Death of a Comic

Bill Hicks, the comedian who in the 1980s helped make Houston the breeding ground for some of the most acerbic and important humor in America, always had a skinny-boy figure with a little white-trash potbelly. That's probably why, when he stood up in front of a room packed with one-time Texas comics last November 17 in Los Angeles, it didn't seem particularly alarming that he looked less slim than just plain scrawny. Hicks, coming off the notoriety of having been censored out of David Letterman's Late Show (the first comic so honored since Letterman's move to CBS), was showcasing the wit that had made him a star in England and a cult figure in the United States. His thinness he dismissed as the result of a new vegetarian diet. But a bare three months later, on February 27, the truth behind his weight loss was revealed when Hicks, 32, died at his parents' home in Little Rock, a victim of pancreatic cancer.

The passing of Bill Hicks is more than the loss of the most significant comic figure to come out of Houston in long memory. It's also, in many ways, the end of an era in Houston comedy. Hicks was a central figure in what was billed as the Texas Outlaw Comics, a group of standup comedians who made Houston their home base in the '80s. Probably the best-known of this group was Sam Kinison. But according to many comics then and now, the most influential, the most astounding, and the most flat-out funny was Bill Hicks.

At first glance, it might have seemed that the "outlaw" tag stuck to Hicks because of his penchant for performing while dressed in black, the outlaw's color. (In England he'd play to the cowboy concept by wearing a rifleman's coat and a Stetson.) But even a cursory listen to his material made it clear that the outlaw identification had more to do with what Hicks said than how he looked. That he never made it beyond the level of cult figure and other comics' favorite is attributed by some to the fact that he flatly refused to compromise. What was important to Hicks was that he make people think, that he make them face things they weren't necessarily ready to hear. A mercurial actor, Hicks had an endless repertoire of characters. In an instant he could become his dad, John Lennon, Manny the porno rental clerk or Debbie Gibson. And it would all be done with a sympathetic spin.

"Comedy," he said, "is not only the last bastion of free speech, but also the last place you can see honest emotions. But I also believe that comics are supposed to be great levelers of the mob. Even if everyone gathered around a comic -- or even me -- I'd deflate them. Because the ultimate lesson is to be an individual."

Most of Hicks' work was in the transient forum of stand-up performances in comedy clubs. But he also starred in two well-received HBO specials and recorded a trio of comedy albums -- Dangerous, Relentless and Arizona Bay. He also wrote, directed and performed in a truly strange piece of video, Ninja Bachelor Party, best described as a karate opera about a cough-syrup addict's search for truth.

Hicks spent his life performing, starting at age 13, when he'd sneak out of his parents' suburban home and bike to Houston nightclubs to take a go at stand-up. By the time he was in his twenties he was a national success and his mom and dad were fans -- occasionally alarmed by the profanity and anger in his material -- but fans.

Although his parents retired to Little Rock and Hicks' career took him to Los Angeles and New York, he always considered Houston -- "a conglomeration of everyone in the world trying to make a swamp city work" -- his home. "Houston people are just more intense and honest and to the point," he'd say, adding that the critical problem with this individualist's city was "that inferiority complex that every city has except New York and L.A." But "Houston deserves its mediocrity because it refuses to recognize its greatness."

Hicks' description of the city fits him too -- a weird collage of facets, intense and honest. Lean and dark-haired, eyes glowing with maniacal intent, he created a stand-up act known for its searing honesty. Even when lampooning the most trite items of current culture, Hicks dove headlong into his soul and emerged with some transcendental truth made funny.

Old Houston fans may recall Hicks' epic set about Charlie Hodge, a scenario drawn from a live Elvis album. On the album, Elvis can be heard saying, "I'd like to thank Charlie Hodge, bringing me scarves and water." From that aside, Hicks built a solid half-hour about ambition, toadying and fame. Articulate, athletic and graphic, Hicks, who always referred to his audience as the perfect and holy children of God, was "Charlie Hodge, in little white panties dancing like a monkey," the bloated, jaded King and himself, Bill Hicks, commenting on this act.

Robert Barber, who began with Hicks during the Texas Outlaw days at the Comedy Workshop, describes their ethic and Hicks' contributions: "The rule of comedy is get laughs, that's the first one. But, don't sacrifice the dignity of yourself or anyone else -- unless you have to, to get laughs. That's mostly a joke but in a sense it's fairly accurate, I mean, there's funny and then there's funny in the way Bill was funny, which is a step beyond what most mortals can do. Everybody is always talking about how hip and how intellectual and how spiritual Bill was. But, when it came down to it, Bill could get laughs better than any human being I've seen."

At his November show in Los Angeles, Hicks gave a jolt to the audience by opening with the statement that this was his last stand-up performance ever. But when he failed to follow up on the remark, some took it as just another joke. Later, according to longtime friend and fellow Houston comic James Pineapple, Hicks discussed his silence by saying he didn't want to "waste [his] healing energy consoling people" and also that he didn't want to be known as "the comic who beat cancer."

Given that he didn't beat the cancer, that doesn't seem likely to be a problem. More likely, he will be recalled in the way Pineapple recalls him: as a comic who "had it all, performance skills, delivery, timing, rhythm, a vivid imagination and intelligence." Or, as Pineapple puts it more simply, "the finest comic of our generation."

Amy Martin contributed additional research for this story.

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