Bill Hicks

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Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks at the Laff Stop in Austin, Texas, 1991 (2) cropped.jpg
Hicks at The Laff Stop in 1991
Birth nameWilliam Melvin Hicks
Born(1961-12-16)December 16, 1961
Valdosta, Georgia, U.S.
DiedFebruary 26, 1994(1994-02-26) (aged 32)
Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.
MediumComedian, musician
Years active1978–1994
Genres Dark comedy, political satire, observational comedy
Subject(s)American culture, American politics, current events, pop culture, human sexuality, philosophy, religion, spirituality, recreational drug use, entheogens, conspiracy theories, consumerism

William Melvin Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist and musician. His material—encompassing a wide range of social issues including religion, politics, and philosophy—was controversial and often steeped in dark comedy.

Black comedy Comic work based on subject matter that is generally considered taboo

Black comedy, also known as black humor, dark comedy or gallows humor, is a comic style that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss. Writers and comedians often use it as a tool for exploring vulgar issues, by provoking discomfort and serious thought as well as amusement in their audience. Popular themes of the genre include death and violence, discrimination, disease, and human sexuality.


At the age of 16, while still in high school, Hicks began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas. During the 1980s, he toured the U.S. extensively and made a number of high-profile television appearances, but it was in the UK that he amassed a significant fan base, filling large venues during his 1991 tour. [1] He also achieved some recognition as a guitarist and songwriter.

Comedy Workshop

The Comedy Workshop and the attached Comix Annex was a comedy club in Houston, Texas. It was quite popular in the 1980s and the breeding ground for a group of influential comics, once known as the Texas Outlaw Comics that included Ron Shock, Riley Barber, Bill Hicks, Jimmy Pineapple, Steve Epstein, John Farnetti, Carl LaBove and Andy Huggins. Comedian Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire fame and SNL longtime writer T. Sean Shannon honed their skills as members of the CW competitive dysfunction. In addition, Sam Kinison had his beginnings at the Workshop as well, with it being the location of where his 1993 posthumous comedy album, Live from Hell, was recorded.

Hicks died of pancreatic cancer on February 26, 1994, at the age of 32. In subsequent years, his work gained significant acclaim in creative circles—particularly after a series of posthumous album releases—and he developed a substantial cult following. In 2007, he was No. 6 on Channel 4's list of the "100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics", [2] and rose to No. 4 on the 2010 list. [3] In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 13 on its list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time. [4]

Pancreatic cancer endocrine gland cancer located in the pancreas

Pancreatic cancer arises when cells in the pancreas, a glandular organ behind the stomach, begin to multiply out of control and form a mass. These cancerous cells have the ability to invade other parts of the body. There are a number of types of pancreatic cancer. The most common, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, accounts for about 85% of cases, and the term "pancreatic cancer" is sometimes used to refer only to that type. These adenocarcinomas start within the part of the pancreas which makes digestive enzymes. Several other types of cancer, which collectively represent the majority of the non-adenocarcinomas, can also arise from these cells. One to two percent of cases of pancreatic cancer are neuroendocrine tumors, which arise from the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. These are generally less aggressive than pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Channel 4 British free-to-air television channel

Channel 4 is a British public-service free-to-air television network that began transmission on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the station is now owned and operated by Channel Four Television Corporation, a public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which was established in 1990 and came into operation in 1993. With the conversion of the Wenvoe transmitter group in Wales to digital terrestrial broadcasting on 31 March 2010, Channel 4 became a UK-wide TV channel for the first time.

<i>Rolling Stone</i> American magazine focusing on popular culture, based in New York City

Rolling Stone is an American monthly magazine that focuses on popular culture. It was founded in San Francisco, California in 1967 by Jann Wenner, who is still the magazine's publisher, and the music critic Ralph J. Gleason. It was first known for its musical coverage and for political reporting by Hunter S. Thompson. In the 1990s, the magazine shifted focus to a younger readership interested in youth-oriented television shows, film actors, and popular music. In recent years, it has resumed its traditional mix of content.

Early life

Hicks was born in Valdosta, Georgia, the son of James Melvin "Jim" Hicks (1923–2006) and Mary Reese Hicks. He had an older sister, Lynn, and an older brother, Steve. The family lived in Alabama, Florida, and New Jersey before settling in Houston, Texas when Hicks was seven years old. [5] He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and would write routines with his friend Dwight Slade. At school, he began performing comedy (mostly derivations of Woody Allen material) for his classmates. [6] At home, he would write his own one-liners and slide them under the bedroom door of Steve, the only family member he respected, for critical analysis. Steve told him, "Keep it up. You're really good at this." [7]

Valdosta, Georgia City in Georgia, United States

Valdosta is a city in and the county seat of Lowndes County, located on the southern border of Georgia, United States. As of 2013, Valdosta has a total population of 56,481, and is the 14th largest city in Georgia.

Alabama State of the United States of America

Alabama is a state in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama is the 30th largest by area and the 24th-most populous of the U.S. states. With a total of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of inland waterways, Alabama has among the most of any state.

Florida State of the United States of America

Florida is the southernmost contiguous state in the United States. The state is bordered to the west by the Gulf of Mexico, to the northwest by Alabama, to the north by Georgia, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south by the Straits of Florida. Florida is the 22nd-most extensive, the 3rd-most populous, and the 8th-most densely populated of the U.S. states. Jacksonville is the most populous municipality in the state and the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. The Miami metropolitan area is Florida's most populous urban area. Tallahassee is the state's capital.

Early on, Hicks began to mock his family's Southern Baptist religious beliefs. He joked to the Houston Post in 1987, "We were Yuppie Baptists. We worried about things like, 'If you scratch your neighbor's Subaru, should you leave a note?'" [8] Biographer Cynthia True described a typical argument with his father:

Southern Baptist Convention Baptist denomination in the southern parts of the USA

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a Christian denomination based in the United States. It is the world's largest Baptist denomination, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and the second-largest Christian denomination in the United States, smaller only than the Catholic Church according to self reported membership statistics.

<i>Houston Post</i> former newspaper of Houston, Texas

The Houston Post was a newspaper that had its headquarters in Houston, Texas, United States. In 1995, the newspaper shut down, and its assets were purchased by the Houston Chronicle.

"Yuppie" is a term coined in the early 1980s for a young professional person working in a city.

Hicks did not, however, reject spiritual ideology itself, and throughout his life he sought various alternative methods of experiencing it. Kevin Slade, elder brother of Dwight, introduced him to Transcendental Meditation and other forms of spirituality. Over one Thanksgiving weekend, he took Hicks and Dwight to a Transcendental Meditation residence course in Galveston. [10] Worried about his rebellious behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17. According to Hicks, the analyst took him aside after the first group session and told him, "You can continue coming if you want to, but it's them, not you." [5]

The Transcendental Meditation technique or TM is a form of silent mantra meditation, developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The meditation practice involves the use of a mantra and is practiced for 20 minutes twice per day while sitting with one's eyes closed. It is one of the most-widely practiced, and among the most widely researched meditation techniques, with over 340 peer-reviewed studies published. Beginning in 1965, the Transcendental Meditation technique has been incorporated into schools, universities, corporations, and prison programs in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and India. In 1977, a U.S. federal district court ruled that a curriculum in TM and the Science of Creative Intelligence (SCI) being taught in some New Jersey schools was religious in nature and in violation of the First Amendment. However, the technique has since been included in a number of educational and social programs around the world.

Thanksgiving holiday in North America

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated on various dates in Canada, the United States, some of the Caribbean islands, and Liberia. It began as a day of giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Similarly named festival holidays occur in Germany and Japan. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States, and around the same part of the year in other places. Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday as well.



Hicks was associated with the Texas Outlaw Comics group developed at the Comedy Workshop in Houston in the 1980s. [11] [12]

California and New York

By January 1986, Hicks was using recreational drugs and his financial resources had dwindled. [13] However his career received another upturn in 1987, when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special. [14] The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years performed about 300 times a year. [15] 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. [16]

He eventually fell back to chain smoking, [17] a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on. His nicotine addiction, love of smoking, and occasional attempts to quit became a recurring theme in his act throughout his later years.

In 1988, Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus. [18]

On the track "Modern Bummer" of his 1990 album Dangerous , Hicks says he quit drinking alcohol in 1988.

In 1989, he released his first video, Sane Man; a remastered version with 30 minutes of extra footage was released in 1999. [19]

Early fame

Hicks at the Laff Stop in 1991 Bill Hicks at the Laff Stop in Austin, Texas, 1991.jpg
Hicks at the Laff Stop in 1991

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. [13] 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. [20] 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 collaborating with Houston high school friend Kevin Booth and Austin Texas drummer Pat Brown. During the same year he toured the UK, where he recorded the Revelations video [21] 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.[ citation needed ]

Hicks and Tool

Progressive metal band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts in its 1993 Lollapalooza appearances, where Hicks once asked the audience to look for a contact lens he had lost. Thousands of people complied. [22]

Members of Tool felt that they and Hicks "were resonating similar concepts". [23] Intending to raise awareness about Hicks's material and ideas, Tool dedicated their triple-platinum [24] 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 Dangerous and Relentless albums. [23] [25]

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.

Censorship and aftermath

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."[ citation needed ]

On October 1, 1993, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, where Letterman had recently moved. It was his 12th appearance on a Letterman late-night show, but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast: until that point the only occasion where a comedian's entire routine was cut after taping. [26] Hicks' stand-up routine was removed from the show, Hicks said, because Letterman's producers believed the material, which included jokes involving religion and the anti-abortion movement, was unsuitable for broadcast. [26] Producer Robert Morton initially blamed CBS, which denied responsibility; Morton later conceded it was his decision. [26] Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again. [26] Hicks was undergoing chemotherapy at the time of his final Late Show appearance, unbeknownst to Letterman and most others outside of Hicks' family and died less than four months later. [27]

Letterman finally aired the censored routine in its entirety on January 30, 2009. Hicks' mother, Mary, was present in the studio and appeared on-camera as a guest. Letterman took responsibility for the original decision to remove Hicks' set from the 1993 show. "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill," he said, after the set aired, "because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that". [28] [29]

Influence on Denis Leary

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. [30] 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." [31] The friendship ended abruptly as a result. [32]

At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole Hicks' material as well as his persona and attitude. [33] [34] [35] In an interview, when Hicks was asked why he had quit smoking, he answered, "I just wanted to see if Denis would, too." [36] In another interview, Hicks 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." [37] 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. [38]

The controversy surrounding plagiarism is also mentioned in American Scream:

Material and style

Hicks's performance style was seen as 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. 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):

The American philosopher and ethnomycologist Terence McKenna was a frequent source of Hicks' most controversial psychedelic and philosophical counter-cultural material; he infamously acted out an abridged version of McKenna's "Stoned Ape" model of human evolution as a routine during several of his final shows. [40] [41] [42]

Another of Hicks' most quoted lines 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, "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. [43] [44]

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!" When asked whether there was a "half way" point between audience expectations and his own, he said: "but my way is half-way between, I mean, this is a night-club, and, you know, these are adults, and what do you expect?" [45]

Hicks often discussed popular 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.

Cancer diagnosis

On June 16, 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. [46] He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with 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 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. After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke that any given performance could be his last; the public, however, was unaware of his condition, and only a few close friends and family members knew of the disease. He 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 Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye before he stopped speaking on February 14. [47]


Hicks died from the effects of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, February 26, 1994 in Little Rock at the age of 32. [48] [49] His body was buried in the family grave plot in Magnolia Cemetery, Leakesville, Mississippi. [50]

In early 1995 his family released a brief essay that Hicks had written a week prior to his death:


His albums Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Dangerous and Relentless were re-released simultaneously.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks 13th on their list of "The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever". [51] In "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" (2004), Hicks was ranked 19th. [52] In March 2007, he was voted sixth on Britain's Channel 4 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics, and rose to number four on the 2010 list. [53]

Devotees have incorporated Hicks' words, image, and attitude into their own creations. By means of audio sampling, fragments of his rants, diatribes, social criticisms, and philosophies have found their way into many musical works, such as the live version of Super Furry Animals' "The Man Don't Give a Fuck" and Adam Freeland's "We Want Your Soul". His influence on the band Tool is well documented as he is sampled at the beginning of their song "Third Eye"; he "appears" on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1995) and on SPA's eponymously titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the British band Radiohead's second album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory. [54] American indie rock band Built to Spill's song "Planting Seeds" on its 2009 album There Is No Enemy alludes to Hicks's routine on advertising and marketing, which appears on the performance film Bill Hicks: Revelations. [55] Singer/songwriter Tom Waits listed Rant in E-Minor as one of his 20 most cherished albums of all time. [56]

Comedians who have cited Hicks as an inspiration include Joe Rogan, [57] [58] Dave Attell, [59] Lewis Black, [60] Patton Oswalt, [61] David Cross, [62] Russell Brand, [63] Ron White, [64] Frankie Boyle, [65] and Brendon Burns.

The British actor Chas Early portrayed Hicks in the one-man stage show Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which premiered in 2004. The show was co-written by Chas Early and Richard Hurst, and imagined Hicks's view of the world 10 years after his death.

Hicks is mentioned in the 1999 British film Human Traffic . In the movie, the young and hip club-going protagonist, "Jip" praises Hicks as an alternative thinker, and explains that he needs to get a regular infusion of Hicks's insights. Before leaving his house to start on the movie's main adventure, Jip states: "...first a daily injection of the late prophet Bill Hicks... just to remind me not to take life too seriously." He then watches a clip of one of Hicks's rants about drugs, and how they had never affected him badly. [66] [67]

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 reads:

Hicks appeared in a flashback scene in writer Garth Ennis's Vertigo comic-book series Preacher , in the story "Underworld" in issue No. 31 (Nov. 1997). [69] [70]

Hicks is the subject of at least two tribute songs including "Bill Hicks" released in 2000 by fellow Texan Ed Hamell of Hamell on Trial, and the 2007 “Bill Hicks” by Australian gypsy-blues group Juke Baritone and The Swamp Dogs.

Rock band Clutch mentions Hicks in the song "How to Shake Hands" from their 2018 album, Book of Bad Decisions . "First thing that I'm gonna do is disclose all those U.F.O.s, put Jimi Hendrix on the 20 dollar bill, and Bill Hicks on a five note"

Film and documentary

Annex Houston (1986) [71] was a video of an early stand up performance live in Texas.

Sane Man (1989) [72] is the first officially video recorded Bill Hicks show.

Ninja Bachelor Party (1991) [73] is a 1991 low-budget comedy film produced by and starring Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, and David Johndrow. It is a parody of martial arts movies and was intentionally dubbed improperly.

One Night Stand (1991) [74] is an HBO stand-up series that first aired on February 15, 1989. The half-hour series aired weekly and featured stand-up comedy specials from some of the top performing comedians. The series originally comprised 55 specials over the course of its four years on HBO.

Relentless (1992) [75] was recorded at the Centaur Theatre during the annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Despite the common title, the CD was recorded at a separate performance, after the Just for Laughs festival had closed.

Revelations (1992) [76] is a live performance that Hicks performed at the Dominion Theatre, London in November 1992.

A documentary titled American: The Bill Hicks Story , based on interviews with his family and friends, premiered on March 12, 2010, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. [77]

Russell Crowe announced in 2012 that he would direct a Bill Hicks biopic. [78] Crowe was originally thought to be playing the comedian, but Mark Staufer, the actor's schoolmate and writer on the film, suggested the part is now open for casting. Production was expected to start in 2013, but, as of 2018, no further announcements regarding the film's progress have been made. [79]

On October 28, 2018, it was announced that Richard Linklater is set to direct a biopic about Bill Hicks. [80]



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Daniel Tosh American stand-up comedian and television host

Daniel Dwight Tosh is an American comedian, television host, actor, writer, and executive producer. He is known for his deliberately offensive and controversial style of black comedy, as the host of the Comedy Central television show Tosh.0, and as the star of stand-up comedy tours and specials.


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Further reading