny came on like the jazz musicians he idolized: a crazy, inspired hepcat who sweated jazz poetry as he improvised around a comedic riff.

In 1962, Bruce published a home-made brochure to sell at his concerts, Stamp Help Out, which contained a hysterical and highly incriminating pictorial and written thesis on The Pot Smokers illustrated with “actual photos of tortured marijuana-ites,” most of whom were Lenny himself. An absurd glossary of Idiom for Marijuana Cigarettes revealed the derivation of the term “joint”: “many ingenious hiding places where pushers conceal their narcotics; knee joints, elbow joints. This term and place of concealment was exposed by a Royal Canadian Mountie who offered to Indian wrestle one of the pushers who was under surveillance and who, during the contest, was unable to keep his elbows down. They kept flying toward the ceiling.”

Lenny gave copies to the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to sell at his City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, but by January 1963, Bruce was so embroiled in narcotics busts and obscenity trials that he sent Ferlinghetti a telegram ordering the destruction of all remaining copies. As Lenny knew only too well, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Nearly all copies of this landmark in stoned humor were promptly destroyed and the few remaining have been punched through. Bruce wasn’t just paranoid; he really was being persecuted.

In his routines and writings, Lenny Bruce made some trenchant observations about the prohibition of marijuana, which remain sadly relevant today. But, equally sadly, he was dead wrong when he prophesied: “Pot will be legal in 10 years. Why? Because in this audience probably every other one of you knows a law student who smokes pot, who will become a senator, who will legalize it to protect himself. But then no one will smoke it anymore. You’ll see.”

“I don’t smoke pot, and I’m glad because then I can champion it without any special pleading. The reason I don’t smoke pot is because it facilitates ideas and heightens sensations. And I got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot.”

“I do not understand the moral condemnation of marijuana, not only because of its non-toxic, non-addicting effects as contrasted with those of alcohol, but also because, in my opinion, caffeine in coffee, amphetamine, as well as all tranquilizers ? from Miltown to aspirin to nicotine in cigarettes ? are crutches for people who can face life better with drugs than without.”

“A commercial you’ll never hear on the radio:
‘I don’t know what the hell it is, Bill, I’ve been smoking this pot all day and I still can’t get high on it.’
‘What kind are you smoking?’
‘Well, all marijuana’s the same, isn’t it?’
‘That’s the mistake a lot of people make!'”

“Do me a favor. I don’t want to take a bust. The code reads that I talk, you smoke, I get busted. So don’t smoke. Drop a few pills, but don’t smoke.”

“Exploitation Films present: ‘I Was A Teenage Reefer-Smoking Pregnant Yortsite Candle.’ With Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood. See Sal Mineo as the trigger-happy Arty, the kid who knew by one thing: how to love; how to kill! And see Fatlay Good as Theresa, the girl who knew the other thing: tenderness and love. And see Lyle Talbot as Gramps, who liked to watch. A picture with a message and an original Hollywood theme: narcotics.

The film opens as we find Nunzio locked in the bathroom with the stuff, the baccala, the marijuana…”

Lenny Bruce after being busted for using obscene languageLenny Bruce after being busted for using obscene languageTongue dancer

If Lenny Bruce’s feeling for the rhythm of language was influenced by jazz music, his way with words was equally profoundly influenced by the “hip semantic” monologues of one of the most extraordinary performers of the 20th Century: Lord Buckley. A gigantic former lumberjack who affected the manners of an English aristocrat ? clad in tuxedo and pith helmet, with a preposterous waxed moustache ? and who talked in the street argot of black America while recounting classic tales from Shakespeare and the Bible, Buckley was a one-off.

“I was pushing a new sound in humor,” Lord Buckley explained. “They all had big eyes and ears to pick up on this lick that consisted of translating Poe, Shakespeare, Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and some of the miracles of the life of Christ into the semantics of a modern language called, “The Hip,” which I, after much research, found to have a full vocabulary, and one that was a seven-ply gasser if a cat really wanted to blow.”

Lord Buckley’s tall tales may sound dated in this era of the internet, but interest in the original Tongue Dancer is resurgent, in no small part due to the efforts of Oliver Trager, author of the definitive biography, Dig Infinity. It is one hell of a story. Born into a small mining community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Richard Myrle Buckley set out in the mid-1920’s to find work in the oil fields of Texas and Mexico, but instead teamed up with a guitarist he met on the road to form a double act.

In Prohibition-era Chicago, he worked the mob-owned speakeasies as an MC, and became a protege of Al Capone, who set him with his own club, Chez Buckley. Forced out of town by the Feds, Buckley hit the road. Throughout the early 1940’s he worked the vaudeville circuit, carrying more than a whiff of wildness with him. He became notorious for smoking reefers on stage and ridiculing parochial audiences, who didn’t comprehend him.

After World War II, Buckley settled in New York City, where he married (not for the first, but the last time) and began to adopt the persona of “His Lordship,” at least in private, for a growing circle of friends and acquaintances who constituted his “Royal Court.” One privileged visitor recalled the scene at his apartment on West 71st street: “You’d go in and Lenny Bruce would be sitting at Buckley’s feet with Charlie Parker and his wife, Chan. Bird was in a cast, and Lady Buckley was giving him ballet lessons. It was so bizarre.”

In the early 1950’s, Lord Buckley relocated his Court to California and became the “Hollywood hep-cat in residence,” at the centre of a hip, pot-smoking clique that congregated at his rented mansion, “The Castle.” Here, Buckley faced up to his alcoholism and became an early member of AA, without relinquishing his lust for life or his propensity for throwing wild parties. It was during this period that Buckley, who remained a lifelong “viper” ? somebody who smoked marijuana all the time ? developed his classic routines. He also established the first jazz religion, “The Church of the Living Swing.”

Canyons of the mind

From 1954-1962, Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr Oscar Janiger studied the effects of LSD. He did this by administering over a thousand trips to a demographically random cross-section of the population, which just happened to include the likes of Jack Nicholson, James Coburn and Cary Grant. And Lord Buckley, twice.

Janiger has told how he met Buckley at a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, called the Renaissance Room, where the big-hearted manager would hire people who’d been in trouble with the law. “Most of those guys were busted on marijuana charges,” Janiger explained, “and in those days, it carried a very stiff penalty: they’d lose their cabaret license.” A hangover from Prohibition, the cabaret card system, by which performers were licensed to perform, was used to censor controversial performers. According to Janiger, “Lenny Bruce ? who was one of the group ? would bitterly complain, ‘It’s cruel and unusual punishment to take a guy’s livelihood away from him.'”

Dr Janiger required that all participants in his clinical acid tests record their impressions. Lord Buckley turned in an early masterpiece of psychedelic reportage: “My whole body was jingling with alert signals. This is gonna be one mother of a take off! Hang on! It felt like a soul pressure. I felt strong. I felt words shooting out of me like projectiles, acres of untapped sound were waiting to be put in the gun of expression! And with the physical feelings of rising and breaking through, came a great sense of expanding freedom. I knew I was there when I saw the high florescence of vivid colors…”

Compare that beautiful experience with the anecdote told by Paul Krassner about the time, some years later at a hotel in San Francisco, when Lenny Bruce took two hits of acid and smoked DMT, “till the jewels fell out of his eyes.”

“He was talking with great animation, standing on a window ledge. Suddenly he fell backwards… The window of that hotel room was broken by a perfect imprint of Lenny’s body, his pose outlined in glass like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Both ankles and his pelvis had been broken, but he asked the nurse if she would please give him some really good head.”

“And we see Jonah inside this giant whale. Smokin’ this strange cigarette. Watchin’ the pistons pound, drivin’ that POOM, pushin’ on the great valve, ‘spandin’ an’ expandin.’

And finally the Whale say, ‘Uuuuhhhh, Jonah?’

And Jonah say, ‘Ppfffffffttt… What is it, Fish?’

And the Whale say, ‘What is it, Fish!’

Jonah say, ‘You got a new captain on this here mass mess now, Mr Fish.’

He say, ‘I’m not outside no more. I’m inside now!’

The Whale say, ‘Jonah, what in the world is you smokin’ in there? I thought I was off the flippity islands. Here I is two minutes from the Panama Canal! This jazz got to go.'”

(from Jonah and the Whale)

Lord Buckley, notorious for smoking reefers on stageLord Buckley, notorious for smoking reefers on stageJust because you’re paranoid…

As his life slid into chaos, compounded by reckless drug use and confounded by litigation, Lenny Bruce lost his edge and his performances degenerated into rambling explanations of the labyrinthine legal process. But he never quite lost the ability to mesmerize an audience. One of the most memorable passages in Albert Goldman’s biography of Bruce is the description of his last New York appearance, performed in defiance of the ban imposed on him by the New York Criminal Court in 1964.

With his cabaret card revoked, Bruce stormed onto the stage like “a man who had nothing to lose, a performer without hope, a show-biz kamikaze.” He had become “the Jewish equivalent of James Brown, stripping down his mind to the bare bone just the way the rhythm-and-blues cats tear off their clothes and scream out their guts and finally regress to tribal totems drenched in sweat. Soul, not jazz, was Lenny’s final aesthetic.”

In a way, Lord Buckley’s abrupt demise prefigured Lenny’s slo-mo descent. In 1960, having travelled across country to appear at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Buckley had his cabaret card confiscated by the police. His friends rallied round and formed an Emergency Committee to deal with the affair, but shortly before it came to court, His Lordship suffered a stroke and died on November 12, aged 55. A case could be made for Lord Buckley’s martyrdom as a victim of censorship, like Lenny Bruce, but the comparison is superficial.

Ultimately, Lenny Bruce saw himself not as an entertainer, but an educator. “People should be taught what is,” he insisted, “not what should be. All my humor is based on destruction and despair.” While Lenny Bruce, in the end, took himself all too seriously, Lord Buckley never lost his whimsical sense of humor, nor his genial humanity. He would often conclude his act by informing his audience, “I’d like to say to you, people are what it is all about… they are Mother Nature’s brightest flower, her sweetest, purest, most elevating thing that ever was. You are groovy flowers in a garden where I am privileged to stand and share a few moments with you.”

Deja voodoo

Bill Hicks was censored, too, when his twelfth appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show on October 1, 1993, was edited out. It was never adequately explained quite why his act was deemed unacceptable, particularly as Hicks had been quite prepared over his 11 previous appearances on the show to work with its producers to tone down his material. However, to accuse Letterman of censoring Hicks is plainly wrong, since Dave was about the only talk show host who was prepared to have Hicks as a guest in the first place.

It was hardly necessary to shut Bill Hicks up, since he was widely ignored. As he would remark to astonished audiences, “this is the material that has made me virtually an anonymous figure in America for the last 16 years.” Ironically, being excised from Letterman brought Bill Hicks more attention in his home country than he had ever previously enjoyed. Sadly, it was too late by then for Bill Hicks, since he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only months to live.

His death, on February 26, 1994, at the age of 32, prompted Eric Bogosian to describe Bill Hicks as a shaman: “He was taking fully the role of the witch-doctor in front of the audience… like a big, giant exorcism of all the evil shit that’s inside of us, that poisons us day to day… You just need a guy to get up there, take you by the lapels and shake the shit out of you.” Kind of like Lenny Bruce.

When he was alive, Bill Hicks used to dismiss comparisons to Lenny Bruce by saying that all they had in common was that both tried to be themselves on stage. It wasn’t just an act, based on observation, or whatever. Their respective performances were based on honesty and, like Lenny before him, if Hicks’ humor was shocking it was because he connected to fundamental truths that society held taboo.

Now, being dead is primarily what Bill Hicks has in common with Lenny Bruce. At least Hicks tasted success in the UK (like Jimi Hendrix!) before oblivion and he had a few precious months to prepare himself for death and to record as much material as possible for posterity. In death, via posthumous CDs and word of mouth, Bill Hicks’ work is more widely known now than during his lifetime.

Asked to account for the resurgence of interest in his long gone compadre, Kevin Booth said, “A lot of people pin it on superficial stuff, like because he’s talking about George Bush and Iraq, but I think it goes way deeper than that. It’s not like I hear Bill Hicks say the word ‘Iraq’ and I think ‘Wow, he’s a genius,’ it’s more that I think his overall message was timeless. It’s a message of hope, a message of questioning everything and that people need to find their own voice.Lord Buckley, notorious for smoking reefers on stage

Comments