23 years ago today, the stand-up comedian Bill Hicks died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was only 32.
I discovered him almost by accident a year ago while surfing some stand-up videos on YouTube. As a result the channel recommended a 2009 Davie Letterman interview with Bill Hick’s mother Mary.
The interview begins and there’s talk about her son Bill who had recorded a routine in 1993 for the show but for various reasons due to its content and potentially angering advertisers, Letterman pulled it and this caused friction between him and Hicks. It was also clear that Bill had died fifteen years earlier but nothing indicating how. Hats off to Mary for so bravely talking about her son and keeping his memory alive.
As a tribute, Letterman finally showed the clip and despite it being recorded sixteen years earlier, so much of what Hicks was talking about rang true. His disdain and savage attack on Billy Ray Cyrus still seemed appropriate considering his career resurgence alongside the rise of his daughter, the then still pristine clean, Miley Cyrus. Going onto other targets such as pro-life people and homophobic hypocrisy, with a dislike for gay men but a support for lesbians tapped into social mindsets that feel relevant today. But what really sold Hicks, was his monotone, dry and well-paced delivery. I was crying with laughter in three short minutes, more than I’ve laughed at whole episodes of modern half an hour sitcoms. It’s no surprise it was banned in the 90’s, but seeing it now, although slightly controversial, it was clearly satirical. Even Letterman said there was nothing wrong with it, a quiet admittance to overreacting back in the day.
It’s hard watching the clip now and knowing that Hicks had only a few months left to life and considering he was going through chemotherapy at the time, he appeared in the spring of health.
YouTube is my saviour and it wasn’t long before I started trawling the archives, and I was hooked. Clip and clip, I consumed every bit of Hicks I could, and soon enough I bought Comedy Dynamics Complete Collection which contained all his DVD’s and CD’s, which I soon started listening to on the train and occasionally laughing too loud, and getting disapproving looks off other passengers. I also read the book Love All the People, taking apart the material in full and also watching the brilliant documentary on his life American: The Bill Hicks Story. All this consumption of his material and details of his life, I soon learnt what a respected and unique stand-up he was and still is.
I don’t want people to read this tribute and feel like I’m paraphrasing. So many articles on Hicks describe his influential and legendary status, labels that are passed around as freely as nits these days, but there are really no other words that best describe him.
His material hasn’t dated with targets such as the sexualisation of advertising, religion, drugs, disdain for consumerism, government conspiracies, war and smoking. To paraphrase other articles, the names are different, but the issues remain.
Hicks is described as a Comedy Philosopher or a Social Critics, often going on tirades that were funny but ultimately thought provoking. Whether discussing death and describing life as just a ride, or how the money on War technology should be used to shoot bananas in the mouths of starving kids in third world countries, was always delivered with humour and elicited a strong reaction off the audience, who would laugh but also applaud this honest and blunt view of the world.
Not everyone would find Hicks there cup of tea. His delivery is much more serious and in some ways crueler than say Richard Pryor. But it’s this serious and almost calculating performance that really gets across that he means what he says and his material comes from a frustrated place.
It’s this passion and necessity for what he says that makes Hick’s death 23 years ago feel so premature; imagine his material on 9/11, political correctness, social media, reality TV, Miley Cyrus, fake news and Donald Trump.
In some respects, his death could have the same distinction as Kurt Cobain; he died a hero, never sold out and a reputation intact. Although apart of me wants to believe the loony internet conspiracies that say he’s now Alex Jones.
Having always wanted to try stand-up comedy, last year a number of significant events both in my life and the world gave me material that at first seemed destined to become scripts. But they just didn’t work and I soon found this urge to tell them as stories, and soon I realised, they were stand-up material. And one of the inspirations was watching Bill Hicks; something spoke to me, both what he was saying and how he said it. Because of this, I’m going to take the stand, and giving stand-up a go.
And that’s why he’s a hero. Considering he died 11 months before I was born, his material not only remains brutally current, but the fact that his work still has the ability to inspire generations who weren’t even alive when he was performing, is a testament to his hard work and passion.
A good trait of stand-up comedian is to be able to recognise something in everyday life that a comic has mentioned in their material. Only yesterday, I was at a Waffle house with a friend and immediately was reminded of a classic Hick joke that I had to tell her.
I could tell you it here, but I think the legend should speak for himself…
Rest in Peace Bill Hicks. And thank you.