Bill Hicks' Comedian Biography
William Melvin "Bill" Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian.
Comedian Richard Pryor figured as an inspiration and stand-up idol for Hicks, as did Woody Allen who also served as a very early influence for a pre-teen Hicks. Hicks characterized his own performances as "Chomsky with dick jokes".
Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks, and had two elder siblings, Steve and Lynn. The family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey before settling in Houston, Texas when Bill was seven. Hicks has two school-age stories on the Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 album. He said he was raised in the Southern Baptist faith. He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. Worried about Bill's behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17, but the psychoanalyst could find little wrong with him. The therapist apparently joked that Bill's parents would probably benefit more from a few sessions than Bill himself.
In 1978, the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston, and friends Hicks, Slade, John S. and Kevin Booth started performing there. At first, Hicks was unable to drive to venues independently and was so young that he needed a special work permit to perform. He worked his way up to performing once every Tuesday night in the autumn of 1978, while still attending Stratford High School in Houston. He was well received and started developing his improvisational skills, although his act at the time was limited. Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth and Jay Leno reminisce about the Comedy Workshop years in the It's Just A Ride documentary.
In his senior year of high school, the Hicks family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, but after his graduation, in the spring of 1980, Bill moved to Los Angeles, California, and started performing at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, where Andrew Dice Clay, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Garry Shandling were also performing at the time. He briefly attended Los Angeles Community College, mentioning the unhappy experience on Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1. He appeared in a pilot for the sitcom Bulba, before moving back to Houston in 1982. There, he formed the ACE Production Company (Absolute Creative Entertainment), which would later become Sacred Cow Productions, with Kevin Booth, and worked at local Houston comedy clubs like The Comedy Workshop (as did Brett Butler). Hicks also attended the University of Houston for a short time.
In 1983, Hicks began drinking heavily while using a massive regimen of illicit substances, including LSD, psilocybin, cocaine, MDMA, poppy tea, diazepam, Quaaludes and methamphetamine, which may have influenced his increasingly disjointed and angry, at times even misanthropic ranting style on stage. He continued attacking the American dream, hypocritical beliefs, and traditional attitudes. During his first experience with alcohol, Hicks viciously attacked the audience in a drunken rage. Two Vietnam veterans took exception to his statements and sought him out after the show, breaking one of his legs and cracking one of his ribs.
Hicks' success steadily increased (along with his drug use), and in 1984 he got an appearance on the talk show Late Night with David Letterman, which was engineered by Jay Leno. He made an impression on David Letterman and ended up doing eleven more appearances, presenting bowdlerized versions of his stage shows.
In 1986, Hicks found himself broke after spending all his money on various drugs, but his career received another upturn 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 five years he did about 300 performances a year. His reputation suffered from his drug use, however, and in 1988, he claimed to have quit everything, including alcohol. Hicks recounts his quitting of alcohol in the One Night Stand special and on Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1. 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 cigarette smoking, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.
An infamous gig in Chicago during 1989, later released as the bootleg I'm Sorry, Folks, resulted in Hicks screaming possibly his most infamous quote, "Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever" to a heckler shouting "Free Bird" over and over. Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity, suggesting that it was not an anti-Semitic comment but rather an expression of his disgust with humanity in general. Hicks often veered between hope and love for the human race and utter hopelessness. In the same gig, he yelled at a female heckler, calling her a "drunk cunt" and demanding that she be removed: "Take her out! Take her fucking out! Take her to somewhere that's GOOD! Go see fucking Madonna, you fucking idiot piece of shit!"
In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man. The same performance was re-issued seventeen years later, in 2006.
In 1990, he released his first album, Dangerous, did an 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. He was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and continued touring there in 1991. That year, he also returned to the Just for Laughs festival and recorded his second album, Relentless.
Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the Marblehead Johnson album in 1992, the same year he met Colleen McGarr, who was to become his girlfriend and fiancée. In November of that year, he toured the UK. On that tour, he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4 in England and the stand-up performance that would become Live at Oxford Playhouse and Salvation. He was voted "Hot Standup Comic" by Rolling Stone Magazine, and moved to Los Angeles again in early 1993.
The progressive rock band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts for them on their 1993 Lollapalooza appearances, where Hicks once famously asked the audience to look for a contact lens he'd lost. Thousands of people complied. Tool singer Maynard James Keenan so enjoyed this joke that he repeated it on a number of occasions. In 1996, Tool released their album Ænema which contains mentions of Hicks in the liner notes and on record. The track "Aenema" references Hicks's Arizona Bay philosophy and the closing track "Third Eye" contains samples from Hicks's Dangerous and Relentless albums.
Legendary rock/metal outfit Faith No More also quoted Bill Hicks in "Ricochet" from their "King For A Day, Fool For a Lifetime" album, singing "It's always funny until someone gets hurt and then it's just hilarious".
In April 1993, while touring in Australia, he started complaining of pains in his side, and on June 16 of that year, he learned he had pancreatic cancer. 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 (UK) 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.
On October 1st, 1993, Hicks was scheduled to appear on the David Letterman show for the twelfth time, but his entire performance was cut and prevented from broadcast--the only occasion, up to that point, on which a comedian's entire routine had been cut after recording. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a hand-written, 32-page letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker. Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, he never appeared on the show again. The full account of this incident was featured in a New Yorker profile by Lahr. This profile was later published as a chapter in John Lahr's book, Light Fantastic.
Bill played the final show of his career at Caroline's in New York on January 6, 1994. Bill 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, and died in the presence of his parents at 11:20 p.m. on February 26, 1994 of pancreatic cancer. Bill was buried on the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.
The Arizona Bay album, as well as Rant in E-Minor, were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Those two albums were licensed to the label by Bill's mother, Mary Hicks, for the Arizona Bay Production Company. Dangerous and Relentless were also re-released by Rykodisc on the same date.
Hicks, as depicted on inlay of the album Ænima by the band Tool.In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, fellow comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks amongst the "Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever" at #13. Likewise, in "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" (2004), Hicks was ranked at #19.
In March 2007 Channel 4 (UK) ran a poll, "The Top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time," in which Hicks was voted #6.
Devotees of Hicks have incorporated his words, image and attitude into their own creations. Thanks to the technologies which enable audio sampling, fragments of Bill Hicks rants, diatribes, social criticisms and philosophies have found their way into many musical works. His influence on Tool is well documented; he 'appears' on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1996) and on SPA's self titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the British band Radiohead's seminal album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory (and to "Indigo"). The UK band Shack released an album in August 2003 quoting a Bill Hicks routine in the title - Here's Tom With the Weather. The album also included other Bill Hicks quotes in the liner notes.
The movie Human Traffic referred to him as the "late, great Bill Hicks," and showed that the main character, Jip, liked to watch a bit of Hicks's stand-up before going out for a night to "remind me not to take life too seriously". Hicks even appears in the comic book Preacher, in which he is an important influence on the protagonist, Rev. Jesse Custer. His opening voice-over to the 1991 Revelations live show is also quoted in Preacher's last issue.
On February 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled "Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks" (EDM 678 of the 2003-04 session), the text of which was as follows:
That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 32; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.
Posted on Saturday, October 06, 2007
In: Bill Hicks, Famous Male Comedians, American Comedians
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