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“American: The Bill Hicks Story,” Reviewed

“American: The Bill Hicks Story,” Reviewed (photo)

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A stand-up comedian’s job is to make people laugh. But the more you learn about stand-ups, the more you see how unfunny their own lives often are. Many of the best comedians are forged in the darkest places. Comedian Bill Hicks struggled with substance abuse for years and then just as he got himself clean and his career started to take off, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 31. He was dead by the time he was 32.

Funny as it is, “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a deeply moving tragedy about the miserable luck of an absolute genius. And I don’t use the word “genius” lightly here. Hicks was like the stand-up comedian version of a five-tool baseball player. He could do it all. He had great timing. He did great impressions. He had amazing physical gifts. His humor came from a distinctive and really unique perspective. And his analysis and critique of American culture rivaled any social commentator of his generation. I own a couple Bill Hicks CDs, but because he died before I was even in high school, I’d never really seen him perform, and watching him in “American” only increased my admiration for his work and and his craft. The way he works a crowd and moves around a stage and handles hecklers and challenges his audiences’ assumptions; he really was one of the greatest.

We’re fortunate that so much good footage exists of Hicks onstage, even from the earliest parts of his career when he started working Houston comedy clubs while he was still in high school and his delivery wasn’t refined but his material was already shockingly good. What doesn’t exist is much in the way of home movies or interviews, so “American” directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas construct Hicks’ life offstage through animated montages of still photographs of Hicks set to a running narration provided by his friends and family. Because we almost never see who is talking, this device doesn’t always provide the most clear sense of who besides Hicks is involved in any particular scene. But “American”‘s unorthodox approach weaves a sort of transportive spell that is very much in keeping with its subjects taste for consciousness-expanding psychedelics. In other words: this movie is a trip, man, through Hicks’ maturation as a comedian and a human being, through his attempts at screenwriting and Hollywood success, and finally through his sudden and unexpected stardom in the UK after his appearance at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival aired on British television.

Obviously, “American” is a sad film at times; any story about a 32-year-old dying of cancer is going to be sad at times. But I found it to be incredibly inspirational too. When Hicks got his cancer diagnosis he didn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself: he pushed himself to do as much as he could with the little time he was given. And it made him an even more fearless comedian onstage because he had nothing left to lose by speaking his mind. If he was provocative before, he was genuinely shocking after. As someone who writes and talks for a living, and who is just a few years younger than Hicks was when he fell ill, that really gave me something to think about. It Bill Hicks’ job to make people laugh. But what he really loved to do was to make them think as well.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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