I discovered him after reading John Lahr’s profile in The New Yorker, “The Goat Boy Rises”. It recounts the story of how Hicks was cut after taping his 12th appearance on The David Letterman show in October of 1993. He had 11 appearances on NBC, this was to be his first since Letterman had moved to CBS.
In the article, Hicks tells Lahr some of the jokes he did for the taping (that had been approved by the producers and network sensors). As I read them, I was awestruck at how brilliant the jokes were and how he seemed to hit every atom of humor I had in my body. The jokes were unlike anything I had ever heard (or read, as it would take another three years to find a Hicks CD).
I’ve been traveling a lot lately. I was over in Australia during Easter. It was interesting to note they celebrate Easter the same way we do—commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit . . . left chocolate eggs in the night.
Gee, I wonder why we’re so messed up as a race. You know, I’ve read the Bible. Can’t find the words “bunny” or “chocolate” in the whole book.
It was as near a religious experience as I can fathom.
For whatever reason, a decision was made in between the taping and the actual broadcast to cut the routine out. Unknown to everyone at the time, Bill Hicks had inoperable pancreatic cancer. He was dying. Only his family and a few select friends new about his condition but make no mistake, he knew that was going to be his last television appearance.
He died three months later, February 26, 1994.
Finishing the Lahr article, I quickly became a Bil Hicks disciple and made it my mission to seek out and absorb everything I possibly could. As my awakening predated the Internet revolution, my task was daunting, to say the least.
Eventually, I found a Hicks CD, Rant in E Minor, in Knoxville, TN. To finally be able to listen to a fully realized Bill Hicks album was like finding a 20 dollar bill in your pocket when you’re broke.
Between the record store and my friend’s place I suddenly got nervous. My only real reference point was the Lahr article. I didn’t know anything else by him. What if the album sucked? What if he wasn’t funny? What if I had been wrong?
I wasn’t wrong. It was hysterical. It still is.
Here in the U.S. Bill Hicks was always a comedians comedian, and was never able to translate his tremendous talent to real success here. I’m not going to be that guy who says he was ahead of his time, because I honestly don’t know. I think a statement like that is simply too puerile.
I will say I don’t think the United States was ready for him. We’re probably still not.
Conversely, in the UK, he had a large and rabid following. He would sell out multiple dates in theaters and even had a talk show in development, Counts of the Netherworld, during his last year. Inexplicably, he just couldn’t break through to Americans.
Over the past 20 years, the gospel according to Bill Hicks has spread and his disciples have grown. But with that comes the inevitable backlash. Hicks fans have been called comedy snobs and elitists, telling us to get over it, he wasn’t that great…shit like that. I find most Hicks fans to be protective of his legacy and the people who are behind the backlash are just cynical and jaded twats who are completely missing the message and the humor. Their loss.
His estate, managed by his family, keeps a close and measured eye on the Hicks material that gets released so there’s never been a real threat of Bill Hicks getting over exposed. Thankfully.
It’s hard to explain what makes Bill Hicks so significant to comedy. It wasn’t just that Bill Hicks was a stand-up comedian, he was also a social satirist and philosopher without equal. It was a couple of steps beyond comedy.
Certainly, being dead helps.
His comedy was beyond prescient, if such a thing can possibly exist. Listening to Bill Hicks in the early to mid-aughts I found his jokes, while ten years old, were just as timely and relevant not only because they were good but also because it was literally the same people, Bush (albeit a different one), Rumsfeld, Cheney and Saddam Hussein.
I think it’s interesting how people act on their beliefs. A lot of Christians, for instance, wear crosses around their necks. Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus comes back, he’s really going to want to look at a cross?
Maybe that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet. “I’m not going, Dad. No, they’re still wearing crosses—they totally missed the point. When they start wearing fishes, I might go back again. . . No, I’m not going.
Hicks was a modern Mark Twain…with dick jokes.
Like a sponge over the past 20 years, I have absorbed anything and everything I could find about the man. Going so far in the late 90’s to purchase videos from the UK and have them converted so I could actually see him perform. Fortunately today, for the uninitiated and interested, there are books, CD’s, YouTube, even a full-fledged Bill Hicks documentary!
As a dead comedians comedian, it’s pretty easy to lift or tweak material. And I’m sure that has happened to every comedian, alive or dead, but if someone rips something off, virtually verbatim, there is nothing wrong with calling them out on it (Bill Maher).
There has also been a lot of discussion over the years about whether Denis Leary lifted Hicks material. An argument could be made for some similar jokes about subject matter, but I would never say it was verbatim. Besides, at this point, the subject is moot. Leary has proven to be a gifted producer, writer and actor and that counts for something.
Whether Bill Hicks is a comedic deity or just a tragic hero is a question for which there is no answer. Of this we can be certain, in the comedy Pantheon, Bill Hicks stands with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as one of the most influential comedians in the last 50 years.
I could include a bunch of links to a treasure trove of Bill Hicks material that is available online but I’m gonna be a shitty disciple and not do that. If you’re interested, seek it out. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Besides, it will resonate more if you find it on your own. I promise.
If you clear your mind and open your heart, you’ll discover some of the most insightful commentary from one of the sharpest minds of the 20th century.
Even as I listen to him today, in between the laughter, my heart sinks a little because he’s gone. However, knowing he existed and that there is a record of that for all eternity is enough to make me feel marginally better.
On February 26, 1994 we may have lost Bill Hicks voice, but he’ll never be silenced.
“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide
– Bill Hicks
15 years after he was cut out of that Letterman show in October of 1993, David Letterman invited Bill Hicks mother, Mary Hicks, on to apologize and air the unedited Bill Hicks routine. Whatever Letterman’s reasons for having her on, he took responsibility, and a scolding from Mrs. Hicks. For fans, it was a nice conclusion to actually be able to see it.