To say that Bill Hicks was a comedy maverick is an understatement. The American comedy genius,who deliberately motivated outrage in his audiences as much as laughter during his thought provoking stand -up routines and died tragically young of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 years, is as influential now on the world of comedy, as he was during his lifetime.
Bill Hicks was born on the 16th of December 1961,in Valdosta , Georgia. It seems he was always destined to become a stand up comedian as he began to perform skits as a young boy during Sunday School. By 1978, Hicks had, alongside a number of friends, begun to perform regularly at the Comedy Workshop, in Houston, Texas and though he was not fully formed as the provocative comedian he would become, it gave him valuable performing experience.
During the 1980’s a previously teetotal, non drug taking Hicks discovered drinking and hallucinogenic drugs and these pursuits had a profound effect on not only his writing and comedy performances, but also his financial situation. After a few years of indulgence, Hicks gave up drink and drugs but carried on chain-smoking. His brutal jokes about non-smokers would feature as a backbone to his stand-up performances, often proclaiming, Non-smokers think that they wont die, ha!
By the late 1980’s Hicks was penniless yet he encountered a number of career boosts during this period such as appearing on TV for the first time via a young comedians special presented by Rodney Dangerfield and also moving to New York City. In another first, during 1988, he employed a manager, Jack Mondrus. Due to his earlier hedonistic behaviour and volatile performances, Hicks had developed a reputation on the club circuit as difficult and it took much persuasion on the part of Modrus to book gigs.
Despite filming his first video, Sane Man, in 1989, Hicks was finding that performing his brand of confrontational, anti-consumerist comedy in his home country was a struggle. Much of his performances were consumed in open warfare with his audiences who didn’t understand or like his point of view. So without knowing how he would be received, he took his stand-up routine further afield.
Hick’s first foray into international comedy occurred during 1990, at Montreal’s Just for Laughs, comedy festival where he was an instant hit. He also performed in London with a group of up and coming American comedians where once again his comic vision was not only accepted but celebrated. As a consequence, Bill Hicks became one of the biggest comedy stars in Britain.
During the next couple of years, his star continued to rise and performed both musical (the Marble head Johnson, album in 1992) and comedic work which included the album, Relentless and Revelations, a TV special for Britain’s channel 4. He had performed much of his most notable work during these years, including the quintessential Hicks monologue, It’s just a ride.
However greatly Bill Hicks appreciated his international stardom, he still craved being feted within America itself as he felt it was America he wanted to confront with his message. He finally believed that he was going to be presented with the opportunity during October 1993 when he was invited to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. Hicks had been invited to appear on Lettermen’s shows a previous 11 times, however censorship had been a problem and Hicks’ jokes had not stood up once they had been censored. This time he hoped it would be different. Unfortunately , the whole of Hicks’ routine was cut after it was taped, a decision that both Letterman and his producers blamed on the religious content of the material. Hicks was so incensed that he wrote a lengthy letter of complaint to John Lahr of the New Yorker, who included the story in a piece about Bill Hicks.
What no-one outside of his family knew was that by this time, Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was seriously ill. In spite of this devastating diagnosis, Hicks continued to work, recording an album with Kevin Booth called Arizona Bay, a talk show pilot in the U.K. called The Counts of The Netherworld, whilst continuing to tour often joking that each show will be my last. His last actual show was in fact performed in New York ,on January 6th 1994.
After moving back in with his parents, he died on the 26th of February 1994 and the world lost one of its greatest stand up comedians. Bill Hicks’ great skill was to convey passion and anger about the banality and mediocrity of modern life whilst confronting the audience directly. He considered broad philosophical themes and provoked the audience into resisting accepted mores and urged them to have an independent point of view. He is greatly missed.