A lot of features and articles point out that Bill Hicks passed away young. Tragically young, at only 32. That’s younger than I am now. What a lot of them don’t point out is the fundamental way he managed to single-handedly change the world of stand-up comedy within his brief time on Earth.
Born in 1961 to James and Mary, the family were to settle in Texas, where Bill found a love of comedy through impersonating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, before he began performing his own material while studying. Initially seeking the opinions of his brother, he was encouraged to keep up his newfound hobby. And boy, are we thankful he did.
Initially finding himself in hot water for skits that took the rise out of the Baptist religion, Hicks became involved with a comedy group called the Texas Outlaw Comics in the 1980s, before appearing on Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘Young Comedians Special’ in 1987, before racking up a huge number of one-man shows in New York. Around this time, his first HBO appearance on ‘One Night Stand’ aired in February 1989, and his full-length special ‘Sane Man’ was released. Included here, both are excellent examples of the type of material that would get Hicks noticed and regarded as one of the finest young comedians in the country (the world?), including how booze and fags are more dangerous than pot and his ruthless assessment of children who commit suicide after hearing supposedly Satanic records. ‘Sane Man’ shows the extent to which he could go, and if there was ever one point that could even be remotely regarded as a negative, it is that some may feel Hicks goes too far with his ideas and theories, and his internal filter is very much turned off. Is this a problem? Only for those who take life (and themselves) far too seriously. For the most part, there’s a hell of a lot of truth in what Hicks feels and says, something a lot of us can relate to, even if they feel they can't rant and rave about it to their own friends and loved ones.
After a trip to the UK and Ireland, where audiences more than appreciated his wry sense of humour, he recorded his second video release ‘Relentless’. Here, he perhaps shows more of himself, his true persona – that’s if his comedy routine alter ego was all that different from who he was at home anyway. Seeing him hone his craft over the performances in this boxset, it’s an odd visual: whilst often being candid and never afraid of what people thought of him and his ideals, he is in danger at times of being confrontational; sneering, sarcastic and full of scorn, but always falls on the right side of the tracks, often with some genius self-deprecating humour (such as admitting he is winning his fight against smoking by cutting down to ‘three lighters a day’).
During a 1992 tour of the UK, his ‘Revelations’ routine was recorded, and this has gone on to become one of his most-loved videos, possibly because it would prove to be the last we’d see of Bill recorded for posterity. Entering like some long-lost gunslinger here to tell us the ways of the world, he honestly came across as someone here to right wrongs rather than earn himself a wage. As ever, he’s against a certain section of society: the US invasion of Iraq, where the troops are sent to fight the “twelve-foot tall desert warriors” of ‘The Elite Republican Guard’, those in the marketing profession, who are politely invited to kill themselves immediately, and sell-out corporate rock stars advertising soft drinks (his theory that MC Hammer’s dancing style originating from him being pumped full of Satan’s semen is particularly hilarious).
He went on to appear on TV on shows such as the ‘Late Show with David Letterman’, where his entire routine was removed from broadcast after being deemed “unsuitable” (seriously, did the censors even know who Bill was or what his material was like?).
Although Bill was friends with another fellow American comedian, Denis Leary (who has gone on to make a name for himself in film and TV), the pair fell out in 1993 over the alleged theft of Hicks’ material on Leary’s album ‘No Cure for Cancer’, including sketches about smoking and drugs. To add fuel to the fire, Hicks claimed he had only quit smoking ‘to see if Denis would, too’ and claiming ‘I have a scoop [for you]. I stole his act, camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did.’ It’s a sad state of affairs, with the pair never reconciling. This was partly due to Hicks’ 1993 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which he received treatment for while still touring, performing, and recording his album ‘Arizona Bay’. Unaware of his decline in health, fans were often told that Bill’s current performance could be his last, and only a select few family and friends were made aware. Hicks’ last live show was in January 1994, after which he moved to stay with his parents in Arkansas, before the illness deprived him of his voice. He passed away shortly afterwards.
Rounding off the package is the superb ‘It’s Just a Ride’ – named after Bill’s personal philosophy, the attitude that we shouldn’t worry about life and let it take us where it will, is heartfelt, hilarious, informative and a great tribute to one of the shining diamonds in the comedy world. It’s an oft-repeated cliché, but there were very few like Bill, who could merge not only laugh-out loud, piss-yourself comedy with an actual MESSAGE – something important that we all need to remember, and to help us realise where the injustices are in the world.
One of the saddest things is being deprived of Bill's unique sense of humour and what he made of his surroundings. It would have been amazing to hear what he made of the 9/11 terrorism attacks, of social media, Facebook, selfies and file-sharing, of the Obama administration, of the continued fight against gun crime in the States. So many topics we'll never hear a vexed Bill, ranting in sheer anger about. We'll sure miss that.
Part of the joy of Bill’s performances were his conversational tone, the relaxed feel of being in front of people. It never felt like Bill was reciting a set of rehearsed jokes at you, but was venting – getting things off his chest that really got to him. His legacy lives on in polls that consistently place him at the top of lists of Greatest Comedy Acts and Stand Up Comedians of All Time, and in the hearts and minds of fans and fellow comics who owe so much to his spot-on savaging of government, corporate America and the news. And now, with this collection of his work, we can all enjoy those moments whenever we want to, whether we're 'sucking on Satan's pecker' or not...
This 3 DVD Box Set is available to pre-order below and will be released on November 23rd, an ideal Christmas gift for any fan of quality comedy.
by Pete Muscutt