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Hampton D. Harmon

Laughing Towards Bethlehem: A Critical Reading of Bill Hicks as Prophetic Archetype

The performative value of standup comedy is in its inclusion of the audience in the communicative moment; the audience member, at-home and live, exists as a witness to the presentation of the comedian in the involuntary response of laughter, an active and realized part of the comedic event. While there has been a burgeoning amount of scholarly work surrounding the cultural significance of standup comics and the literary implications of their work, there has been very little scholarship assessing the work of comedian Bill Hicks, and none regarding the final special filmed before his death, Revelations. In a world where a standup comic has become the most popular interviewer of all time, and seven of the most downloaded twenty-five podcasts in America are hosted by current or former standup comedians, the link between the actual comedic event and the larger scope of the comic’s influence is clear. Although scholars have correctly identified standup comedy as a new literary and rhetorical form directing consumers toward cultural and social change, and heterodoxic formulations of thought, I will argue that this framework is incomplete. In order to wholistically understand the influence of standup comedy on American culture, one must correctly identify the religious nature of the comedian’s work and selfpresentation, specifically through the Judeo-Christian concepts of “messiah” and “prophet.” Such a framework provides a language for the ritualistic response within the prophetic moment, as well as the dual nature or reverence and revulsion that consumers have for comedians. These concepts are archetypes, and provide new language for interpreting both the work of Bill Hicks and the standup comic in general. The comic claims to bear witness to the truth, and the member of the audience participates in the prophetic moment by bearing witness to the comedian, acting with him in ritualized movement. I will present a case study and close reading of Bill Hicks’ televised special Revelations, evaluating his comedy as a fulfillment of the prophetic archetype. When the standup comic is understood prophetically, and the material understood through the lens of the prophetic message, the consumer and the scholar are able to grasp the foundations of the larger movement centered around the cultural figure of the standup comic beyond the performative work; the larger movements amount to a form of religious devotion, and the comic’s social commentary ceases to be performative, but transformative. The devotion of acolytes to the extraperformative catalogue of comics like Dave Chapelle, Joe Rogan, and Hannah Gadsby form a larger cultural moment, for which Bill Hicks presented himself as a forerunner and prototype. 


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