If comedy bluffers really want to impress their peers, however, they must drop the name of Bill Hicks into the conversation at the earliest opportunity. Hicks is widely regarded as the finest stand-up to emerge from America since Lenny Bruce. He didn’t just make people laugh; he also made them think.
Hicks was born in Georgia in 1961 but moved to Texas at an early age. He was brought up as a member of the Southern Baptist Church but soon started questioning his family’s religious beliefs. His father would say that he believed that the Bible was literally true and the young Hicks would object: ‘You know, some people believe that they’re Napoleon. That’s fine. Beliefs are neat. Cherish them, but don’t share them like they’re the truth.”
For a while he wanted to be a veterinary worker, but then he saw a stand-up performing on TV and resolved to make a living doing the same. When he was still a teenager, he would sneak out of the house at night to do gigs. By the time he was in his early twenties, Hicks was a familiar face as part of a group of comedians known as the Texas Outlaws, usually to be found enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Hicks first toured the UK in 1990 and touched a nerve in England and at the Edinburgh Festival. Most comedians soften their edges as they get successful; Hicks got sharper and angrier. He condemned society, the government, religion, politics and consumerism. He even condemned himself. His damning critique of performers who were involved in advertising campaigns is regularly quoted: ‘If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever.’ A worrying number of comedians didn’t listen – and still don’t.
In October 1993, he was booked to appear on David Letterman’s chat show. The recording seemed to go well and he had been allowed to do a passage about religion and ‘the right to choose’ which was potentially controversial.
Then, when the programme was broadcast later that night, Hicks had been edited out. He was furious. Did Letterman cut it himself? Were the broadcasters leaned on by pro-life advertisers?
In 2009, Letterman finally aired the routine and accepted responsibility for it being dropped.
It was a little late, though. Just over three months after the recording, in February 1994, Hicks died from cancer, aged 32. He hadn’t mentioned that he was terminally ill in the Letterman interview.
Hicks in Quotes:
“I don’t mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but I am, so that’s how it comes out.”
“I never got along with my dad. Kids used to come up to me and say, ‘My dad can beat up your dad.’ I’d say ‘Yeah? When?’”
“I can speak for every guy in this room here tonight. Guys, if you could blow yourselves, ladies, you’d be in this room alone right now. Watching an empty stage.”
“I’m a heavy smoker. I go through two lighters a day.”
“I don’t like anything in the mainstream – and they don’t like me.”
“I loved when Bush came out and said, “We are losing the war against drugs.” You know what that implies? There’s a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it.”
Learn more about Bill Hicks’ angry rants in The Bluffer’s Guide to Stand-up Comedy