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He lived hard and died young, but little about Bill Hicks could be considered cliché. Relatively obscure in America during his lifetime, Hicks still, somehow, became one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever to seize the mic. Raised in the South, he made his name mercilessly lampooning the provincialism and cultural groupthink that informed his native climes. But Hicks would transcend the foul-mouthed "angry comic" shtick, articulating an oft-venomous smashing of sacred icons and institutions like sell-out musicians, religion and patriotism. As articulated in concert videos such as "Sane Man" (1988) and "Revelations" (1993) and posthumous albums Rant in E Minor and Arizona Bay, he saw people deluded into religious and consumerist tribalism by mass media and corporate sponsors. Largely shunned by network television for such ideas, Hicks did make 10 appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and found real celebrity in a less priggish U.K., but his relationship with Letterman would end badly, as the TV host, having jumped to CBS with "Late Show with David Letterman" (1993- ), infamously excised what would have been Hicks' last network appearance from the show. He died...
He lived hard and died young, but little about Bill Hicks could be considered cliché. Relatively obscure in America during his lifetime, Hicks still, somehow, became one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever to seize the mic. Raised in the South, he made his name mercilessly lampooning the provincialism and cultural groupthink that informed his native climes. But Hicks would transcend the foul-mouthed "angry comic" shtick, articulating an oft-venomous smashing of sacred icons and institutions like sell-out musicians, religion and patriotism. As articulated in concert videos such as "Sane Man" (1988) and "Revelations" (1993) and posthumous albums Rant in E Minor and Arizona Bay, he saw people deluded into religious and consumerist tribalism by mass media and corporate sponsors. Largely shunned by network television for such ideas, Hicks did make 10 appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and found real celebrity in a less priggish U.K., but his relationship with Letterman would end badly, as the TV host, having jumped to CBS with "Late Show with David Letterman" (1993- ), infamously excised what would have been Hicks' last network appearance from the show. He died of cancer five months later at just 32 years old. After his passing, a chorus of artists and intellectuals hailed Hicks as once-in-a-generation talent, who pushed his art relentlessly against the envelope of America's sanitized commercial culture. His legacy grew as his struggles to be heard transformed him into a patron saint of iconoclasm and speaking truth to power.
He was born William Melvin Hicks on Dec. 16, 1961 in Valdosta, GA, the youngest of three children of Jim and Mary Hicks. The family moved around frequently in Bill's early years, but settled in suburban Houston, TX when he was seven. Bill developed an inquisitive mind and an independent streak, casting off his parents' Baptist faith at a young age, and instead idolizing bad-boy rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and comedians such as Woody Allen and Richard Pryor. He wangled his way onstage at local comedy clubs in his early teens, becoming a gimmick act, an implausibly poised wunderkind in the rough-and-tumble nightclub world, delivering fairly tame slice-of-life humor. Through their high school years, he and friends Dwight Slade and Kevin Booth would often steal downtown surreptitiously to perform, in 1978 becoming regulars at the new Comedy Workshop. There Hicks met Sam Kinison, whose profanity-riddled iconoclasm and rock-n- roll energy would both make him a national figure and an influence on Hicks. The family relocated to Little Rock, AR in 1979, but Hicks, about to be a senior, received permission to finish school in Houston. On his own, he began doing comedy every night, his grades suffering accordingly. He managed to graduate and, in 1980, moved to Los Angeles to take a shot at the big time. Hicks worked the L.A. clubs, performing with a number of up-and-coming comedians who would soon make it big on TV, among them Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Gary Shandling.
Hicks landed a role in a sitcom pilot for ABC called "Bulba," but the network passed. He and Slade tried and failed to get a movie script off the ground. After two years, Hicks wearied of L.A. and returned to Houston. He and Booth started a production company, Absolute Creative Entertainment (ACE), to do their own music and film projects. Now of-age and fueled by booze, he essayed into a kind of punk-rock comedy, thrilling at popping bubbles of conventional wisdom and lampooning the often closed-minded and hypocritical audiences in the South, on some occasions even fending off assaults by audience members. Hicks and Booth studied Eastern philosophy and experimented with drugs as a means of expanding consciousness. Hicks landed his first TV spot in 1984 on NBC's offbeat "Late Night with David Letterman," impressing sufficiently to be invited back the next year and periodically through his career. He moved to New York in 1987 and continued to tour relentlessly. Though he curtailed his drug use, he smoked heavily on stage, using cigarettes as a prop to rip Americans' illusions of immortality, and testified to "killer times" doing drugs, citing their capacity to assist in his quest for enlightenment.
In 1988, he was chosen as one of 12 comedians for an HBO special, "Comedy's Dirty Dozen," which included Chris Rock and Tim Allen, and he self-released a live-club performance, "Sane Man." Hicks honed an even more distinctive ethos: not just iconoclast, but degenerate bodhisattva attempting to usher people to a harmonic balance with nature and one another, attainable only if they could shed themselves of such distractions as nationalism, religion, propriety, tribalism and corporate-sanitized culture. "To me, the comic is the guy who says 'Wait a minute' as the consensus forms," journalist John Lahr later quoted Hicks as saying in The New Yorker. "He's the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame - like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are." In 1990, Hicks and Rykodisc issued his first album, Dangerous, produced by Booth, and he landed his own HBO special via its "One Night Stand" (1989- ) series. He and Booth's renamed Sacred Cow Productions released a short film, "Ninja Bachelor Party" (1990), an absurdist tale of a downtrodden cough-syrup addict (Booth) attempting to turn his life around by studying martial arts under ninja master Dr. Death (Hicks).
Late in the year, Hicks did a tour in the U.K., where audiences warmed to his act. In 1991, he offered a rare voice of sharp-edged dissent against the Gulf War and the surge of jingoism and media servility that accompanied it, which did little to help him book broader TV showcases. Not so in the U.K., where, with new album Relentless, he toured more extensively, highlighted by a spot at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. He came away with the fest's Critics' Award. In 1992, Hicks met manager Colleen McGarr, and the two began a personal relationship as well as a professional one. He managed to kick booze and cigarettes and continued to make inroads in British culture, appearing on a number of talk shows, penning a column for the magazine Scallywag, and recording a rock show-esque concert film, "Revelations," at London's 2,000-capacity Dominion Theatre. Initially heartened by the election of Bill Clinton in the U.S., Hicks was soon enough embittered by the bloody incident at Waco in April 1993, where federal agents stormed the compound of the Branch Davidian cult. He would work it into his show, along with his disillusion in what he considered a corporate-controlled system.
Fellow comedians and artists by now recognized Hicks as the most kinetic talent in comedy. He opened for the rock band Tool, fronted by Hicks' friend and former L.A. stand-up Maynard James Keenan, on some of their 1993 Lollapalooza fest shows. Other flattery took curious form. Stand-up compatriot Denis Leary, also sporting a chain-smoking bad-boy image and gaining popularity via MTV appearances, expropriated some of Hicks' bits about America's anti-smoking zeitgeist and recorded them on his No Cure for Cancer album. In the ensuing ethics dust-up, Hicks expertly flipped the table. "I stole his act," he said in Austin Comedy News. "I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did." In spring of that year, Hicks began experiencing acute pains on the left side of his torso. He nevertheless set to work on his oddly reserved Channel 4 chat show, "Counts of the Netherworld." But that summer, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He continued to work, intent on leaving a stand-up manifesto, and he and Booth began recording more live shows. Hick underwent chemotherapy and booked his 11th and what he figured would be his final appearance with Letterman, on his new CBS show.
Recording the show on Oct. 1, 1993, Hicks did what are now considered classic bits, sanitized of four-letter words, including routines on the religious significance of the Easter Bunny and how, if "pro-life" groups were really committed to their name, they would link arms and block cemeteries instead of medical clinics. The audience loved it. Letterman reportedly laughed throughout. At his hotel later, Hicks received a call from "Late Show" producer Robert Morton, who said CBS execs had nixed his segment. CBS later insisted that the decision had been made at the producer level, Morton and Letterman, who, in fact, had feared backlash from conservative groups. Hicks aired his outrage in radio interviews and a final TV appearance on an Austin, TX cable show - later released by Sacred Cow as "Bill Hicks: United States of Advertising" - and recounted the incident in a 39-page letter to Lahr, published in his New Yorker story. Hicks wrote that it disrespected not only Hicks but Letterman's audience, bespeaking an engrained institutional fear "that one man free, expressing his own thoughts and point of view, might somehow inspire others to think for themselves and listen to that voice of reason inside them, and then perhaps, one by one we will awaken from this dream of lies and illusions." At the start of 1994, a weakening Hicks moved into his parents' house in Little Rock, where he spent the ensuing month continuing to write, calling friends to say goodbye and re-bonding with his parents. He died on Feb. 26, 1994.
In a documentary released later that year, "It's Just a Ride," a raft of comedians, including Leary and Letterman, lauded Hicks as the comedian's comedian who said what too few had the nerve to say. Tool dedicated its 1996 album Ænima to Hicks, and legions of other artists would render similar tributes in years that followed. Hicks' legend grew with Rykodisc's release of his blazing latter shows on two new albums in 1997, Arizona Bay and Rant in E Minor. On the 10th anniversary of his death, Soft Skull Press printed Love All the People, a compendium of Hicks' stand-up material as well as songs, letters and columns he had written. On Feb. 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound brought a motion before the Parliament, remembering Hicks as a political philosopher. Also that year, Brit actor Chas Early assumed Hicks' persona in a one-man show, "Bill Hicks: Slight Return," which postulated Hicks' appraisal of a post-Sept. 11 world. The show played in London's West End and toured the U.K., Ireland and Australia. On Jan. 31, 2009, Letterman had Hicks' mother on the show for the first-ever airing of the censored 1993 segment. Letterman admitted his culpability in the incident. "I made the decision, I think, born of insecurity more than anything else," he told Mary Hicks. "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's just perfect." In 2010, British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas released "American: The Bill Hicks Story," a biopic featuring interviews with Hicks closest friends, billed as the "story of the outlaw comic who tried to save the world." There were discussions of also giving his life the Hollywood treatment with a big screen biopic.
By Matthew Grimm
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CAST: (feature film)
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