Bill Hicks

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Bill Hicks in Manchester, England. May 1992.

William Melvin Hicks (December 16, 1961February 26, 1994), better known as Bill Hicks was an American stand-up comedian, satirist, and social critic. Hicks is often compared to Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison, and characterized his own performances as "Chomsky with dick jokes." [1]

Early life

Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill was the son of Jim and Mary Hicks, and had two elder siblings, Steve and Lynn. The family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey before settling in Houston, Texas when Bill was seven. Hicks said he was raised in the Southern Baptist faith. He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. His parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17, worried about his behavior, but the psychoanalyst could find little wrong with him. The therapist apparently joked that Bill's parents would probably benefit more from a few sessions than Bill himself.

In 1978, the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston, and Hicks started performing there, working his way up to once every Tuesday night in the autumn of 1978, while still in high school. He was well received, and started developing his improvisational skills, although his act at the time was limited.

1980s

In his senior year of high school, the Hicks family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, but after his graduation, in the spring of 1980, Bill moved to Los Angeles, California, and started performing at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, where Andrew Dice Clay, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Garry Shandling were also performing at the time. He did a short-lived sitcom, Bulba, before moving back to Houston in 1982. There, he formed the ACE Production Company (Absolute Creative Entertainment), which would later become Sacred Cow Productions, with Kevin Booth.

In 1983, Hicks started drinking heavily and using drugs, which may have led to a more disjointed and angry, at times even misanthropic, ranting style on stage. As had become his trademark, he continued attacking the American dream, hypocritical beliefs, and traditional attitudes. At one show, two Vietnam veterans took exception to his statements, and sought him out after the show, breaking his leg. An infamous gig in Chicago during 1989, later released as the bootleg I'm Sorry, Folks, resulted in Hicks calling a drunk, female heckler a "drunk cunt" and, after further provocation, resulted in Hicks screaming possibly his most infamous quote, "Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever".

Hicks' success steadily increased (along with his drug use), and in 1984 he got an appearance on the talkshow Late Night with David Letterman, which was engineered by his friend Jay Leno. He made an impression on David Letterman, and ended up doing eleven more broadcast show appearances, all hugely popular, despite being bowdlerized versions of his stage shows.

In 1986, Hicks found himself broke after spending all his money on various drugs, but his career got another upturn as he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special in 1987. The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years did about 300 performances a year. His reputation suffered from his drug use, however, and in 1988, he quit drugs — including alcohol — falling back to cigarette smoking as his only vice, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on. (On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using psychedelics because "once you've been taken aboard a UFO, it's kind of hard to top that.") In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man, to critical acclaim.

1990s

In 1990, he released his first album, Dangerous, did an HBO special, One Night Stand, and performed at Montreal's Just for laughs festival, and as part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in London's West End in November. He was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland, and continued touring there in 1991. That year, he also returned to the Just for laughs festival, and recorded his second album, Relentless.

Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the Marblehead Johnson album in 1992, the same year he met Colleen McGarr, who was to become his girlfriend and fiancee. In November of that year, he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4 in England. He was voted "Hot Standup Comic" by Rolling Stone Magazine, and moved to Los Angeles again in early 1993.

The progressive metal band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts for them on their 1992 Lollapalooza appearances, and Hicks once famously asked the audience to look for a contact lens he'd lost. Thousands of people complied. [2] Tool singer Maynard James Keenan so enjoyed this joke he repeated it on a number of occasions.

In April of 1993, while touring in Australia, he started complaining of pains in his side, and in the middle of June of that year, he learned he had pancreatic cancer. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new sitcom, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and storyboard 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. He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring, and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Kevin Booth.

On October 1, he was to appear on the David Letterman show for the twelfth time, but his appearance was cancelled somewhat controversially. At the time, Hicks was doing a routine about pro-life organizations, where he encouraged them to lock arms and block cemeteries instead of medical clinics, but his routine was cut from the show. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility for the cut, but the reason appeared obvious to many during the following week's Letterman show when a commercial for a pro-life organization was aired. For many fans, this reinforced one of Bill's recurring themes, that America was being sanitized and manipulated in the name of corporate sponsorship.

He played his final show in New York on January 6, 1994, and moved back to his parents' house in Little Rock shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye before he stopped speaking on February 14, and at 11:20 PM, on February 26, he died - he was 32 years old. Bill was buried on the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.

The Arizona Bay album, as well as the album considered his best, Rant in E-Minor, were released posthumously in 1997 by his friend Kevin Booth.

Quotes by Hicks

"Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine (LSD), I'm on the pavement thinking about the government (quoting Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues). My life in the fucking nutshell."

"I ascribe to Mark Twain's theory that the last person who should be President is the one who wants it the most. The one who should be picked is the one who should be dragged, kicking and screaming into the White House."

"I'm sorry if any of you are catholic. [beat] I'm not sorry if you're offended, I'm actually just sorry by the fact that you're catholic."

On the theft of his material by Denis Leary: "I have a scoop for you. I stole his act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did."

"How much do you smoke a day, dude? Pack and a half? You little puss...Why don't you just put the fuckin' skirt on, and swish around for us? 'Pack and a half, I smoke a pack and a half..' I go through two lighters a day, dude."

"I love going to the movies. So I'm watching Terminator 2 and I'm thinking 'you know what? There is no way that you will ever be able to top these special effects in a movie again, you cannot top this shit.' Unless we started using terminally ill stunt people in the motion picture industry." [beat] "...bear with me"

"I hate patriotism...I can't stand it. It's a round world last time I checked."

At his final show: "This is the material, by the way, that has kept me virtually anonymous in America for the past 15 years. Gee, I wonder why we're hated the world over? Look at these fat Americans in the front row - 'Why doesn't he just hit fruit with a hammer?' Folks, I could have done that, walked around being a millionaire and franchising myself but no, I had to have this weird thing about trying to illuminate the collective unconscious and help humanity. Fucking moron."

Legacy

Bill Hicks' influence has been far reaching ;

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Hicks was voted amongst the top 20 (at #13) 'Greatest Comedy Acts Ever' by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

In the "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time" (2004), Hicks was ranked amongst the top 20 (at #19).

Hicks also appeared in the comic book Preacher_(comics), in which he was shown to be an important influence on Rev. Jesse Custer, the book's protagonist.

The American band Tool called him "another dead hero" in the inlay of their album Ænima, accompanied by a drawing of the man himself and a dedication. The songs "Ænema" and "Third Eye" are based on his philosophy. While "Ænema"'s lyric "learn to swim, I'll see you down in Arizona Bay", was inspired by Hicks' distaste for Los Angeles, the latter contains samples of his comedy. They also thanked him on their album Undertow, which led to Tool's singer Maynard James Keenan becoming friends with him.

The UK rap-metal band One Minute Silence named two of their songs, "It's Just A Ride" and "If I Can Change" after some of Hicks' work; the former was taken from a video monologue in which Hicks asserted that life is "just a ride", accompanied by video images of a rollercoaster ride. This monologue also inspired Welsh singer/songwriter Jem's tribute "Just A Ride" and was used in The Kleptones song "Last Words (A Tribute)".

British Band The Bluetones named their EP Marblehead Johnson after the band that is comprised of Bill Hicks, Pat Brown, Kevin Booth and Curt Booth. The song "Chicks Dig Jerks", with Hicks on vocals, is billed as Marblehead Johnson and appears on Relentless and Rant In E-Minor. A collection of songs was available on CD but is currently out of print.

Pitchshifter and Adam Freeland have both sampled the same portion of Hicks' stand-up: "You are free... to do as we tell you."

British band Radiohead's seminal 1995 album The Bends was "dedicated to the late bill hicks." (sic)

Welsh band Super Furry Animals sampled Hicks proclaiming "all governments are liars and murderers" on their live version of "The Man Don't Give A Fuck". Their song "God! Show Me Magic" is about Hicks.

Fila Brazillia also sampled a part of Hicks' act regarding marketers & advertisers (similar to the one on his Arizona Bay album) in their song "6 Ft. Wasp" off of their album Maim That Tune. Fila Brazillia also dedicated that album "to the memory of Bill Hicks".

The movie Human Traffic referred to him as the "late, great Bill Hicks," and showed that the main character, Jip, liked to watch a bit of Hicks' stand-up before going out for a night to "remind me what it's all about".

In 1998, on the fourth anniversary of his death, FOX aired Simpsons episode "The Last Temptation of Krust" with Krusty performing an homage to him with two Hicks evangelists, Janeane Garofalo and Jay Leno.

Discography

Audio

Video

Comprises the documentary It's Just A Ride and a live performance, Revelations
  • Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand Up Comedian (DVD, 2004)
Comprises One Night Stand, Relentless, It's Just A Ride and Revelations

Further reading

  • American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story, by Cynthia True ISBN 0-283-06353-X
  • Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, by Bill Hicks, Foreword by John Lahr ISBN 1-84119-878-1 (UK edition, February 2004)
  • Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, by Bill Hicks, Foreword by John Lahr ISBN 1-932360-65-4 (US edition, November 2004)
  • Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution, by Kevin Booth, Michael Bertin ISBN 0007198299 (UK edition, March 2005)
  • Comedian As Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, by Will Kaufman ISBN 0814326579
  • American Rebels, by Jack Newfield ISBN 1560255439
  • One Consciousness: An Analysis of Bill Hicks' Comedy, by Paul Outhwaite ISBN 0-9537461-3-5 (3rd edition, revised and enlarged) (available only in UK)

External links

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