Keeping Comic Bill Hicks Alive in Houston

In the second half of his short life, comedian Bill Hicks railed against authority, against hypocrisy, against social injustice. That he tried to do this behind a mike on a stand-up stage,added equal parts edge and poignancy. That he was overcome by alcohol and drug use, got himself straight and then got smacked by a fatal case of pancreatic cancer in 1994, qualified him to pass into legend.

And that and his be-your-self message were why two British filmakers, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas decided to come over to Texas and tell the story of Hicks who started out in Houston's comedy clubs. After three years of work, their film American: The Bill Hicks Story is arriving in 3-D animated form (no less) at Houston's Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks on Friday, April 22.

"Many cultural commentators in the U.S. ascribe Bill as being one of the greats, in the same category as [George] Carlin, [Richard] Pryor and [Lennie] Bruce," Harlock told Art Attack. Due to quirks in his own character as well as the TV networks at the time, Hicks never got the chance to have the same level of success, Harlock said.

Born into a fundamentalist Christian family and the son of a General Motors auto dealer, Hicks grew up in an All American success story setting, according to Harlock. "I think when he looked around and saw the rules being imposed maybe by society he kind of reacted against that."

Hicks entered into a destructive period. "As a kid he made fun of people who drank and smoke and then he got to the age of 18,19, he looked to his heroes -- Keith Richards Keith Moon, the Rolling Stones -- and thought maybe there's something to do with this sort of mind alteration."

By using drugs and alcohol, Hicks was able to become less inhibited, improving his comedy routine -- but after a while he went into a dive, Harlock said. "He was lucky enough to find his way out."

Hicks played a lot of clubs and went on TV, including 12 appearances on Letterman, but it was when he left the country to perform at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal that everyone considers his breakout moment.

"This was an hour and 10 minutes unedited and just kind of blew the socks off in the UK," Harlock said. Suddenly he had fans in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom; he was seen as a major talent. And it's because of that outsider status, Harlock said that he thinks "we were ideally positioned to give him his rightful place in the American cultural timeline."

That hadn't set out to make this an animated film, Harlock said, but it was something that evolved out of Hicks' own archives of photographs and negatives.

Under the heading of what-ifs: Harlock said the one thing that might have been instrumentally different in Hicks' career would have been if he's been alive for the Internet. No censorship. "The Internet has allowed all of us to become our own self broadcasters," Harlock said.

American:The Bill Hicks Story opens at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks by West Oaks Mall on April 22 through April 26. The filmmakers will be present for Q&A's at select screenings, with special appearances and introductions by the other "Texas Outlaw Comics". Call the theater at 281-920-9211 or go to its website at for ticket information.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing