Bill Hicks has been widely regarded as one of the finest stand-up comedians ever to grace a microphone. He was a savage critic of mass media, global corporations, religion and the hypocrisy of modern life. His influence on the stand-up genre continues today, several years after his early death. This article seeks to introduce the reader to Bill Hicks.
William Melvin Hicks was born on 16 December, 1961 and grew up in Houston, Texas. His parents were Baptists and he grew up in a strict moralistic household. At school his desire to perform was such that one of his teachers took to giving him a few minutes at the beginning of class - on the condition that he returned control afterwards. By 15, he was sneaking out to the Houston Comedy Workshops. Very soon after, he was the headline act. At 18 he became a full-time touring comedian.
He spent much of the 1980s in a continuous cycle of drink, drugs and gigging with a group called the Texas Outlaws. His material began to empty theatres, and on one occasion he had his leg broken by some disgruntled punters. He started to get a reputation as a bad gig.
Toward the end of the 1980s Hicks gave up drink and drugs, although he never renounced them, and began gigging relentlessly. He was performing well over 250 shows a year and began to get himself noticed. He performed 11 times for David Letterman's Late Show, with his twelfth appearance being controversially dumped. There was an HBO TV Special, rave reviews at Montreal's 'Just for Laughs' festival, and in 1991 he won the Critics' Award at the Edinburgh Festival.
In 1992 Hicks had a hugely successful tour of Britain which climaxed in two sell-out nights at London's Dominion Theatre. One of these was broadcast by Channel Four, entitled Revelations.
Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1993 and subsequently died at his parents' home on 26 February, 1994. He was 32.
The Letterman Controversy
Hicks' final appearance on David Letterman's show was controversially dumped. The seven-minute set, containing attacks on pro-lifers and Christians, was approved prior to the show, and by all accounts was a hit with the audience. Letterman himself is reported to have complimented Hicks on his performance. It was not until later that the segment was cut in its entirety. Neither the network nor the show's producers admitted responsibility for the decision, although commentators have made much of the fact that the commercial breaks carried a Pro-Life advert. Hicks himself felt betrayed, and wrote a 32-page letter of complaint. Later, Letterman expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled. Unfortunately Hicks was dead by that time, and never heard Letterman's sentiments.
Quite a number of performers have been influenced by Hicks, although not all admit it. The comedian Denis Leary has long been thought to have plagiarised Hicks. Hicks claimed, however, that in fact he had stolen Leary's work and said '...to fool everyone, I did it first...')
The American metal band Tool used samples of Hicks' voice on their album Aenima, and displayed a picture of him entitled Another Dead Hero. The British band Radiohead, among others, carried a dedication to him on one of their albums.
Who influenced Bill Hicks? He has often been compared to Lenny Bruce because of their anti-establishment stances, but Hicks wasn't familiar with Bruce's work. He cited Richard Pryor as his early influence, and would tell Pryor's jokes in his childhood performances. He credited Pryor with teaching him about body language and timing. It is likely that Sam Kinison, one of the Texas Outlaws and a former preacher, also influenced the young Bill Hicks.
The Humour and World View of Bill Hicks
This Entry will try and attempt to explain Bill's humour in the context of his world view. This Researcher (and a whole bunch of others) thinks that Bill Hicks was utterly brilliant. Not only was he gut-bustingly funny, at the same time he presented a literate and stimulating point of view which remains absolutely inspirational and valid today. The following blocked quotes are direct quotes from the man himself.
Bill on His Home
Bill Hicks had a love-hate relationship with the American South, where he was brought up:
In many parts of our troubled world, people are yelling 'Revolution!'. In Tennessee they're yelling 'Evolution! We want our thumbs!'
He hated the white-trash trailer park culture that suppresses human potential and breeds prejudice and intolerance.
Bill on Music
Bill positively loathed corporate manufactured pop. The idea that pop stars could endorse products was, to him, the exact opposite of what pop music was about. It should be about rebellion and creativity. He expounded a theory that there was a positive link between drug use and musical creativity. Consider the drugged up rock greats - Hendrix, Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Now consider the modern day pop artists. Who made the better music1? Some of Bill's harshest language was reserved for these people. He said that they gave oral sex to Satan, sacrificing their dignity and integrity to become corporate puppets. He felt it immoral that idols should be created solely in order to sell products to children.
Bill on Television
Bill maintained that the medium of television has been hijacked simply as a means of keeping the populace quiet and selling them products:
So there, we have figured out, go back to bed America, your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed America, your government is in control again. Here, here's American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up! Go back to bed America, here's American Gladiators. Here's 56 channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their f****** skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America - you are free, to do as we tell you. You are free, to do as we tell you.
He exhorted people working in advertising to kill themselves, in order to save their souls from the damage they've done to the world. He slated any celebrity who took money for making TV commercials as whores at a capitalist gang-bang. In one memorable routine, he acts the role of Jesus in a Miller commercial:
I was crucified, buried for three days, then raised from the dead. I've waited two thousand years to return to Earth. It's Miller Time!
Another time, he described the ultimate advert - a slow camera zoom out, revealing a naked masturbating woman. And the caption? 'Drink Coke'. The point being that companies were blatantly using sex in adverts to sell products, and would only become more graphic over time. Bill also pointed out that this fell within the United States Supreme Court's definition of pornography.
Bill on Pornography
Bill loved pornography. He talked of having nightmares of dying and then his mother clearing his apartment only to find the porno collection. He'd be the only person in Heaven getting his butt kicked by his mum. He was also scathing of the cuts made by TV censors in porn films. He couldn't understand why adults can't see these things for themselves. Then he'd reasonably point out that the plot and dialogue alone weren't sufficient to sustain any interest in these films. As stated earlier, he would point out the absurd double-standard that exists between censoring porn and then using sex as a marketing aid in TV adverts.
Bill on Drugs
Bill maintained that the natural hallucinogens (cannabis and mushrooms) were placed on Earth by God to help humanity's evolution. He couldn't understand those fundamentalist Christians who believed that parts of God's creation were inherently evil. He also railed against the hypocrisy that bans cannabis while keeping alcohol and tobacco legal, and highlighted the coincidence that the bad drugs are also the untaxed ones. He always said that whatever substances a person wished to ingest was a matter of personal choice, not government prohibition.
Bill on War
Bill took the view that America took most of the responsibility for arming the world, and was a bully for subsequently beating countries up. Having explained this, he would re-enact a scene from the film 'Shane', where the bad guy would force an innocent shepherd to pick up a revolver from the floor, and then shoot him. 'You all saw - he had a gun.'
Bill commented that the Gulf War was taken out of all proportion. Just where were the Elite Republican Guard, anyway?
Bill on Christians
It's fair to say that Bill hated the modern church. He would point out the potential conflict when the nuclear button was controlled by fundamentalist Christians who literally believe in the 'fire and brimstone' events written in the book of Revelation. He would question the practice of wearing crosses, suggesting that the last thing Jesus would want to see was a cross.
Bill on Freedom of Speech
Bill was a libertarian. Period. Freedom of Speech was an absolute to him. Any kind of censorship was tantamount to Fascism. The Letterman episode appalled him because he felt that the money of Pro-Lifers enforced his silence, and coined the term 'The United States of Advertising'. He used a specific incident to illustrate this - there was a mass hysteria about the illegal practice of burning the US flag. Bill contended that the freedom signified by the flag included the freedom to burn the flag.
Hey, buddy! My daddy died for that flag! Really? I bought mine. They sell 'em in K-Mart...
Bill on Children
Many people talk of the miracle of childbirth. Bill said it was a simple chemical reaction, no different from eating food then taking a dump. The real miracle, he'd say, was having a child that would stay quiet in the cinema. He was heavily critical of irresponsible parenting, wondering why, if it was such a miracle, any moron on the planet could 'drop a batch of mewling cabbages' at any time. Bill was similarly scathing about pro-life activists. He thought it more of a crime to bring unwanted children into the world than to abort them.
Bill Hicks was a thoughtful, literate man, passionate about his beliefs and about waking people from the slumber he saw they were in. Many of those who knew him call him more preacher than comedian, and those close to him say that he wanted to be like Jesus - Jesus at his angriest, throwing money lenders out of the Temple and exposing lies. It's only fitting that Bill should have the last word...
Here is my final point. About drugs, about alcohol, about pornography and smoking and everything else. What business is it of yours what I do, read, buy, see, say, think, who I f***, what I take into my body - as long as I do not harm another human being on this planet! I'm not scary. I'm basically just a joke-blower. That's basically all I am, a joke-blower on the back of some Mexican gardener, blowing jokes all over the driveway, a fairly harmless guy, believer in love and truth, anti-war, believer in the values under which this country was originally founded: Freedom of f****** expression.
And for those of you out there who are having a little moral dilemma in your head about this, I'll answer it for you. It's none of your f****** business! Take that to the bank, cash it, and take it on a f****** vacation out of everybody's life.'