Tribute to Bill Hicks
William Melvin 'Bill' Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, and musician. His material largely consisted of general discussions about society, religion, politics, philosophy, and personal issues. Hicks' material was often 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 was 16 years old when he started performing stand-up comedy at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, in 1978. During the 1980s he toured America extensively and performed a number of high profile television appearances. It was in the UK, however, where Hicks first amassed a significant fan base, packing large venues with his 1991 tour.
Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. In the years after his death, his work and legacy achieved acclaim in creative circles. In 2007 he was voted the fourth-greatest stand-up comic on the UK's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups, and appeared again in the updated 2010 list as the fourth-greatest comic.
Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill Hicks was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks and had two elder siblings: sister Lynn and brother Steve. The family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey, before settling in Houston, Texas when Hicks was seven. He was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, where he first began performing as a comedian for other children at Sunday School.
Hicks 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."
Hicks graduated from Stratford High School in Houston and began touring in the early 1980s. After a few years of performing the same material, he felt that his act wasn't progressing. He wanted to push the boundaries of creativity as his idols Jimi Hendrix and Richard Pryor had done. At 21 years old, Hicks had never consumed alcohol, smoked cigarettes, or tried drugs. He began to experiment to see if intoxication was indeed the key to crossing the line.
Once Hicks gained some underground success in night clubs and universities, he quit drinking, realizing that it wasn't alcohol that made a great comic, but his ability to express a truth, even if it was an unpopular one.
However, Hicks continued to smoke cigarettes. His nicotine addiction, love of smoking, and occasional attempts to quit became a recurring theme in his act throughout his later years.
Hicks constantly faced problems with censorship. In 1984, Hicks was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman for the first time. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he caused a serious accident that left a classmate using a wheelchair. NBC had a policy that no handicapped jokes could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as "wheelchair".
On October 1, 1993, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, his 12th appearance on a Letterman late-night show, but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast—then the only occasion where a comedian's entire routine was cut after taping. Hicks' stand-up routine was removed from the show allegedly because Letterman and his producer were nervous about a religious joke ("if Jesus came back he might not want to see so many crosses"). Hicks said he believed it was due to a pro-life commercial aired during a commercial break. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a 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.
Hicks' mother, Mary, appeared on the January 30, 2009 episode of Late Show. Letterman played the routine in its entirety. Letterman took full responsibility for the original censorship and apologized to Mrs. Hicks. Letterman also declared he did not know what he was thinking when he pulled the routine from the original show in 1993, saying, "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that."
Hicks wrote, "On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having 'liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas.'" 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 that any given performance would be his last. The public, however, was unaware of Hicks's condition. Only a few close friends and family members knew of his disease. Hicks performed the 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.
He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died of side effects of his cancer treatment in the presence of his parents at 11:20pm on February 26, 1994. He was 32 years old.
Hicks was buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.
On February 7, 1994, Hicks authored a verse on his perspective, wishes, and thanks of his life, to be released after his death as his "last word", ending with the words: "I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."
R.I.P Bill. See you on the other side my friend!