William Melvin "Bill" Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, and musician. His 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. 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."
Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill Hicks was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks and had two older 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 16 years old when he started performing stand-up comedy at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, in 1978. During the 1980s he toured the United States 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 the significant admiration and acclaim of numerous comedians, writers, actors and musicians alike. In 2007 he was voted the 6th greatest stand-up comic on the UK's Channel 4's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups and again in the updated 2010 list as the 4th greatest stand-up comic.
Hicks was associated with the Texas Outlaw Comics group developed at the Comedy Workshop in Houston in the 1980s. Once Hicks gained some underground success in night clubs and universities, he quit drinking. 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.
In January 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. He fell back to chain-smoking, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.
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.
Hicks quit drinking in 1988, as stated in his 1990 album Dangerous on the first track, entitled "Modern Bummer".
In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man.
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 for Channel 4. 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. Hicks was voted "Hot Standup Comic" by Rolling Stone magazine in 1993. 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 Hicks. 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's Arizona Bay album, in which he contemplates the idea of Los Angeles falling into the Pacific Ocean. Ænima's final track, "Third Eye" contains samples from Hicks's Sane Man and Relentless albums. An alternate version of the Ænima artwork shows a painting of Bill Hicks, calling him "Another Dead Hero," and mentions of Hicks are found both in the liner notes and on the record.
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's 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's 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."
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's 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 taken line for line huge chunks of Bill's act and recorded it."
The friendship ended abruptly as a result.
At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole Hicks's material as well as his persona and attitude. 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, Hicks said, "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." 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.
The controversy surrounding plagiarism is also mentioned in American Scream: Leary was in Montreal hosting the "Nasty Show" at Club Soda, and Colleen 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. The plot thickens." When Leary came offstage, Colleen, more stunned than angry, said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks's material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at her without saying a word, and briskly left the dressing room.
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