Bill Hicks was best known as an American stand-up comedian and 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“. He died of pancreatic cancer aged just 32 and only gained real acclaim years afterwards, but it is widely felt that he made his stamp on comedy early on and should be recognised for the continuing relevance of his work.
William Melvin Hicks (commonly known as Bill) was born in 1961 in Georgia. He lived a nomadic childhood, moving from place to place 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 strong 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 worried about his behaviour they took him to see a psychoanalyst who eventually informed him “It’s them, not you“.
At the age of 21, Hicks decided to break from the constraints 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 health and ability to perform. Nevertheless 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 once told his audience.
Hicks was always very open and forward about his distrust of politicians, “I hope you know this – I think you do – all governments are lying c**ksuckers“ but even more-so 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 f**k!”
An invitation to appear on the David Letterman Show in 1984 should have been Hicks’ big break but a “handicap joke“ he regularly used on his tours (which was part of a gag aimed at former smokers and in no way offensive towards wheelchair bound people) didn’t 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 Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer whilst on tour in Australia. He complained of pains in his side and was told that the cancer had spread to his liver. Despite the diagnosis and weekly chemotherapy he continued to perform, delivering 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.“