Bill Hicks is DeadBill Hicks is dead. Why not begin at the beginning? Oh, I see. Death is the end, you say. Is that right? Well, if he’s dead, it’s certainly implied that at some point he was alive. You can debate whether there’s life after death, but if there’s a death, there must’ve been a life. But no matter how you feel about this argument, Bill Hicks is dead. There’s nothing anyone can do to change that, so I won’t even discuss it. It’s obvious. Dead people get tributes, and this is a tribute to Bill Hicks. And he’s dead.
Bill Hicks was a stand-up comedian from Texas. Does that tell you something you didn’t know? Probably not. Bill Hicks is one of only two performers in my life who has never let me down. And because he’s dead, he never will. I mean, unless it surfaces that Bill was secretly into Jesus and was lying about everything he believed in, which isn’t likely. And even if that was the case, I figure he has done enough to advance the unpopular opinion that religion is a sick, evil fraud that it will immediately nullify any of his secret motives. But I know, and you know, that he meant every motherfucking word, and that’s why I love him.
When I heard he had died, I was really depressed. I mean, I never even knew he was sick. It seemed like the world was very much as Dr. Eldon Tyrell explained it in Blade Runner—the light that burns twice as brightly burns half as long, and Bill Hicks burned so very, very brightly.
He died when he was just thirty-two years old, leaving behind a legacy and a body of work that is both awesome and cautionary. Awesome, because his words and ideas still resonate in my head and in this zine, and as long as I publish, I will be carrying a torch for his ideals. I know his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of thousands of people who were touched by him. His body of work, while certainly not overwhelming, was sufficient to leave a meaningful and enduring personal statement. I would also like to think that his death prodded me to start doing this zine because like Bill, I have a lot of unpopular but heartfelt opinion, and I certainly feel unappreciated. Certainly I’ve felt the sting of institutional rejection and the horror of being shunned by my sellout peers. Certainly we both rejected our parents’ values (my father was a thoughtful and serious Jew, Bill’s folks were likewise devout and well-meaning Christians) and without a doubt, we both dabbled in many different drugs on a regular basis. The difference is that Bill probably died before his best work and I still have a chance to take a different path. But don’t expect either of us on a sitcom or to hawk some shitty discount long distance service like that fucking whore sellout asshole Dennis Miller.
When someone is dead, you’re not supposed to say that you love them. You’re supposed to say that you loved them. That’s bullshit. You can love someone you’ve never met even if they died hundreds of years before you were born. Not in a gooey, romantic way. No one’s ever going to get all moist in the panties over some famous corpse. Well, except maybe some creepy, chubby goth chicks get all hot and bothered over Anton LaVey or maybe Edgar Allen Poe. But those chicks are probably fucked in the head anyway, so they’re not worthy of comparison to the sane, right?
I still love Bill Hicks. Sometimes, when I watch an old video of one of his performances, or listen to one of his CDs, I get sad, and sometimes even a little gooey. Many people who don’t know me but are familiar with this zine like to disparage me by comparing me to people they feel are easily dismissed. It’s like saying to a young girl, “Your opinion means nothing, after all, you like the Backdoor Boys!” That’s not right, and when people try to lump me in with someone else to dismiss me, they do us both a disservice. I love Howard Stern. He’s given me a lot of pleasure and laughs. He acts as a bullshit detector on everyone in the entertainment industry. If they can laugh at themselves, if they can act like a human being, if they can drop the guise of being a famous person, they can allow their true selves out for a moment. But this is not a tribute to Howard Stern. My point is that Howard Stern also loved Bill Hicks. If I am invoking Bill’s name, it’s not for the purposes of gaining credibility or seeming hip. It’s because Bill Hicks meant something very important to me. The fact that he’s dead, before his time, before I got a chance to say thanks, is one of the saddest things in the world.
Bill Hicks was the purest performer who ever lived. It’s one of the many reasons that this tribute is so long in coming. I tried to write it for my first issue, back in the summer of 1997. At the time, I couldn’t get a handle on my emotions. I knew I could not articulate the quiet sadness that sometimes sweeps into my being when I think about him. Do you ever listen to sad songs just to reaffirm that you’re capable of feeling something? I know I do, and I’m considerably less emotional than most. It’s rare to find one person who can make you laugh, think and cry, all in a phrase, all in a moment, all in the pause between words.
I can never say that Bill Hicks would or would not have liked something. I hate when people do that for other people, and please, for fuck’s sake, don’t do it for me when I’m dead and gone. You can’t know, and it’s better that way. Some things endure because there’s an air of mystery. What’s not revealed is as real and as authentic as what is revealed, but the mystery makes it mean more, to me. I don’t know if Bill Hicks would’ve liked my zine. I don’t know if Bill Hicks was really ready for this world and I don’t know that the world was ready for him. I don’t even know if Bill would have wanted a tribute written to him.
Bill Hicks began his stand-up career while still in grade school. From a very young age, his mind was active, fertile, questioning. He worked on short routines and did them in class, to the distraction of the other students. His teacher couldn’t handle the distraction and limited Bill to a few minutes before class each day to do his routine. After a while, one of his teachers realized she’d lost the class and implored Bill’s mother to help her get it back from Bill. Of course, Bill’s mother Mary told the teacher that it was her own fault for giving Bill the opportunity. It was not the first time nor the last time that Bill would attempt to negotiate with authority only to have his attempts undermined. The truer he was to himself and his art, the harder the world made it for him to just be.
Even though Bill never reached the professional promised land, he did often joke about his future sellout. During the last shows he did before he went home to die with his family, he often said that it was going to be his last show. He was officially retiring from stand-up, like so many other stand-up comics he had known. Jay Leno took The Tonight Show, Tim Allen was recycling his tired macho shtick for the amusement of blue-collar dullards throughout the country and of course, Richard Jeni was hawking a situation comedy called Platypus Man, which died a horrible death on one of those new “networks.” [2010 update: Richard Jeni committed suicide with a gun after a long battle with depression. Maybe even he knew he sucked and couldn't take it anymore.] But Bill wanted to tell people about the new show that he was leaving comedy to host, scheduled for the fall line-up on CBS, called, "Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus." It’s a concept so high that the title was the pitch itself. [2010 update: if Bill had only gotten this show, we might not have to hear about Miley Cyrus. Can you imagine that world? I sure can.] When explaining the show to the comedy club audience, he would pucker up his face like a CBS executive, asking incisive questions about what would be on the show. They’d ask Bill’s about his proposed show, “Will there be titty?” But of course, Bill would assure the network executives. Checks would rain down on his head. Then they’d ask, “And what will these titties do?” Then Bill would smile broadly. “Jiggle?” he would wonder aloud, as more checks rained down on his head. “I’m a producer now!” he would say with glee. Anyone concerned that the show might not have a shelf life was reassured by the new, slick, sellout Producer Bill Hicks that there were still many more avenues to explore. How about a Christmas special with Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer? Nowadays I’m sure he’d have organized a Millennium Special featuring Garth Brooks and Celine Dion. I would have watched that show, no matter when it aired. [2010 update: these days I think he'd be calling for the Jonas Brothers and the Twi-hards to be incinerated.]
Though Bill was born in Georgia, his family moved around and ended up in Texas, where he met Dwight Slade. Together, they discovered something in themselves—a love of comedy. According to an excellent GQ article on Bill’s life (there’s a link to it at the end of this story) Bill had a Woody Allen poster on his wall, but it made me wonder, Where the fuck does someone go to get a Woody Allen poster in the 70s in Texas? [2010 update: I was in a pizzeria on the Upper East Side and they had a Woody Allen poster over their closet that was clearly from the 70s, so perhaps it was not that uncommon.] They also watched the Tonight Show and discovered that somewhere in the world there were professionals who got paid to tell jokes, just like the jokes they wrote. It’s like discovering coal in your backyard and then finding out that people will pay good money for coal. Holy shit! No way! Jokes? I make so many jokes I practically shit jokes! And I tell shit jokes!
Together they found an agent, in the Yellow Pages, of course. He got them gigs, including a late-night slot on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Together they blew away adult audiences and groups of their peers. It became a ritual for them to party, perform, enjoy the adulation, and then go back to school. I’ve always felt that Texas represents everything evil and hypocritical about Americans. We talk about conserving energy, but they drive huge, gas-guzzling cars, RVs and monster trucks. We as a country talk about tolerance and forgiveness, but in Texas they drag black dudes behind their trucks until their heads come off. We like to think that we’re more evolved, more informed, and more refined than the religious fanatics holding daily executions in Iraq and Libya. Yet Texas executes more prisoners than every other state, and probably some innocent ones are thrown in for good measure. I hate every fucking thing about Texas, but if Texas weren’t such a disgusting cesspool of undigested beef and Bud Lite–flavored vomit, the world might not have had Bill Hicks. Because it sucks, he had to rise up. Because it was repressive, he had to fight back. Because it wanted to crush him, he had to stand firm.
As a teenager, Bill worked the stand-up circuit around Texas, even though he was too young to get into the clubs where he worked. His friend Kevin Booth said that they had to get a special permit just so they could work. And Bill was a sensation, drawing huge crowds and selling the place out on a regular basis. It wasn’t like one of those shitty, hollow things where some cute dumb kid spews adult jokes and the humor is supposed to be that kids don’t talk that way. He was just funny. Not for a kid, not for a retard with a helmet, not for a Star Search contestant. Just funny.When he was old enough he moved to Houston, even though Texas is no place to get famous, unless you’re a fucking pro wrestler or can drive real fast with a pig on your lap, like some guys I saw on TV last night. I’m sure to some people that’s a sport, but to me it’s just sad. While working there, he met another up-and-coming talent, Sam Kinison. They bonded quickly, but realized that Houston wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. They’d have to move to L.A. or N.Y., and to do that, they’d need money. Sam got together some other comics, including Bill, and billed them as the Texas Outlaw Comics, because Texans are way into faux-rebellion. It was a smashing success, and caught the attention of a guy who worked on the Young Comedian’s Special for HBO. It was, professionally speaking, the beginning of everything.
On Oprah the other day I saw a fat woman crying her heart out. Her daughter had been killed in a car crash at nineteen, but that was more than ten years ago. The mom had abandoned the rest of her family, driven her husband away, all so she could wallow in her grief. That’s the worst thing you can do for a dear, departed friend. Don’t make them haunt you. Don’t be a martyr. Don’t keep asking why they died. It made me think again of Bill Hicks, because the best way to remember Bill is not to fixate on the death, but to celebrate the life.
Early in his career, Bill was working at L.A.’s popular Comedy Store which is owned by Mitzi Shore. Initially hired to do odd jobs and the occasional comedy spot, he worked side by side with Dice, Elayne Boosler (who sucks and ought to have fiberglass splinters embedded in her colon, just underneath the skin) and a few others who’ve gone on to greener pastures. The funniest job he had was picking up Mitzi’s retarded son from school sometimes. Well, he’s not really technically “retarded,” but I think it’s safe to say that Pauly Shore is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.
He didn’t get the HBO special, but he did get Mitzi’s recommendation to do a TV pilot. It never panned out and I guess I could explain why in two words: Lyle Waggoner. If you know who he is, you get it. If you don’t have any clue who the man is, you also understand why he couldn’t carry a show, even with Bill in the cast. You can’t build a show around a talent vacuum.
Bill did reasonably well for a new comic in a big city, but he decided to move back to Houston in 1982. He had a band, he had friends, he had a reputation and he had a home, so he went home. I understand that feeling.
His journey back to Texas also drove him to a greater journey, back to himself. He rejected religion because it was full of such ugly hypocrisy. The safe, warm feeling that religion gives people is just like the safe, warm feeling you get after you pee in your diaper. Sure, it’s a nice feeling not to let go, but the truth is, you’re still sitting in your own piss, and it’s not getting any warmer. He also experimented with new philosophies, sensory deprivation and telepathy. He wanted to know who he was, and what he was doing here. The most important lesson he has to teach you at this moment is, “No one can give you any answers. There aren’t any. You have to discover for yourself—you must learn to navigate the mystery.”
After some time back on the circuit, living in a neighborhood we might euphemistically call “in transition,” he was frustrated that things weren’t going well. He wondered if he was any good, and if he was, whether a life of comedy was worth doing anyway.
According to that GQ piece, Bill wanted to know why the comics he so fervently admired—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin—were into drinking and illicit substances. Up until that point Bill had remained relatively pure, no smokes, liquor or drugs. He went to see a friend of his and declared that he wanted to get drunk. A dozen tequila shots later he was smoking, alert, and suddenly very angry. He seemed to be a man who’d finally been released.
He spent his nights ranting onstage about hypocrisy and religion and war and death and old people and everything he’d ever known was bullshit but had never had the courage to publicly condemn. Audiences were shocked, appalled. They left in droves. Some vets beat him up after he criticized them. His days were spent discovering a whole new universe inside his own head. Each new pill, line, hit and dose brought him closer to finally understanding himself. He tried LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, ecstasy, Quaaludes, Valium, crank, meth (hey, just like me! See “Lost in the K-Hole”)—everything in heroic doses.
As he unleashed his long–dormant demons, his career started to kick into high gear. He finally got a Young Comedian’s Special, then a gig on Late Night With David Letterman! Articles were being written about him and he was starting to get bigger and bigger bookings. But he was also getting further and further away from reality. Every club was another chance to score some drugs, have a party, and keep it all going. He played hundreds of little holes, blasting audiences with a new kind of humor—caustic, almost toxic—that people didn’t know how to react to. He indicted them for their stupidity, their small-mindedness, for their very existence. But it wasn’t making him happy. One night he realized he’d hated what he’d become, a drugged out joke-blower who’d settled for less because it wasn’t as hard.
After wandering around for a while, trying again to find himself, he decided to go to New York City. He got a manager and did hundreds of shows, refining his act, working his craft. All of his life experience had given him more than enough fuel to keep his fires burning. On stage and off he was finally completely focused on what he was doing—thinking for himself.
The first time I ever saw Bill Hicks was on TV, on a stand-up comedy show on A&E. There was something about the menace in his voice that really woke me up. He had such obvious contempt for his fellow man and the fact that he made no attempt to hide it was a revelation. In my own life, I had always displayed contempt for my fellow man and it had helped me to avoid meaningful relationships for most of my adult life. You might think that it sounds bad, but it was what I wanted. I wanted people to like me on my own terms, knowing full well that I might eventually hate them.
After beginning to make a name for himself in NYC, he got more spots on Letterman, then made a video and recorded his first album, Dangerous. From there he got an HBO special, another video, another album and another extended tour throughout the UK. For some reason, his comedy never seemed to take off here in the U.S. But in England, he was recognized on the street, given major comedy awards and played to huge crowds all the time. I’d like to think that it was because the homogenizing forces of the mass media conspired to keep Bill’s dangerous ideas from the masses, but the truth is, in order to get your word out, sometimes you have to compromise. Bill wasn’t interested in compromise because he was on a mission to force uncomfortable truths down the throats of the ignorant. Cigarettes kill. Steak is made from the butchered carcasses of innocent cows. Your parents fucked to make you. Blacks have bigger dicks than whites but make less money and can’t get cabs in NYC. Life sucks and then you die.
Bill was reportedly offered roles in sitcoms and movies, but turned them down. It wasn’t even so much that the work was beneath him or that he was afraid. It seems to me that working on a TV show for a network would engender the kind of compromise that Bill abhorred and the only place he was really free to be his own boss was on the stage of a comedy club. Sometimes I can’t help but speculate, so I’m sorry, Bill.
After that things really started looking up. He was headlining big clubs and festivals, getting his name out there, racking up almost a dozen Letterman appearances and putting out more of his own material. He’d started writing a column for a British magazine while working on a screenplay and his own compromise-free TV pilot. He even began work on two separate comedy albums, which were eventually completed and released on Ryko.
The defining moment of his career came on his twelfth and final appearance on Letterman, which has become legendary. Bill’s act was very edgy, very confrontational, very funny and of course, it wasn’t for everyone. He’d done Letterman many times before, and for this appearance, he was asked to do his act for the show’s producers over the phone so they could clear the material. He killed. He was then asked to do it again live at a rehearsal. Again, he killed. He was brought out to do his set on the show for the live audience, and again, he killed. In an odd coincidence, that show also featured Kathie Lee Gifford and scheduled for the next night was Howard Stern! But something went wrong between the taping and the time the show was supposed to air. Depending on who you believe (the lying corporate whores or Bill Hicks), someone at the show, or the network, or Dave himself, felt that the material was too strong, and for the first time since Elvis had been censored at the same Ed Sullivan Theater, Bill’s entire set was excised from the broadcast and replaced with something toothless. Afterward, Bill wrote letters to his friends in the media and the fact that he had been publicly censored made headlines around the country. Even though Letterman has since claimed that he tried to make things right and have Bill back for another appearance, I think he’s full of shit and I’m almost glad that Dave has to live with the knowledge that he wounded a genius and can never undo the damage.
After the Letterman debacle, Bill continued performing, working on his various projects and making it clear to anyone who would listen that the corporations controlled everything and everyone. If you didn’t believe it, you had only to look at what happened to him. They couldn’t even take a joke. They couldn’t accept anyone saying that there might be another way to do it. There’s an ominous bit that became standard in his act and every time I hear it, I get chills. It goes something like, “Go back to bed, America, your government has figured out how it all transpired. Your government is in control again. Here’s American Gladiators, watch this. Shut up. Here’s fifty-six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together for your entertainment and congratulate yourselves on living in the land of freedom. A land where you’re free... to do as we tell you. Where you are free TO DO AS WE TELL YOU!”
In 1993 Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he knew he didn’t have much longer to live. He moved back home with his parents where he told them that death would be his greatest adventure. As he lost weight and grew weaker, he said his final goodbyes to everyone who meant something to him in his life. Right at the end, according to the GQ story, he stopped talking, saying that he’d said all he had to say. I think the rest of us can only hope that we get to say everything that we want to say before it’s too late. If you’re looking for a moral, you’ll have to find it yourself. All I know is that I love Bill Hicks, and Bill Hicks is still dead. If I were you (and you were smart) I would try to get my hands on some Bill Hicks material and start thinking for myself more often. I’m not going to give you some jive “seize the day” speech because that shit works for a week at best. You live your life the way you want to and I’ll do the same. But make sure that you don’t postpone anything good and you don’t waste your life waiting for other people to make you happy.
As a public service to my readers, I’ve reviewed some Hicks material that I have as part of my living tribute to his memory in the NC3 section of my site. There will be more things added as I get and review them, but regardless, it’s certainly worth your effort to find some Hicks material. There’s also one review below, of “It’s Just a Ride.” If you don’t have web access, send me a dollar and a self-addressed stamped envelope and I’ll print you a copy of my reviews.
It’s Just A RideThis British special is the single most moving documentary/tribute that I’ve ever seen and even after a dozen viewings, it never ceases to make me laugh and break my heart. Mixing new interviews, television appearances and lots of cool stock footage, this special takes a look at the life and career of Bill Hicks. The title comes from one of Bill’s theories that life is just a ride, and if you realize that, you won’t take it as seriously and might just enjoy it.
The interview segments, when taken together, offer a viewer humor, insight, pathos, irony and of course, a long, sweet look at the life of my hero. All of the greats in comedy step forward to stand in awe of Bill’s talent, but there’s no obvious jealousy or bitterness—they all just know he was better. When Richard Jeni says “[Bill] was the type of guy—you’d watch him and you’d kinda feel bad. You’d kinda go, ‘I really should be doing more of this—I really ought to be telling the truth,’” you might miss the irony. He says that comedians, more than any other group, are beholden to no one and have more license to tell the truth than any other group—and most of them waste that opportunity. Of course, this is the same Richard Jeni who did the heinous TV show Platypus Man, and now does voice-over work for Office Max, so when he says wistfully that he ought to be telling the truth more, it’s about as much soul-searching as a soulless asshole like Dick Jeni is capable of.
One of the most wonderful parts features Bill’s folks, who seem like gentle, loving people. Jim Hicks, Bill’s father, recalls discussing profanity with his son and says, “I couldn’t understand why Bill used the F word so much. I said to him, ‘I never hear Bob Hope, or any other well-known comedian using it.’ Of course, Bill didn’t think much of Bob Hope.” Bill’s childhood friends recount early experiences and their shared lives in a way that’s neither maudlin nor sentimental. It’s the best kind of tribute—one that celebrates the life rather than mourns the death. It’s in these moments that I was first able to see beyond Bill’s performer side and really get a glimpse of the man.
Web Bonus Info:Since this was published Bill Hicks has gotten a lot of press. Many people wrote to me after reading this to say that they had never heard of Hicks before and now they loved him. It makes me sad to think that Bill never got the respect he deserved while he was alive, but in death, he's become a counter-culture icon, a rebel who never compromised. A few books have been written, including American Scream, Love All the People, which features Bill's own writing and Agent of Evolution, which was written by Bill's close friend Kevin Booth. A documentary movie about Bill Hicks is due for a 2010 release in the UK, I don't know if it will make it over here, but I am hopeful. There were also rumors that Russel Crowe had purchased the rights to make a movie about Bill and planned to star in it and produce it. I think he's a decent actor, but I just feel like an Australian trying to do Bill's unique delivery will be forced and awkward, but hey, who knows. I thought they would Zack Snyder would butcher the film version of Watchmen and he did pretty faithful version.
In 2010 the movie American: The Bill Hicks Story was released in the UK. It had a few showings and I am hoping it will get a theatrical release here in the US. The movie is a documentary featuring new interviews with his friends, family and fellow comedians. It also uses old footage of Bill in a unique animated style to tell stories from his life. Here's a link if you're interested. http://www.americanthemovie.com/
Web Exclusive BonusSometimes I come across something that I feel should be a part of a story that I wrote but I am not sure how to shoehorn it in. In this case, it was an interview with one of BIll's closest friends, Kevin Booth. Since Bill's passing he has made some films and some music but nothing even close to the level of Bill. Kevin was working on a film on the futility of the war on drugs and he ran into documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Here’s the interesting part of the exchange.
A Bastard: Just to finish, what else have you got planned for Sacred Cow? What other things have you got planned for after the Drug War film is finished?
Kevin Booth: The Drug War film is the main thing on the schedule right now, so I’m not even sure what’s gonna come after that. That’s my main focus. It’s the first real film that I’ve tried to put all my time, energy and money into. It’s almost two years in the making now, we’ve done 70 interviews and travelled all over, so yeah, hopefully it’ll be my first film that’ll be in festivals, and make it into small theaters, get distribution.
AB: Documentaries seem to be the big thing right now, so there’s a lot of potential there.
KB: Yeah, definitely. I hope so. It’d be nice to be in the right place at the right time for once in my life.
AB: The next Michael Moore? But less of an arse, maybe…
KB: Maybe. Speaking of Michael Moore, I actually got to meet with him back in December. One thing that was interesting was that he told me that he feels like he’s channelling Bill Hicks all the time.
AB: I think it’s something a lot of people do feel… Maybe it’s a bit arrogant to say that, but if you’re doing something that is honestly what you believe, that that would be channelling Bill Hicks?
KB: Yeah, definitely.
I have always felt like I was channeling Bill Hicks. Not that well, but that's the vibe I am going for.