TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN
…The beautiful thing about finally making those gut wrenching, life changing decisions is that they are most often followed by a sanguine period of delicious, if fleeting, peace. Once I knew I’d be sticking to my guns and staying in perpetual motion, I sunk my teeth into all manner of activity, both professionally and personally.
Before we proceed though, allow me to clarify something. By deciding to stay in Europe and follow my dream to be a professional foreigner, I was in no way rejecting my American heritage. To say that I couldn’t go “home” again did not mean that I could never live in the USA again. All it meant was that I could never return to the warm bath of my childhood in New Hampshire. That safety and security was gone, as it is for us all. Perhaps I will someday move back to America. I don’t know. I sure as shit would never renounce my American citizenship and that, in itself, says enough.
Knowing I’d be in Holland for the foreseeable future, I threw myself into my teaching at House of English, the business I’d created. I knew I’d need to continue working hard to pursue every single lead that presented itself. And I did. There were few stones I left unturned while doing the perma-search for new business. I had to. Every small business owner who works in the “knowledge economy” or sells some kind of service has to. At some point I developed a thicker skin in terms of rejection, and adapted a bit of innocent shamelessness when it came to hustling the next course. The financial crisis had taught me a valuable lesson: this ground is always gonna be shaky so I gotta stay hungry.
Teaching English wasn’t the only thing keeping me going, though. On vacation in 2002 I was on vacation in Spain with my then wife Natascha and a group of English friends. One fine warm and sunny day, sipping sangria by the pool, I noticed that one of the Englishmen in our group, Mark, was reading a book called American Scream, The Bill Hicks Story. On the cover was a angst-ridden looking man, with a Marlboro Red dangling John Wayne style out of his mouth. My interest piqued, I asked Mark who Bill Hicks was.
“You don’t know Bill Hicks?!” Mark asked, incredulous.
“Uhm, no. I don’t. Who is he?” I answered.
“Mate, he’s one of the best comedians to ever come out of America. You’re American, you should know.” Mark shot back.
Mark had a point. As an American, I would like to believe that I have my finger on the pulse of America’s better pop culture offerings, so I should have known. But I had never heard of Bill Hicks.
There are a couple of reasons why. First, Hicks’s rise to comedy fame in the United States was arduous at best. Why? Because he exposed and screamed about America’s innate ability to, at all times, exhibit hypocrisy, mediocrity, and mindless groupthink when it comes to politics, religion, sexuality, drugs, art, and the neverending chase of money, money, money.
In short, Hicks’s comedy was a little dark.
As a result, he didn’t go from three months of comedy clubs, straight to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and then on to the Comedy Hall of Fame. Far from it. For most of the 1980s, the decade in which he really came of age, Bill Hicks worked a tireless schedule by playing gigs at every podunk, piss of shit comedy club from Dandruff, New Mexico to Possom Pouch, Arkansas. Meaning, of course, that a teenage kid like me was never going to hear about him, much less see him live. I loved comedy, but I was too young for comedy clubs. In the 1980s I was watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and listening to the shock-jock work of Andrew Dice Clay. If a comedian wasn’t in the movies, or selling out arenas, kids like me weren’t hearing his work. By the time I turned 18 and left home for college, Hicks was just starting to get big.
And then he got banned from David Letterman’s TV show.
Between the years of 1989 and 1993, I basically watched Letterman every night. We all did. He was the funniest show on late night TV and he had the best bands. If there was ever going to be a chance for me to be turned on to the comedy of Bill Hicks, it would be on Late Night with David Letterman. Hicks had indeed been on Letterman’s show many times since having debuted in 1984, but at that time I was still too young to stay up and watch the show on a regular basis. My habitual viewing didn’t start until I was out of my parental home. Hicks did his infamous bit on the show in 1993, but Letterman and the show’s producer Bob Morton cut the act because…well, who knows for sure? Either way, they got spooked and pulled Hicks off their show.
So I never saw him on American television.
In the meantime, Hicks had done what so many edgy American artists have done throughout history – he went to Europe. In Hicks’s case – the United Kingdom. Hicks was big in England which comes as no surprise to me. First, the Brits know from funny, and second, they’re more accepting of an ‘in-your-face’, ‘no-holds-barred’, screaming comedian. This could be because they’re inherently more tolerant of free speech issues but it could also could be that Hicks’s comedy didn’t rip British culture to smithereens. His comedy ripped American culture to smithereens and the British public is always mad for a wee bit of that.
So Mark the Englishman, who loved Hicks, let me borrow the book. Once I dove into those pages, while baking there in the Spanish sun, I was a goner. I went way down the Hicks rabbit hole. That kind of thing happens to me. If I love a book, or a musician, or a movie, or a comedian, and their work really grips me, I can do little else. It’s obsessive, there’s no other way to put it.
And I was smitten with the work of Bill Hicks…