Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer, but his memory lives on

Bill Hicks was an American stand-up comedian. His routines offered a satirical, and often angry, commentary on social, political and philosophical issues, as well as what he liked to call “dick jokes“. Although Hicks died of pancreatic cancer aged just 32 and only gained real acclaim years afterwards, it is widely felt that he made his stamp on comedy early on and deserves recognition for the continuing relevance of his work.

William Melvin Hicks (commonly known as Bill) was born in 1961 in Georgia. He moved around with his parents and siblings before finally settling in Texas at the age of seven. Hicks was brought up a Baptist and found his interest in comedy at Sunday school, where he performed to other kids. His opinions on religion as a concept which is “no longer relevant“ to us as evolving humans, could perhaps be traced back to his childhood.

The young performer drew inspiration from greats such as Woody Allen and Richard Pryor. In a collection of letters, lyrics and routines entitled Bill Hicks: Love All The People, the comedian talks about how, by the time he was 17, his parents had become so concerned over his behaviour that they took him to see a psychoanalyst, who eventually told him “It’s them, not you“.

At the age of 21, Hicks decided to break out of the contraints of his upbringing and began to experiment with alcohol and drugs. Although these gave him confidence to explore new avenues in his work, he eventually had to quit, realising that the consequences would compromise his ability to perform. Still, the theme of drugs and alcohol features heavily in his stand-up routines and is tied in with his life-long aim to expose the truth, no matter how controversial: “I don’t do drugs anymore, but I want to tell you something. I know it’s not a very popular concept these days, but…I had a great time doing drugs,“ he said at one of his shows.

Hicks was always very open about his disenchantment in politicians (“I hope you know this – I think you do – all governments are lying cocksuckers“) and especially those tied up in religion. In a mock address to televangelist Pat Robertson, he once said: “Go back to Virginia, marry your daughter, and stay out of my life, you Nazi hillbilly fuck!”

An invitation to appear on the David Letterman Show in 1984 should have been Hicks’ big break. However, a “handicap joke“ he often used in clubs did not go down well with NBC producers and his performance was subsequently cut. Another appearance on the show in 1993 was also cut due to concern over Hicks’ “anti-religious“ jokes. The routine was eventually played in full in 2009, when Hicks’ mother Mary appeared as a guest.

In April 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during a tour in Australia. Hicks complained of pains in his side and was told that the cancer had spread to his liver. Despite the diagnosis and weekly chemotherapy, the comedian continued to perform and delivered his last stand-up in New York on January 4 1994. He died at his parents’ home in Arkansas the following month.

Shortly before his death, Hicks wrote a prayer, which he requested to be released as his “last words“ following his death. It concludes: “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.“

Other celebrities who died from pancreatic cancer include opera legend Luciano Pavarotti, jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, actor Patrick Swayze, Bollywood star Nargis Dutt and Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson.

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