Bill Hicks and the magic of misdirection


A bootleg recording of a Bill Hicks gig performed in Chicago in 1989 (you can see the footage online) begins with Hicks delivering one of his most famous bits, about Christians wearing crosses:

“You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? Kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on, you know?”

This leads, naturally enough, onto the subject of the JFK assassination, one of Hick’s favourite topics, and his disbelief in the ‘lone gunman’ account of the shooting. He says that “for the sake of accuracy” there should be two other rifle pendants. At which point he looms forward, pointing his finger in the faces of the front row of the audience:

“Because there was more than one gunman, got it…? Got it.”

Hicks delivers the line like a slightly unhinged history teacher. His movement mimics the shift of roles: from an entertainer up on stage into a truthteller who’s right in your face. The language is direct, the explanation isn’t packaged up into a joke. Hicks isn’t joking. But he manages to get a laugh from the very way in which he’s not joking — from the overly forceful and distinctly uncomic delivery of the information. The oddness of the way he delivers the line is used as a kind of ironic license for saying it. He has to play at being a bit crazed in order to say what he genuinely thinks.

He pulls a similar trick at the beginning of the JFK material in the film Revelations, recorded in London in 1992:

“Kennedy, I love talking about the Kennedy assassination because to me it’s a great example of a totalitarian government’s ability to, you know, manage information and thus keep us in the dark any way they… Oh sorry, wrong meeting… Ah, shit. That’s the meeting we’re having tomorrow at the docks.”

And he gives a big cartoonish wink. He’s pastiching his own non-mainstream beliefs (and there’s no doubt that he genuinely is concerned about “a totalitarian government’s ability to manage information”) in order them to present them in the mainstream (in his film). He’s managing to say, as if by mistake, exactly what he wanted to say. And again, he’s made the joke the fact that he’s not telling a joke.

The Revelations show is where I knew Hick’s JFK material from, but in the Chicago 1989 gig he goes off in a different direction. To recap, he’s established his earnest belief in multiple gunmen:

“Because there was more than one gunman, got it…? Got it.”

In Revelations, Hicks pours extended scorn on the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from the 6th floor of the Book Depository, so at this point in the footage I was more or less in the same headspace as the audience in the comedy club. Having convinced us that (joking aside) he’s deadly serious in his scepticism of the ‘lone gunman’ account, Hicks pulls off an extraordinary comic swerve. Here’s what he says:

“I’ve heard some incredible theories about the Kennedy assassination. Here’s the most incredible one — but the most interesting. The person who shot Kennedy, several people have told me, was, right, the secret service man in the front seat of the limo. That sounds ludicrous — but think about this, every time you’ve ever seen the Zapruder film, have you ever looked at the secret service man in the front seat of that limo? No. It’s like the ultimate magic trick of misdirection. ‘Cause like most people, when I see the Zapruder film, you know, I’m looking at… Jackie’s ass, when she gets on the trunk of that car. Reach for that brain baby. Yeah. Whoo yeah. What, are you all gay? Tell me that pink skirt drawn tight over that pear-shaped bottom doesn’t turn you on? Fuck off. Man, I watch that every night I get lonely.”

It’s a genuinely shocking bit of stand-up, the lurch in tone from a serious consideration of the Zapruder footage to a pornographic appreciation of Jackie Kennedy’s “ass” is utterly breathtaking. The genius of the bit is that Hicks pulls off an astonishing piece of misdirection while talking about “the ultimate magic trick of misdirection”.

Here comes the swerve:

‘Cause like most people, when I see the Zapruder film, you know, I’m looking…

Hicks takes a little pause. He’s constructed this whole sequence in such a way that it’s virtually impossible not to think he’s going to finish the sentence by saying that we’re looking at the President being shot. In the run up to this he slowed down (a bit like Kennedy’s limo) and became repetitive (look at the repeated phrases), forcing us to visualise the Zapruder footage — “every time you’ve ever seen the Zapruder film” — we’re thinking about the grainy film, we’re seeing it play out, we’re thinking about what we’re focusing on in the dreadful footage— “have you ever looked at the secret service man in the front seat of that limo?” — he’s right, we haven’t, because we’ve been so obsessed with watching JFK’s head explode.

‘Cause like most people, when I see the Zapruder film, you know, I’m looking…

This is like watching someone tickle a trout. The “you now” looks so casual, so ‘unmeant’, but it’s gently reassuring us. We’re watching a master at work: he’s got us completely in his grip. He’s about to grab us and toss us out on to the riverbank, thrashing and confused.

‘Cause like most people, when I see the Zapruder film, you know, I’m looking… at Jackie’s ass…

In one appalling phrase — at Jackie’s ass —  he’s wrenched us from death to sex. From tragedy to lust. From conspiracy to pornography. Our poor heads are spinning, but Hicks isn’t finished. Having ripped us across into a completely different mode, he drags us further into lasciviousness:

Reach for that brain baby. Yeah. Whoo yeah.

Before we know it, we’re somewhere between a horror film and a strip joint. In the reality of that day in Dallas, in 1963, Jackie Kennedy is in the middle (as we all know, Hicks included) of an incalculably appalling moment: her husband’s head has just exploded, she’s trying to escape from the unimaginable nightmare she’s just found herself in, and she’s dragging herself away from the bloodshed. With her “ass” all up in the air.

Reach for that brain baby. Yeah. Whoo yeah.

This is an unashamedly and abrasively heterosexual male moment. When Hicks asks his audience “What, are you gay?” it’s not his most politically-correct moment as a performer, but he’s comically locating this new ‘seeing’ of the film in the heterosexual gaze. He knows (obviously) that his audience isn’t “all” heterosexual men, but that’s how he addresses them:

What, are you all gay? Tell me that pink skirt drawn tight over that pear-shaped bottom doesn’t turn you on? Fuck off.

Everything here has to be understood in terms of the comic, on stage, forcing home this hyper-heterosexualized reinterpretation of the appalling Zapruder footage. Before you know it, the footage has become cheap porn. He boils everything down to a single comically-eroticised point of view, which he claims (absurdly) that we all share — we obviously don’t, but that’s entirely the point. The explosion of laughter that follows his “ass” swerve is a kind of chemical reaction caused by two ideas clashing: the idea that Jackie Kennedy’s “ass” is the focus of the Zapruder film and the actual focus of the film — the President’s head exploding.

The pink skirt drawn tight over Jackie Kennedy’s buttocks obviously isn’t what Bill Hicks really thought was important about the Zapruder footage. But that’s what’s so brutal about his joke. He’s prepared to leverage his own seriously held beliefs in multiple shooters, he’s prepared to throw them under the bus, in order to get a cheap laugh about an ass.

Looking back at the transcript you can see he’s treading a fine line between wanting to hint that he’s not personally invested in the secret service man theory and, for the sake of the joke, wanting us to believe that he’s taking it seriously (which he’s not). He gives himself a little bit of intellectual distance by introducing it as one of the “incredible theories” he’s heard, and he’s careful to let us know that it’s not his theory: “several people have told me”. But far more important than this slight distancing is the reassurance. You can see how he lulls us. Twice he reassures us that the theory is worth serious consideration:

Here’s the most incredible one — but the most interesting…

That sounds ludicrous — but think about this…

That phrase — “but think about this” — makes us think he’s about to enlighten us with a new and sophisticated understanding of the footage. What happens is that we are given a new understanding of the footage, but it’s the very opposite of sophisticated. Reach for that brain baby. Yeah. Whoo yeah. 

Built backwards into the joke is the idea that the ass-interpretation of the Zapruder footage is exactly what we were expecting.

‘Cause like most people…

Not only did Bill Hicks see the Zapruder footage in a way that (hopefully) no one had ever seen it before, and not only does he force us see it that way, he’s also claiming that’s the way we all see it anyway. You want to deny you’re focusing on Jackie’s ass? “Fuck off!”


This Zapruder joke — a trashy “ass” joke which subverts something he cares deeply about — is a perfect distillation of Hick’s mission as a performer. Or rather, his two missions.

“Noam Chomsky with dick jokes” he called himself (quoted in American Scream by Cynthia True, 2002). With Hicks there’s always these two things going on: the Chomsky mission and the dick joke mission.

He cares deeply (and wants to inform us) about “the assassination of a President and the hijacking of our government by a totalitarian regime” as he puts it in Revelations. He’s convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that “there was more than one gunman” in Dallas, and wants us to know it too:

“Because there was more than one gunman, got it…? Got it.”

This is his political mission: to enlighten his audiences, to deconstruct lies and illusions, and rail against the forces that want to “keep us in the dark”. This is the Chomsky-Hicks. But he has another mission: to make people laugh. And in the Zapruder sequence, everything he says up to “Jackie’s ass” (including his utter seriousness about doubting the official account of the killing) functions as the set-up to this rug-pull.

Here’s Bill Hicks talking about stand-up comedy in 1988:

“When it’s good, you get to see people… freedom of speech, different ideas, different opinions, and done humorously.”

You’ve got the ideas and opinions, and you’ve got the humour. The multiple gunmen on one side, Jackie’s ass on the other. Here’s Hicks describing his own style of comedy, in which these two facets — the serious and the unserious — are clearly distinguishable:

I believe my style is a kind of letting everyone know — I believe that everyone has a voice of reason inside — I believe that it is quelled by the shrieking idiocy of mainstream media that we hear and it has added to our hopelessness on the planet because [the] mainstream doesn’t offer answers, they only continue the problem. And I believe the voice of reason inside of us has the answers if we’d only calm down and listen to it. But what I do on stage is let that voice speak through logic and reason. And of course, I make it funny. The medicine goes down a little easier.

There’s “logic and reason” and there’s “funny” — there’s the medicine and the sweetener. However serious Hicks gets, he’ll always be a clown — even if he’s the “clown from hell” or Beelzebozo.

However, in Hick’s career (and in his head, to some extent) these two missions get a little confused. Here’s how the comic Janeane Garofalo describes him in the Foreword to American Scream:

“He was a social critic, postmodern prophet, and comedian all rolled into one.”

Let’s unroll them. Here, from American Scream, is an account of the young Bill Hicks’ first gig:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I had a rough upbringing. I was breastfed.” 

The boy stood on the little stage with both hands stuffed in his pockets of his dungaree cutoffs. The kids stared at him. He said breast

“On falsies.” 

Bill shifted nervously. He had done fourteen minutes. Seven minutes his, seven minutes Woody Allen’s. Like anyone here at Baptist church camp would know the difference.

The young Hicks was obsessed with Woody Allen. He and his best friend got a tape of Woody Allen’s stand-up and “listened to Allen’s act until they could say it with him”. He was desperate to buy a copy of Woody Allen’s book Without Feathers, but his mother wouldn’t let him because one of the chapters was called “The Whore of Mensa”. There were some years before he’d become obsessed with Manufacturing Consent.

Here’s a one-liner penned by a 14-year-old Bill Hicks: “My girlfriend is very petite. She’s a stewardess on a paper airplane”. In terms of joke mechanics, the “paper airplane” reveal is doing exactly the same job as “Jackie’s ass”, albeit rather less pornographically.

Bill Hicks started out on the road of comedy trying to get laughs, not make points, but the distinction got a bit muddy on the way. An interviewer in 1988 suggests to him that “the common perception is that most comics are screwed up”. Hicks replies:

I used to think that. Because of Woody Allen: “I’m so depressed”. But it occurred to me, finally, that actually the world is very screwed up and people need comedians to set it right, you know.

He gives “comedians” the task of setting the world right. Letting people see things as they really are. As he says later: “We have to learn to separate illusions from reality. The best comedy is where people wake up to that. They actually leave feeling lighter, they feel hope.”

This is job of the Chomskyan “social critic” misassigned to the comic. The best social criticism is where people wake up to reality, it’s just that sometimes that social criticism is being performed, on stage, by a comic. Later in the same interview the two roles separate out again:

That is what I try to do with my show. Let the voice of reason speak. Make sense and be funny and just see what happens…

“Make sense and be funny” — two different things. But they get muddled back up when Hicks says things like this, recorded by John Lahr in the Foreword to Love All The People (2004):

“To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms. He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame — like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are.”

It’s not the comic who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms. That’s the social critic or the postmodern prophet. The comic is the guy who says “Jackie’s ass” or “paper airplane” where you least expect it, and gets the laugh. The comic doesn’t care if you “wake up to reality” or how many shooters you think there were in Dallas. The social critic is telling you the government is lying. The comic is telling you he masturbates to the Zapruder film. What’s confusing is that a single person can be both a comic and a social critic at the very same moment in time — sometimes he’ll be on stage delivering a string of words that can be both comedy and social criticism. The same words can be doing two entirely different things at once. The same person, two hats.

I think comics are really kind of doorways to a different understanding of a very very mixed-up and very depressing world.

The “different understanding” that comics give isn’t necessarily one that sets the world aright, washes the scales from your eyes and wakes you up to reality. Sometimes the “different understanding” can be a new perception of Jackie Kennedy’s ass. And in fact, when Hicks constructs the ass-swerve in Chicago in 1989, he’s creating an illusion. He’s deliberately burying reality (what he really thinks about the JFK assassination) in the set-up, and weaving a beautiful bit of nonsense in order to make a brilliantly dirty joke. And the world is made a bit less depressing as a result. Or more depressing, depending on your opinion of ass jokes.