Let Bill Hicks Be Your Obi-Wan Kenobi

I am forever in awe of stand-up comedians. Hell, you have to credit even the bad ones — they get up there in front of what could amount to a laughless firing squad, and try to crack wise and hope that nobody heckles you or that you don’t, erm, accidentally let escape a racist tirade.

I think my sense of humor probably comes from a weird pastiche of two origins: one, comic strips like Bloom County and Far Side, and two, an unending diet of stand-up. George Carlin, Jake Johannsen, Denis Leary, Brian Regan, and, let us not forget the true King of Comedy –

Bill Hicks.

Hicks was cranky, crazy, spiritual, strange, and downright hilarious.

He is, to this day, missed. The man died far too young.

We are still left with his comedy, of course, like this bit of, ahh, “dark poetry” right here:

Wow, yeah.

The man can paint an image.

Anyway, did you know that Bill Hicks put together “12 Principles of Comedy?” He did. Apparently written on a comedy club wall in Atlanta. (Nerdist, aka Chris Hardwick, does a great post about Hicks and these principles.) It’s a solid list, but it got me thinking. Stand-up comedy and the act of writing are actually pretty similar. Yes, the former requires you to actually speak, but from start to finish, each act has parallels to the other. You plan. You outline. You put it out there. You put it and yourself in front of an audience. You adjust on the fly. You try to amuse, entertain, enlighten, all together, a triumvirate of possibility.

So, I thought: maybe it’s a good idea to look at Hicks’ “12 Principles” and see how they apply to writing.

Ready? Here goes.

1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

A great start. This is absolutely true of writing, you ask me. Writers are always concerned about original ideas, and that’s certainly a real concern in terms of marketing and selling your work (of course, Bill Hicks has choice words for marketers). Despite that, to me what matters if that your voice is original. Ideas are rarely original. It’s the way you say them. It’s the arrangement of elements around those ideas. That’s one of the things I learned at Sundance: if the art is anywhere in this process, the art is in the arrangement.

The art is in our choices.

Own your voice, and be yourself in your fiction.

2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.

To rewrite this a little, maybe: “The outline is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.” The outline and all your prep work is a damn fine safety net: but the safety net isn’t something you jump into. It’s something you fall into when you have nowhere else to go.

3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.

Absolutely.On a first read, you might think he’s a bold (and perhaps angry) statement ala David Simon:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

…but I don’t believe this is that. I don’t think Bill is telling you not to worry about your audience, I just think he’s saying you better make sure that what you do entertains you as well as them.

Same goes for writing: if you don’t like what you’re writing, it won’t be successful. Your own distrust and distaste will come through.

4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.

Amen, holla-holla, hallelujah. This tenet demands one thing: be confident. Write prose that is certain and assertive. No wishy-washy groveling, no bent-over begging. Be forthright and use commanding language and you’ll have a reader licking your palm clean of your sweet word-flavored crumbs.

5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.

Eschewing the “never go back and finish a bit” line (you should always endeavor to finish your work and the thoughts contained within), this is good advice from a “Planning -> Execution” perspective. You do all this great prep-work and then in the middle of the thing you find yourself sliding away from center, I’d say let yourself slide. See where it goes. Some of the fear of outlining I think comes from a notion that you’re married to it. You’re not. It’s not moored in concrete. Again, it’s just a map: you can, at any point, put it down and take a detour or hit the scenic route.

This is especially good for the first draft: during the first draft, just fucking write. Take the tangents. Drive the scenic routes. See where your crazy wordsmithing penmonkeying brain takes you.

6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.

Not sure this has a really solid analog in terms of writing, but I suppose again it could speak to the writer’s confidence: some writers feel like they’re taking hesitant steps in their prose, almost like they’re waiting for you to respond. You’re not afforded that kind of feedback, so write strong, and be assertive.

Or, you could spin this and say that writers do start off with piss-poor opening lines: lines about weather, for instance, are notoriously bad (and a crutch I used to hobble upon for a long time). Some people say, “Don’t start with a line of dialogue,” but so far, I give the middle finger to that advice. In fact, I’d argue that despite the so-called “rules” you can open with anything you want as long as its relevant and it doesn’t suck.

7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.

More good stuff, here, though perhaps a reiteration of some earlier ideas.

Write stuff that entertains you. Yes. If it doesn’t entertain you, it won’t entertain them.

The best part of this, though, is “have something to say.” I hate to use the word “mission statement,” but fuck it, I’m doing it. Write with a mission. Write with a statement. Say something. Be passionate about your subject. A story is more than the plot, more than the sequence of events. Your voice, your interests, your beliefs, they should all be in there somewhere. Own it. Speak loudly. What is this about?

8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.

It’s what we do whenever we start to write, I think. And this is potentially good advice for where to start the novel. It’s actually how I envisioned the opening scene of The Devil’s Gunsmith — in fact, the scene’s been with me a while now, and I didn’t really know why, but eventually I figured it out. Whenever I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I’d let my mind wander to the story, and it would often start there.

So, taking orders from my headspace, I started there in the story.

9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)

Boo-yah. I don’t even know that I need to explain this. Do I?

What I love about this snidbit of advice is the word necessary. Every part of a story should fit together: cut off all the barnacles, unless all those barnacles are somehow a necessary part of the construction. (And how do you know? You never know. But you follow your gut, not your heart or your head, and you listen to a good editor and agent.)

Cut words.

Trim the narrative.

Hunt down the uncertain, the unnecessary.

Strangle your darlings in a clawfoot bathtub.

Economy of words.

10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.

A much nicer way of saying what David Simon said: “Fuck the average reader.”

11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.

Yeah. Yep. Yes.

Hardest thing you’ll ever do. I mean, okay, I get it — if I were a slaughterhouse worker in Johannesburg or a child soldier in the Congo, I bet that would be the hardest thing. I’m not actually suggesting that embarking upon a creative endeavor is somehow a harder life than, say, life as a homeless dude living out of a piano crate. But for real, putting yourself out there and hoping against hope that luck and talent and craft all come together in a perfect storm and carry your little paper boat to the promised land is a Herculean task.

And possibly dumb as shit.

It’s a harder life and a harder choice than many safer routes, but also more rewarding.

Still, the thought here is right on: if you can do this, you can do anything.

Boot ass.

12. I love my cracker roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.

Man, this is so true. Love who you are and where you come from, because that stuff needs to be in your writing. That’s the value in the old chestnut, Write What You Know. These fundamental elements are things you know deeply, intimately, spiritually, and it should inform your writing. I think a lot of writers are afraid to go to that space, to find what makes a work personal — they get caught up in what makes something cool, what makes it flashy or interesting, but what connects you to the story, and others to it as well, is this buried connection to your life, your friends, your family, your experiences good and bad.

At first I thought this was an odd finish, a curious number twelve, but I think it’s a good crescendo to the list. It places high value on this notion of “roots.” Your roots made you. Grow comfortable with that.

And damn sure put it into your goddamn writing.

13 comments

  • I absolutely love Bill Hicks.

    Have you ever read Love All The People? It’s a collection of interviews, articles, letters and entire shows through the years. Shows how his material sharpened up during the course of his career and how well he handled tough crowds. Absolutely love that book.

  • Fantastic. In my opinion, Bill Hicks is Obi Wan Kenobi on many matters. I had no idea about this list though, so thanks for sharing. Perhaps #6 could also be looked at in terms of cliches and relying on conventions with the expectation that it will lead your reader ( or viewer in other circumstances) where you want them to go – instead of actively directing them.

    • @Drew:

      I like the way you look at #6, and I like @Lamar’s addendum to it. It is a case of masterfully conducting them rather than passively leading them. The difference between shepherding them and waiting for them to catch up.

      — c.

  • Excellent. A master’s course on writing and other creative work. Thanks for sharing.

    I agree with Andrew about no. 6, but would expand it a bit. I think this one is about feeling the need to meet your audience’s expectations, or at least what you think are your audience’s expectations. Remember the scene in Amadeus where Salieri is trying to explain to Mozart why one of his pieces didn’t get a good public reception? “You didn’t give them a little bump on the end to let them know it was over.” Something like that. That’s true of far too much writing, I think — I have to put this sort of thing in here now because that’s what the formula everyone is expecting calls for at this point. I think you nailed it, Chuck, with the call to write strong and be assertive.

    L.

    • @Lamar:

      Hot damn, great looking to Amadeus for that. Actually, that relationship between those two dudes makes me want to rewatch that film, stat.

      Good call, Lamar. And thanks.

      — c.

  • For number 6, what he’s basically saying is to stay in control and on the rails in the beginning. There are lots of things that a comic (or a writer) can do to lose control of the situation, and you need to only do it when you’ve got them hooked and are assured of keeping them hooked.
    For a writer, I think the analogous situation is a break: ending a scene or chapter is an invitation for the reader to ask himself, “Do I want to keep reading?” I’d say the closest piece of advice for a writer is, “Don’t open with a prologue”.

    • @John: I think control yes, rails… maybe not so much? Hicks was always an improvisation: the act was just the fallback position. He didn’t operate on rails, but he damn sure commanded the audience.

      And, I always advise to avoid the prologue.

      Which is why in my current novel, I wrote a prologue.

      *sigh*

      I did. I did! If it doesn’t work, it’s something that can move into the meat of the novel, but still.

      I break my own rules, then feel equal parts guilt and liberation.

      – c.

  • @Chuck
    OK. Sure, ‘rails’ is probably the wrong word. Beginnings are fiddly times: they’re when a comic’s audience is thinking, “This might be a good time to go to the can/get a drink/go back to the hotel and run my fingers through a tranny hooker’s back hair” The comedian has only a minute or two to persuade those drunks to stay put — if his first move is to pass them the ball while they’re still not sure they want to play, he can screw himself.

    Prologues and that ilk are kind of the same thing. The first time a friend handed me a copy of Dune, he said it was a life changer, I had to read it. I open up the well-loved hardcover, flip past the fawning introduction… and there’s a GLOSSARY. WTF. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for years.

    Now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bill Hicks had ever used the “How You Doing?” line because he was in a situation where it’d work (maybe a raging fire in the audience). The point of rules, to me, is not that they’re never broken, but that you need to know when and how to break them. So, don’t be embarrassed about that prologue, unless in practice it just makes your readers think about tranny hooker back hair: in that case, you know what to do with it.

  • When I think about comedians I like, a few names come up: Dennis Leary, Dane Cook, The Amazing Johnathan, and so on and so forth. When I think of the comedians that taught me how to be funny, there are only four names: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Sam Kinnison, and Bill Hicks.

    What I dug about Hicks is that he demystified the process in the most crass way possible. George was the rebel intellectual, Lenny with the man with a purpose, and Sam was the crazy preacher turned to the Dark Side. Hicks was the the everyman. He didn’t sell shit up and he didn’t go outrageous – he told it like it was, and it was fucking hilarious.

    I love this list, and it’s important how it can be applied to anything – not just comedy, writing, bull fighting, or cock-smacking. That was the beauty and the power of Hicks. Seriously, everyman stuff.

    I am a little disappointed you didn’t mention Sam. You know he was Al Bundy’s guardian angel, right? Word. Oh-OOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

  • I’m a Carlin guy. So i guess the rules to learn as a writer would be……to swear. A lot.

    But i love his use of langue, and the observations he made on the way WE use language.

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