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William Melvin "Bill" Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was a seminal Americanmarker stand-up comedian and social critic. His humor challenged mainstream beliefs, aiming to "enlighten people to think for themselves." Hicks used a ribald approach to express his material, describing himself as "Chomsky with dick jokes." His jokes included general discussions about society, religion, politics, philosophy and personal issues. Hicks' material was often deliberately controversial and steeped in dark comedy. In both his stand-up performances, and during interviews, he often criticized consumerism, superficiality, mediocrity and banality within the media and popular culture, describing them as oppressive tools of the ruling class, meant to "keep people stupid and apathetic." Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32.

Early life

Born in Valdosta, Georgiamarker, Bill Hicks was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks, and had two elder siblings, Steve and Lynn. The family lived in Floridamarker, Alabamamarker and New Jerseymarker, before settling in Houston, Texasmarker, when Hicks was seven. He was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, where he first began performing as a comedian to other children at Sunday School.

He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. Worried about his behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17 but according to Hicks, after one session the psychoanalyst informed him that "...it's them, not you."

In 1978, Hicks, along with friends Slade, Ben Dunn, John S. and Kevin Booth, began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston. At first, Hicks was unable to drive to venues independently and was so young that he needed a special work permit to perform. By the autumn of 1978 he had worked his way up to performing once every Tuesday night, while still attending Stratford High Schoolmarker. He was well-received and started developing his improvisational skills, although his act at the time was limited.

California and New York

In 1986, Hicks found himself broke, but his career received another upturn as he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special, in 1987. The same year, he moved to New York Citymarker, and for the next five years he did about 300 performances a year. On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using drugs because "once you've been taken aboard a UFO, it's kind of hard to top that", although in his performances, he continued to extol the virtues of LSD, marijuana, and psychedelic mushrooms. He fell back to chain-smoking, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.

In 1988 Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus. Throughout 1989, Mondrus worked to convince many clubs to book Hicks, promising that the wild drug- and alcohol-induced behavior was behind him. Among the club managers hiring the newly sober Hicks was Colleen McGarr, who would become his girlfriend and fiancée in later years.

In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man. It was reissued in 2006.

Early fame

In 1990, Hicks released his first album, Dangerous, performed on the HBO special One Night Stand, and performed at Montrealmarker's Just for Laughs festival. He was also part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in Londonmarker's West Endmarker in November. Hicks was a huge hit in the UKmarker and Irelandmarker and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to the Just for Laughs festival and recorded his second album, Relentless.

Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the eponymous Marble Head Johnson album in 1992. In November, he toured the UK, where he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4. He closed the show with "It's Just a Ride", one of his most famous and life-affirming philosophies. Also in that tour he recorded the stand-up performance released in its entirety on a double CD titled Salvation. Hicks was voted "Hot Standup Comic" by Rolling Stone, and moved to Los Angeles in early 1993.

The progressive metal band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts for them on their 1993 Lollapalooza appearances, where Hicks once famously asked the audience to look for a contact lens he'd lost. Thousands of people complied. Tool singer Maynard James Keenan so enjoyed this joke that he repeated it on a number of occasions. Keenan, who worked as a comedian in Los Angeles prior to Tool, met and befriended Hicks through mutual friends and performing at the same venues. In 1996, Tool released their album Ænima which contains mentions of Hicks in the liner notes and on record. The track "Ænema" references Hicks' Arizona Bay philosophy and the closing track "Third Eye" contains samples from Hicks's Dangerous and Relentless albums.

Censorship and aftermath

On October 1, 1993, about five months before his death, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, his twelfth appearance on a Letterman late night show (his prior 11 appearances having been on Late Night with David Letterman), but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast — the only occasion, up to that point, in which a comedian's entire routine had been cut after taping. Hicks' stand-up routine was removed from the show allegedly because Letterman and his producer were nervous about Hicks' religious jokes. Hicks did appear on a late night public access show stating his belief that it was due to a pro-life commercial that had been aired during the commercial break, being the reason for his act being canned. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a hand-written, 39-page letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker. Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again. The full account of this incident was featured in a New Yorker profile by Lahr. This profile was later published as a chapter in John Lahr's book, Light Fantastic.

An episode of The Larry Sanders Show (Season 2, Episode 14 "The Performing Artist"), featuring Tim Miller, apparently was based on Hicks' final appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. In that episode Larry cuts Tim's act from the show for being too daring, later to be publicly scolded by Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr. It was aired August 25, 1994.

Hicks' mother, Mary, appeared on the January 30, 2009, episode of Late Show. Letterman played Hicks' routine in its entirety. Letterman took full responsibility for the original censorship and apologized to Mrs. Hicks, who had accepted his invitation to be a guest on the show. Letterman also declared he did not know what he had been thinking when he pulled the routine from the original show in 1993. Letterman said, "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with it."

Cancer diagnosis and death

In April 1993, while touring in Australia, Hicks started complaining of pains in his side, and on June 16 of that year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Kevin Booth. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new talk show, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and concept had been approved, and a pilot was filmed. The Counts of the Netherworld pilot was shown at the various Tenth Anniversary Tribute Night events around the world on February 26, 2004.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke openly at performances exclaiming it would be his last. Hicks performed the actual final show of his career at Caroline's in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents' house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye, before he stopped speaking on February 14, and re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died of cancer in the presence of his parents at 11:20 p.m. on February 26, 1994. Hicks was buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippimarker.

Comic style

Bill Hicks's style was a play on his audience's emotions. He expressed anger, disgust and apathy while addressing the audience in a casual and personal manner, often making eye contact with individual audience members in smaller venues.

Hicks' material was less focused on the everyday banalities of life and placed greater emphasis on philosophical themes of existence. He would invite his audiences to challenge authority and the existential nature of "accepted truth." One such message, which he often used in his shows, was delivered in the style of a news report:

One of Hicks' most famous quotes was delivered during a gig in Chicagomarker in 1989 (later released as the bootleg I'm Sorry, Folks). After a heckler repeatedly shouted "Free Bird", Hicks screamed "Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever." Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity.

Much of Hicks' routine involved direct attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics and consumerism. Asked in a BBC interview why he cannot do a routine that appeals "to everyone", he said that such an act was impossible. He responded by repeating a comment an audience member once made to him, "We don't come to comedy to think!", to which he replied, "Gee! Where do you go to think? I'll meet you there!" In the same interview, he also said: "My way is half-way between: this is a night-club, and these are adults."

Hicks often discussed conspiracy theories in his performances, most notably the assassinationmarker of President John F. Kennedy. He mocked the Warren Report and the official version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a "lone nut assassin." He also questioned the guilt of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco Siegemarker.

Hicks would end some of his shows — and especially those being recorded in front of larger audiences as albums — with a mock "assassination" of himself on stage, making gunshot sound effects into the microphone and falling to the ground.

Hicks and Denis Leary

For many years, Hicks was friends with fellow comedian Denis Leary. However, in 1993, Hicks was angered upon hearing Leary's album No Cure for Cancer. While he had laughed off similarities between the two comedians before, the parallels between the album and Hicks' material (including jokes about smoking, Jim Fixx, and Judas Priest) and tone were clear. Reportedly, upon hearing the album, "Bill was furious. All these years, aside from the occasional jibe, he had pretty much shrugged off Leary's lifting. Comedians borrowed, stole stuff and even bought bits from one another. Milton Berle and Robin Williams were famous for it. This was different. Leary had, practically line for line, taken huge chunks of Bill's act and recorded it."

The friendship ended abruptly as a result. At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole Hicks' material as well as his persona and attitude. In an interview, when Hicks was asked why he had quit smoking, he answered, "I just wanted to see if Denis would, too." In another interview, Hicks famously told an interviewer: "I have a scoop for you. I stole his [Leary's] act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did."

The controversy surrounding plagiarism is also mentioned in American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story, by Cynthia True:

Leary was in Montreal hosting the "Nasty Show" at Club Soda, and Colleen [McGarr?] was coordinating the talent so she stood backstage and overheard Leary doing material incredibly similar to old Hicks riffs, including his perennial Jim Fixx joke: ("Keith Richards outlived Jim Fixx, the runner and health nut dude. The plot thickens."). When Leary came offstage, Colleen, more stunned than angry, said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks' material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at her without saying a word and briskly left the dressing room.

During a 2003 roast of Denis Leary, comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes backstage from Bill Hicks with the message, "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." This joke was cut from the final broadcast.

In a 2008 interview, Leary said "It wouldn’t have been an issue, I think, if Bill had lived. It’s just that people look at a tragedy and they look at that circumstance and they go, oh, this must be how we can explain this."

Legacy

Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Dangerous and Relentless were also re-released by Rykodisc on the same date.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, fellow comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks #13 on their list of "The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever". Likewise, in "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" (2004), Hicks was ranked at #19. In March 2007, Channel 4 ran a poll, "The Top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time," in which Hicks was voted #6.

Devotees of Hicks have incorporated his words, image and attitude into their own creations. Because of audio sampling, fragments of Hicks' rants, diatribes, social criticisms and philosophies have found their way into many musical works, such as the live version of Super Furry Animals' "Man Don't Give A Fuck". His influence on Tool is well documented; he "appears" on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1996) and on SPA's self titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the Britishmarker band Radiohead's second album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory. The UK band Shack released an album in August 2003 quoting a Bill Hicks routine in the title: Here's Tom With the Weather. The album also included other Bill Hicks quotes in the liner notes. English breakbeat artist Adam Freeland sampled Revelations for his track "We Want Your Soul." Welshmarker punk rock band Mclusky reference a Hicks routine in the lyrics to their song "To Hell With Good Intentions". Punk cabaret musician Amanda Palmer says, "I have my new Bill Hicks CD" in the song "Another Year" on her 2008 album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The Swedishmarker indie pop singer/songwriter Jens Lekman has written a song called "People who Hate People Come Together" after the same Hicks quote. The last track of The Kleptones album Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots, Last Words (A Tribute), includes his "It's just a ride" in its entirety.

The British movie Human Traffic referred to him as the "late prophet Bill Hicks," and portrays the main character, Jip, watching Hicks' stand-up before going out to "remind me not to take life too seriously". Hicks even appears in the comic book Preacher, in which he is an important influence on the protagonist, Rev. Jesse Custer. His opening voice-over to the 1991 Revelations live show is also quoted in Preacher's last issue.

The British actor Chas Early portrayed Hicks in the one-man stage show Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which premiered in 2005.

On February 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled "Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks" (EDM 678 of the 2003-04 session), the text of which was as follows:

The Bill Hicks Foundation for Wildlife Rehabilitation, dedicated to Hicks in tribute to his love of animals, rescues and rehabilitates injured wildlife in the Texas Hill Country.

Rappers Adil Omar and Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks have also cited Hicks as an influence to their work, and comedian David Cross has stated that he was inspired by Hicks.

Film and documentary

A film about Hicks' life and career, rumored to be directed by Ron Howard, is said to be in pre-production. Russell Crowe has been mentioned as one of the producers and may portray Hicks as well.

A documentary entitled 'American: The Bill Hicks Story' based on interviews with his family and friends is in post-production and will be released in 2010.

Discography

Notes

Further reading



External links




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