“That’s why I always recommend a psychedelic experience. It makes you realize that everything you learned is, in fact, just learned, and not necessarily true.” -Bill Hicks
One thing comedy and psychedelics have in common is their capacity to make you look at old things in new ways. Everyday sights get a lot more interesting after a gram or two of shrooms. Likewise, in just a few words a good joke can make the most routine things seem ludicrous. If you’re looking to challenge your most deeply-ingrained beliefs, a comedy club or a strong dose are good places to start.
Comedian Bill Hicks certainly enjoyed both. Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, specialized in the kind of cutting insights that make audiences reevaluate their assumptions. Delivered as jokes, his observations used wit to poke and prod at societal hypocrisy.
Bill was just 32 when he died. Today he’s recognized as one of comedy’s best, but at that time he’d yet to be embraced at home in America, despite earning a dedicated UK following and near-universal admiration among comedians. Much of his fame came with the gradual release of material after his death.
So why didn’t he click with American audiences during his life? Maybe because of his unorthodox (at least for the time) stance on drugs. Bill spent hours on stage picking apart America’s hypocritical war on drugs. Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for that.
A signature bit of his recalls a mushroom trip he took with two friends.
“I’m glad they’re against the law,” he begins.
“You know what happened when I took them? I lay in a field of green grass for four hours and thought, ‘My god, I love everything.’ The heavens parted. God looked down and rained gifts of forgiveness onto my being, healing me on every level, psychically, physically, emotionally. And I realized our true nature is spirit, not body, that we are eternal beings and God’s love is unconditional and there’s nothing we can ever do to change that, it is only our illusion that we are separate from God or that we are alone. In fact, the reality is, we are one with God and he loves us.”
“Now, if that isn’t a hazard to this country…”
To him, the war on drugs had little to do with the harm those drugs were supposedly causing. “Drugs” is a wide category. Lumping everything together––the really hard stuff with completely natural substances––makes no sense.
And that’s just where the problems begin. Here’s a much bigger hypocrisy: two drugs that are completely legal, alcohol and cigarettes, kill more people together each year than all illegal drugs combined––around 6 million and 2.5 million respectively, according to WHO. Yet substances that sprout right out of the ground, like marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, that aren’t addictive and can, in fact, benefit your physical and mental health, are contraband, punishable with hefty fines and even jail time. Does that make any sense?
Nope. And Bill illustrated that through his jokes. He took common tropes and, with a little twist, made the inconsistencies visible. He made people question the things they’d been told.
He dismissed the appraisal of LSD and magic mushrooms as the nefarious habit of burnouts and hippies. He highlighted the flaws in the typical story presented on nightly news: a young man who takes LSD, thinks he can fly, and leaps off a roof. First, Bill points out that flawed logic is not a consequence of LSD; if you think you might be able to fly, it’s wise to test that hypothesis at ground level. Then, he offers an LSD story of his own, one he never saw on TV:
“Today, a young man on Acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves… Here’s Tom with the weather.”
Bill’s beliefs boiled down to a sort of Golden Rule: as long as your personal choice doesn’t infringe on someone else’s, go ahead. Live and let live. He promoted the Stoned Ape Theory, the hypothesis developed by Terrence and Dennis McKenna that over the eons hallucinogenic plants have expedited human evolution, stimulating and catalysing our ancient simian minds in ways that led us to where we are today.
Of course, for all his grumpy idealism, he wasn’t above taking certain glee from how poorly the “war on drugs” seemed to be going: “George Bush says we’re losing the war on drugs. You know what that implies? There’s a war going on, and the people on drugs are winning it!”
Society painted psychedelics as immoral and destructive. Bill framed them as regenerative, sometimes transcendental, and usually a lot of fun. Whether it’s from a trip or a joke, once your perspective has been shifted like that, it’s hard to go back.