Bill Hicks

A Ride

Bill Hicks (1961 – 1994) was an American stand-up comedian whose 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,’ while conceding that his humor was ‘caring.’ His material largely consisted of general discussions about society, religion, politics, philosophy, and personal issues. He was often controversial and his routine was steeped in dark comedy.

In both his stand-up performances and during interviews he 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. In the years after his death, his work and legacy achieved the significant admiration and acclaim of numerous humorists.

Born in Valdosta, Georgia, the Hicks family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey, before settling in Houston 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. 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 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 he 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.

By 1986, Hicks found himself broke, having spent all his money on a variety of substances. His career soon received another upturn, though, 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 5 years, performed about 300 times 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. 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 1990, Hicks released his first album, ‘Dangerous,’ performed on the HBO special ‘One Night Stand,’ and performed at Montreal’s ‘Just for Laughs’ festival. He was also part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in London’s West End in November. Hicks was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to ‘Just for Laughs’ and filmed his second video, ‘Relentless.’ Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the ‘Marble Head Johnson’ album in 1992. During the same year he toured the UK, where he recorded the ‘Revelations’ video. He closed the show with his soon-to become-famous philosophy regarding life, ‘It’s Just a Ride.’ Also in that tour he recorded the stand-up performance released in its entirety on a double CD titled ‘Salvation.’ He moved to Los Angeles in 1992.

The progressive metal band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts in its 1992 Lollapalooza appearances, where Hicks once asked the audience to look for a contact lens he had lost. Thousands of people complied. Members of Tool felt that they and Hicks ‘were resonating similar concepts.’ Intending to raise awareness about Hicks’s material and ideas, Tool dedicated their triple-platinum album Ænima (1996) to him. Both the lenticular casing of the ‘Ænima’ album packaging as well as the chorus of the title track ‘Ænema’ make reference to a sketch from Hicks’ Arizona Bay album, in which he contemplates the idea of Los Angeles falling into the Pacific Ocean. The final final track, ‘Third Eye’ contains samples from Hicks’ ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Relentless’ albums.

Hicks constantly faced problems with censorship. In 1984, he 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.’ In 1993, Hicks was scheduled for 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. 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 a 2009 episode of ‘Late Show.’ Letterman played the routine in its entirety, and 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.’

For many years, Hicks was friends with fellow comedian Denis Leary. But in 1993 Hicks was angered by Leary’s album ‘No Cure for Cancer,’ which featured lines and subject matter similar to Hicks’ routine. According to ‘American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story’ by Cynthia True, 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. 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, he said, ‘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’: ‘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’). 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 Comedy Central 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.’

Hicks’ 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, which he likened to merely conversing with his friends. His 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 (in order to draw attention to the negative slant news organizations give to any story about drugs): ‘Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration—that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.’

Another of Hicks’ most famous quotes was delivered during a gig in Chicago in 1989 (later released as the bootleg ‘I’m Sorry, Folks’). After a heckler repeatedly shouted ‘Free Bird,’ Hicks screamed that ‘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 that 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 assassination 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 Siege. Hicks would end some of his shows, 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 while falling to the ground.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 1993, 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 Arkansas shortly thereafter. He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died in late February; he was 32. He authored a verse on his perspective, wishes, and thanks of his life, to be released after his death as his ‘last word,’ ending with: ‘I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.’

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