The seminal, outspoken and legendary comedian gets the Icon treatment from Sally Hayden
Philosopher, musician, poet, outsider, preacher, genius – Bill Hicks was always something more than a comedian. A man who aspired to be “Noam Chomsky with dick jokes”, Hicks was seen as many to be the antidote to the Reagan and Bush-controlled capitalist America of the late 80s and early 90s. Quick-witted and cynical, he was arguably the most probing and iconic voice of the period, a definite social commentator who wasn’t afraid to go against the tide of public opinion.
“Hicks asked that if they were so pro-life, ‘why not protest around graveyards?’”
Born in 1961, Hicks grew up in the buckles of the Bible belt in Houston, Texas, “a strict Southern Baptist ozone”. He did have a relatively happy childhood, but the small-mindedness and bigotry he witnessed during this time would provide the fuel for his career as well as his lifelong pursuit of personal freedom and private epiphany. Initially straight-edged, he started doing comedy gigs in clubs long before he was legally allowed to drink in them. At the age of 17 his parents sent him to a psychoanalyst who, bemused by his humour, reportedly decided “it’s them, not you”.
At 19, Hicks moved to Los Angeles and started working the stage at the Comedy Club, the embryonic home of Seinfeld and Leno. It was in LA that he had his first experience of drugs, dropping a hit of LSD in his apartment. Chain-smoking soon became an integral part of his act. His continued usage of both drink and drugs eventually led to him becoming a bit of a risk on the comedy circuit, though a worthy one at that. Even after giving up, he continued to champion the recreational use of cannabis and mushrooms.
From there he moved to New York and between 1987 and 1992 did an average of 300 shows a year. While his audience share in the US remained modest, in England he became a full-blown phenomenon, selling out 2,000-seater theatres and being filmed for Channel 4. He earned the respect of the major kings of comedy – Letterman, Leno, Dennis Miller, Sam Kinison – earning the name “the comedian’s comedian”. He released two albums, Dangerous (1990) and Relentless (1992), and in 1993 was named a “Hot Stand Up Comic” by Rolling Stone.
Although inarguably funny, Hicks wasn’t one for jokes. His act encompassed his personal view on the world, his rebellion against the “United States of Advertising” where “freedom of expression is guaranteed if you’ve got the money”. In each performance his audience was taken on a ride from cynical to passionate expression, all interjected with a healthy sprinkling of dick jokes. This idea – of the United States of Advertising – reached a whole new level when, in October 1993, his routine was cut completely from The Late Show with David Letterman, allegedly because CBS were afraid of angering a pro-choice group who were showing commercials on the show at the time. In the removed section, Hicks asked that if they were so pro-life, “why not protest around graveyards?” He also questioned the wearing of crucifixes by Catholics and spoke of his idea for a new show, namely, “Lets Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus”.
He also had another aggravation in 1993, when former friend and comedian Denis Leary borrowed large chunks of his material in his album, ironically titled “No Cure for Cancer”. At least three comedians have gone on the record as saying that this was blatant copying, and their friendship ended abruptly as a result.
In June 1993 Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, starting a whole new whirlwind of activity into which he threw himself completely. His pace of touring and writing continued unabated, while he established a network of doctors on the way where he could receive chemotherapy. He was also recording a new album with Kevin Booth, and working on the pilot for a new show.
Before Christmas his health took a turn for the worse. He had to cancel a series of gigs in Caroline’s in New York, and returned to his parents’ house. There he read Huckleberry Finn, said phone-call goodbyes to every friend and lover, declared he had said all there was to say, and stopped speaking. Two weeks later he died.
The very essence of real tragedy in a death comes when someone is lost who hadn’t yet made their full contribution to the world, and there is no question that Hicks had an astonishing amount left to give. He fought against rules, regulations, the status quo and stagnation, and one wonders what his take would be on the world today – post-911, post-Bush II, post-Obama’s appointment, reality television and the real cult of celebrity.
Hick’s legacy however, isn’t forgotten. In a 2005 poll voted on by comedians, Hicks was ranked number thirteen in the Greatest Comedy Acts Ever. A Channel 4 poll placed him at number six. Radiohead’s album The Bends is dedicated to him, as is SPA’s self-titled album. He is mentioned in numerous songs, movies, and on his tenth anniversary was declared in a motion in the British Parliament as being “worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers”