Since his death in 1994 Bill Hicks has become more than just a stand up comedian. He has become a legend. Opening in cinemas this week, American: The Bill Hicks Story looks back at the life of this talented comedian.

Bill Hicks wanted to challenge people through his material and his shows. He wanted to make people think for themselves. While his material was only sometimes grossly indecent, it was always indelicate. Hicks was ribald, critical and at times, controversial, but he was also funny, insightful and optimistic.
Bill was drawn to comedy from an early age. He loved Johnny Carson and Woody Allen’s stand up work and used to write routines with his friend Dwight Slade. When he graduated high school, Hicks began to tour, but after a few years, felt stagnated and stuck in a rut. This is when Hicks began to experiment with drink and drugs. Being intoxicated did, indeed, loosen his tongue, as he hoped it would, but Hicks eventually had to stop using to allow his act to progress further. Thus coming full circle.

Hicks finally found fame at the beginning of the 1990s. He had been touring for many years, playing “what I call my UFO Tour, which means, like UFOs, I too have been appearing in small southern towns in front of a handful of hillbillies…” He had appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special in 1987 and in the five years after he moved to New York in 1986 he did about 300 shows a year. The hard work finally paid off.
Hicks’ first DVD – Sane Man – was released in 1989, the album Dangerous was released in the following year. Hicks was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and toured here throughout 1991 and 1992. The Revelations video for Channel Four was recorded during this time, as was the double CD, Salvation.
Nothing was sacred to Bill Hicks. He described himself as ‘Chomsky with dick jokes’ and his routines frequently included commentary on society, politics, religion and philosophy. Hicks also criticised consumerism, famously saying in the gig that later became the Revelations DVD;

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising… Kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers.”

Hicks constantly challenged his audiences and tried to get them to question what they were told. When he performed at Igby’s in LA in November 1993, Hicks famously said; “Folks, it’s time to evolve. That’s why we’re troubled. You know why our institutions are failing us, the church, the state, everything’s failing? It’s because, um – they’re no longer relevant. We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs. You do know that, right? There’s another 90 percent of our brains that we have to illuminate”.

One area that he was famously outspoken was politics, and Hicks constantly lampooned the US’s involvement with the first Iraq war. A routine that many people believed was still current and accurate at the time of the second US invasion of Iraq, 9 years after Hicks’s death.

Hicks was no stranger to controversy and censorship. The most famous incident of Hicks running into opposition was on what would have been his twelfth appearance with Letterman on a late night TV show. Hick’s performance, in its entirety, was removed from the broadcast after it was filmed. This was, allegedly, due to the producer’s fears about Hicks’ religious jokes. The routine was finally shown in 2009, when Bill’s mother Mary appeared on the Letterman show. Letterman took full responsibility for the original censorship and apologised to Mary Hicks saying “It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with it”.

It wasn’t all politics and evolution, however, many of Hicks’s jokes were borne out of his habit as a chain smoker and his struggle to give up, as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Bill Hicks also had a long relationship with the metal band Tool – he opened for them at several of their Lollapalooza appearances. This is where Hicks famously asked the audience to look for a contact lens that he had dropped. Lead singer Maynard James Keenan repeated the joke at several other appearances. Tool also dedicated their 1996 album Ænima to Hicks in order to raise awareness about his material and ideas.

In 1993, Bill Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. He continued to work and, at every performance, joked that it would be his last. His actual last show was at Caroline’s in New York in January 1994. Hicks moved home to be with his parents in Little Rock, Arkansas. He called his friends to say goodbye before he stopped talking on February 14th. Hicks also re-read JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and played music he loved for his parents.

Bill Hicks died at the age of 32 on February 26th 1994.

Since his death, Hicks’ work has been acclaimed. Hicks he was described as the fourth greatest stand up comedian of all time in a 2010 list released by Channel 4. Several recordings have been released posthumously and devotees of Hicks have incorporated his work into their own. The line “I have my new Bill Hicks CD” appears in musician Amanda Palmer’s song Another Year and he is referred to as “The Late Prophet Bill Hicks” in the film Human Traffic.

There is little doubt that Bill Hicks has had a massive impact on popular culture today, both directly through his own work and the enjoyment audiences still get from his CDs and DVDs, as well as the influence he has had on many other artists. Comedians David Cross and Russell Brand have both cited Hicks as an influence and Hicks appears as a character in the comic book, Preacher. In 2004, the day before the 10th anniversary of Bill Hicks’s death, British MP Stephen Pound tabled a motion titled ‘Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks’, which officially noted the anniversary of Hicks’s death and described him as worthy of ‘inclusion with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers’. It is through this kind of recognition that Bill Hicks, and his work, live on.

It’s just a ride. The poignant closing to Bill Hicks’ Revelations DVD

Words – Brogen Hayes

AMERICAN – The Bill Hicks Story opens in Irish cinemas on May 14th