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Requiem for a Sane Man

Exalting maverick comic Bill Hicks 10 years after

By Steve Birmingham, Fri., March 12, 2004

photo courtesy of Kevin Booth
photo courtesy of Kevin Booth

"To me, the comic is the guy who says 'Wait a minute' as the consensus forms. He's the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame – like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are," Bill Hicks declared in an interview with The New Yorker's John Lahr. Whether or not Hindus would accept an incarnation of their god as a black-clad, chain-smoking Texas outlaw whose third eye was squeegeed from psilocybin, Bill Hicks did indeed slay social and political hypocrisy with the lacerating wit of the truly enlightened. "Think of me as Chomsky with dick jokes," was his half-kidding refrain, but it was apt; he was comic entertainer as dissident soothsayer.

Hicks started down this road in high school, when he would sneak out of his suburban Houston home at night and hitch a ride with pal Kevin Booth to the Comedy Workshop to perform with his comedy partner, Dwight Slade. Hicks pursued stand-up with a singular determination. Even after Slade and Booth moved away, and after his father was transferred to Little Rock, leaving Bill behind to finish his senior year in Houston by himself, he remained focused on honing his craft. As a result, Hicks quickly made his comedic mark, in just a few years scoring two HBO specials and 11 appearances on David Letterman's NBC show.

Still, his refusal to play the Hollywood game and blunt his brutalizing rants on taboo topics like the Gulf War, abortion, the Religious Right, the War on Drugs, and pornography kept Hicks relatively unknown to the general public. After all, advocating suicide for anyone in advertising, using the terminally ill as Hollywood stuntmen, pining for positive drug stories on the local news, and envisioning pop stars sucking Satan's cock is not widely viewed as the stuff of must-see commercial TV. On Oct. 1, 1993, Hicks' set for the newly CBS-relocated Letterman show was completely excised from the broadcast (despite being approved twice by standards and practices). "If you're so pro-life, do me a favor: Don't lock arms and block medical clinics. If you're so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries," he cracked, but the corporate brass wasn't tickled. Hicks wasn't laughing either; he was on a mission. Few but his closest loved ones knew that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Less than five months later, Bill Hicks was dead. Though he was only 32 and had been in the public eye for just a few years, Hicks and his blazing satire had a profound impact on the comedy scene and millions of lives. In recognition of the 10th anniversary of his death, the Chronicle asked friends and admirers of Hicks to talk about him, his comedy, and his influence.


I'm often asked, "What do you think Bill would say about (fill in any current issue or crisis here)? My answer is always the same: I don't think about that; I think about all the things we've missed with Bill as a brother, uncle, son, and friend:

– the family Christmases in Austin, accompanying Bill as he walked up and down the Drag, handing out $5 bills to the homeless, wishing each and every one of them a Merry Christmas;

– Bill going into a recording booth at the souvenir store across [from Graceland] and belting out "Suspicious Minds" so loudly that everyone in the store stopped to listen. Clapping for him as he exited, Bill just nodded and said, "Thank you, thank you very much";

– waking my wife, Marty, in the middle of the night at Thanksgiving and asking nicely if the bag that the turkey was cooking in was supposed to be on fire (probably saved us all);

– the hours he spent playing on the floor with my children, Rachel and Ryan, teaching them the secret codes to their video games and just spoiling them rotten in general. Uncle Bill was their hero, and knowing that, he never let them down;

– Bill chastising me for the way I always tore out each page of a book as I read it, "bookmarking" my next starting place, yet finding the last book Bill was reading (can you guess what it was?) beside his bed, with the pages he had read torn out, marking the next starting place he never was able to reach.

Bill was a great comedian, but for me personally, I only realized this after his death, when I could watch his stuff from a distance. On behalf of my family, we are forever grateful for the continued interest in Bill and his work. Although bittersweet, of course, it is truly gratifying to know Bill impacted so many people in this world. Rest in peace, little brother. We miss you.

Steve Hicks


Bill Hicks had an incredible ability to sniff out the b.s. and call things as they were yet still make good comedy. If Bill were around for this Bush administration, his albums would be a box set every year. Bill would've needed an extra set of arms because he'd be pounding so many stakes through the hearts of these vampires. And you really need a guy like that now. It's comedy that can really be effective in a time like this. If Richard Pryor ran for office, he would've been brutalized or assassinated, but under the cloak of comedy you can be really effective. Bill was able to utilize humor to imbue his political message, so you can listen to him all night, laugh your ass off, never get tired of hearing him. I mean, the guy could do a six-hour show and you'd be begging for more. He was able to make the napalm go down with a good dose of sugar.

It really makes you sad that such an original and amazing voice was cut so short where you'd gladly give a year of your life if he could have a longer run. If everyone could shave a year or a few days off, you'd find every Bill Hicks fan would part with a week of his or her life so he could have more years to, you know, check it out.

Henry Rollins
Singer/spoken-word performer


I think the following Bill built up over the years and retains still is due to his passion and his sheer funniness. I always appreciated Bill's craftsmanship, and I don't know that people are aware of what a precise and excellent writer Bill was. He knew about rhythm and timing and wording the jokes exactly right to get the maximum effect. A lot of people might view Bill as just this burst of comic energy that got up on stage and it just happened, but Bill was an excellent craftsman. He knew exactly what he was doing and was a student of comedy. Bill could talk to you about Chaplin or Keaton.

I think some people mislabeled Bill. For all his anger and hard-edged comedy, Bill wasn't a cynic. I don't think it makes you a cynic to recognize the cynicism in others. Bill was an optimist. He had a lot of respect, love, and hope for people. Actually, he was a romantic. What I remember most about Bill are the quiet conversations we would have and the emotional support he would give me and just being a very good friend. He would call a couple of times a day, or I would call him. Every couple of months he'd call me up to go, "Shug, look I know, as a country we all love Elizabeth Taylor, but I forget why. Could you explain it?"

Andy Huggins
Comedian/friend


I can't tell you how often his death hits me. I've never been able to find closure with Bill Hicks because there is too much going on in the world. I miss his analysis. I'd love to be hearing his rants right now. He'd be razor sharp. It's just a huge loss that it's not part of the cultural dialogue. To me, he was clearly the most insightful comedian to the world around him. He was the most in touch in that way, and I never laughed louder or harder. He got you in the gut. The laughs seemed deeper and well earned. He earned it through his wit and his intelligence, then he just drove it deeper in you. And he was digging in himself. He was like a jazz or blues musician who is putting himself out there completely. That's how you felt about his material: "God, this guy is going for it!" He was a lone voice in the total dead zone of the Eighties/early Nineties when the bullshit really started stacking up. And he wasn't playing footsy with corporate sponsors; he went for the jugular.

Richard Linklater
Screenwriter/film director


One night after a show we did at Houston's Comedy Workshop, I offered Bill a ride home to his pad at Houston House, a high-rise downtown. While driving down Westheimer, I asked him, "Why don't you own a car?" He fired back with the Zen response, "If I'm meant to be there, I'll be there." At that moment I realized some people talk philosophy while other people live it, and Bill lived the way he believed. That night was shortly after he had learned he was going to do Letterman for the first time. I told him, "Hey man, congratulations, you'll be rich and famous soon." He looked at me and through me and said, "I have everything I want and everyone that loves me knows who I am."

Bill Hicks at the Branch Davidian Compound, Waco<br>
(photo courtesy of Kevin Booth)
Bill Hicks at the Branch Davidian Compound, Waco
(photo courtesy of Kevin Booth)

Tom Hester
Comedian/friend


By physics, Bill paved the way for people like me. Bill was a very, very special, very unique, and extremely talented, brilliant comedian. I think I'm a pretty good comedian, but I'm not where he is, nor do I pretend to be. And nobody should really because he was extra special – as well as extra crispy; a lot of people don't know that about him. There are a lot of good comics doing political humor, but I don't think anyone is as good as Hicks was. I really can't tell you that many political humorists that are actual stand-ups. More than anybody, Bill was able to fuse the two together so that it became "He's a brilliant, thoughtful stand-up who talks about politics." And he was not merely relegated to this corner where "Oh, he's a political comic." I mean, really, who the fuck wants to see a political comic? I don't. His greatest contribution was that he was inarguably funny whether you agreed with him or not. He did not compromise in any way. He was a pure stand-up comedian, and there aren't that many left these days. I think about his absence a lot, and I do palpably miss him, especially after 9/11. No one has taken his place.

David Cross
Comedian/actor


Bill is one of the finest comedians of the last 20 years because anyone he spoke in front of was forced to think of things in a new way. All the people he performed for (whether they loved him or hated him) were forced to deal with him and to hear another take on the news, culture, and media that it's almost essential they hear. For everyone that responded positively, he may have changed in some small way the way they think about things. For others, he may have inspired them to go into comedy. For those that hated him, he still made them think about things in that certain way for the hour he was on stage, if they didn't walk out of the room. There's not a lot of comics you can say that about, that of all the thousands of people they've appeared in front of, they may have actually changed their lives in some way.

I really miss Bill's voice today with the coup that took place in Florida in 2000 that installed Bush in the White House. Bill would've been at the forefront of the culture war that always results when a right-winger is in office. There's not just the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – not war, sorry, the occupation in Iraq – there's also culture wars that go on when right-wingers get into political office because people have to fight for their civil rights again. Right wingers tend to want to deny civil rights. They don't believe in equality and tolerance. Bill would have been an essential voice right now. I think he would've been one of the leading voices on the left and one of the leading voices for intellectualism and tolerance. I think he would've been very much a part of the fabric of mainstream culture by now in a positive way.

Janeane Garofalo
Comedian/actor


I knew Bill the first time he started to hit the stage as a high schooler. I saw a very funny class clown who would come in prepared and dig into his own personal life and make us all reminisce because we were all older than he was. We were all quite taken with him. The funniest part in the old days was he'd have a great set, then someone would have to drive him home before 10 o'clock so he wouldn't get in trouble with his mom and dad. When he was young, he reminded me of a young tiger. He had these big paws and you'd go, "He's kind of clumsy, but there's something there." Then later on when you saw his work, you realized, okay, he finally grew into his paws. He was one of those guys that I think fell in love with riding the envelope and was one of the few that actually had paper cuts on his tongue. He was a pure stand-up. There was something that glowed from his soul when he was on a microphone.

Besides his life and our days together and his talent, I most respect him for how he handled his moment with death, how he re-bonded with his family and the people that he loved and kept close to his chest and made them come full circle with him and left them with such a beautiful memory of his soul. You can't top that. He was a class act as a person. He handled his end with dignity.

His gift was making people think and laugh. I mean, what a great gift to have at your one shot at life! You get to do this one time, and he decided to put his balls on the line every single night and do something that made him laugh. And fortunately for him and millions of other people, it made them laugh, too. They got lucky.

Carl LaBove
Comedian/friend


In studying Bill Hicks' life, one of the most unusual and fascinating things about him was his sense of purpose, his understanding from a very early age that he was born with a gift and put here with a task to do. He wore that awareness lightly, never in a pretentious way, but it was a constant in his life and something he definitely carried onstage with him every time. People saw him as this brooding cynic (and certainly that was a side of him), but his innate desire to see humanity evolve, as he constantly exhorted audiences, to encourage people to question the "official story," to live up to our collective potential, made even his most angry performance an uplifting, sometimes life-changing, experience. And, of course, he was just an incredibly funny guy. Losing him at 32 was a tragedy for everyone – family, friends, fans – but the way he lived his life was glorious.

Cynthia True
Author, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story


I think on the one hand Bill knew that he was going to leave a big ripple and that he was going to be famous after his death and all that. But then, like any other person, he would have doubts, too. There was another part of him that thought he would die and disappear, and no one would think about him again.

I think deep down inside and spiritually, he knew that he had done the right things with his life. And what he had done wasn't for the fame. His motives for doing what he did and saying what he did and living the way he did weren't for reasons ... he was the exact opposite of Orny Adams, you know what I mean? Bill was never the guy waiting for the phone to ring with a sitcom offer. Although he did talk about being sick of stand-up and all that, he was a man on a mission.

When people hear Nirvana or Bill Hicks for the first time, it's like déjô vu. It's like a thing that was always inside of you being woken up. Hearing Beatles songs or Hendrix or whatever, it puts you in touch with something that has been there forever and wakes that thing up and allows you to see it. A lot of people who don't even know who Bill is don't realize that they're affected by his influence because Bill was a comedian's comedian.

Kevin Booth
Friend/co-conspirator/producer/proprietor of Sacred Cow Productions


United Kingdom Parliament
House of Commons
Early Day Motion (EDM) 678
25.02.04
ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF BILL HICKS

That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33 [sic]; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism, and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.

Mr. Stephen Pound MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Jane Griffiths MP
Paul Holmes MP


I loved Bill Hicks. I found him to be an inspired and inspiring truth teller, dangerous and brave and scary all at once! An original and there will never be another like him – he left us too young!!!!!!!!!

Richard Pryor


SXSW Film Conference 04 will host a panel on The Life and Times of Bill Hicks Tuesday, March 16, 3:30pm, in Room 13B of the Austin Convention Center. For more information, visit www.sxsw.com.
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