As of February 26, comedian Bill Hicks will have been dead 20 years. Houston's favorite son (don't try to deny it) was 32.
Whether he went on to meet his version of Jesus (the guy who doesn't like crosses), descended into the infernal regions (where the Satan-worshipping family down the block with all the good albums ended up), transmuted into pure energy, or is simply moldering in the ground in the Hicks family plot in Mississippi, we'll probably never know. Still, two decades removed from his untimely death from pancreatic cancer, Hicks remains one of the most revered and influential comedians ever.
Just ask Denis Leary.
You probably know the story by now: a teenaged Hicks was performing in Houston clubs even before (barely) graduating from Stratford High School. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, he returned here and honed his act with his fellow "Outlaw Comics" (including Sam Kinison and Ron Shock), getting his big break in 1987 on one of Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Specials. Touring relentlessly, he was a critical if not commercial success for several years before hitting a peak of sorts in 1993, playing larger venues and getting named Rolling Stone's "Hot Stand Up Comic."
That was also the year he was diagnosed with cancer.
The irony of receiving such news just as his career was taking off wasn't lost on Hicks, who continued working even as he underwent chemotherapy. Much of this material made it into his final CD (Rant in E-Minor), which I just listened to again this week. Knowing he recorded it with full knowledge of his impending death makes it that much more powerful, as he chose to rail with one foot in the grave against everyone from parents to pro-lifers.
The latter would become an unfortunate part of his legacy, however. In October, the routine was cut from Late Night with David Letterman, a show he'd appeared on 11 times before (Letterman finally aired it in 2009, you can see it here, complete with Dave's belated apology). This prompted Hicks to write a 39-page letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker, which ended up securing Lahr the green light for his subsequent profile of Hicks. What Lahr didn't know at the time (and he wasn't alone), was that Hicks only had a few months left to live.
Yet even now, Hicks' legend continues to grow. Bands like Tool and Radiohead have cited his influence (and I swear there's a Neko Case song that lifts a riff from Arizona Bay but I can't find it). This is especially fitting, considering his love of music (though it must be pointed out, not all music). Writer Garth Ennis even included a sequence in Preacher where Jesse Custer watches Hicks perform. Through the magic of YouTube and the continuing decent sales of his CDs (Dangerous, Relentless, Arizona Bay, Rant in E-Minor), more people have access to his material than might previously have been expected given his relative lack of fame when he died.
It's a popular exercise -- among folks like myself who like to make ourselves feel bad -- to speculate how famous artists would have responded to events following their deaths. This is doubly the case with Hicks, whose act relied so heavily on the hypocrisy of our elected officials and the ignorance of the public. Would the fact George H.W. Bush's *son* was elected President (twice!) have given him an aneurysm? How outraged would he have been over the 2003 invasion of Iraq (given his views on the first one)? Conversely, would the events of 9/11 have reinvigorated his attacks on the powers that be for using fear to control us? Or might he instead -- inconceivably, I know -- have pulled a Dennis Miller-esque 180 and become a quavering reactionary?
We can guess his reaction to American Idol.
And would he be surprised to see his TV show idea continuing well into the 20-teens (with Let's Hunt and Kill Miley Cyrus)? I suspect not.
We take for granted how much quality stand-up is available for our consumption now, especially considering how shitty things were back in Hicks' era (anyone remember MTV's Half Hour Comedy Hour?) Podcasts and dedicated comedy websites have raised the bar from the days of so many brick walls, and we're currently enjoying an embarrassment of comedy riches: Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Marc Maron, Funny or Die, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, and "The Comedians of Comedy," to name a few, and access to them is just a PPV link or On Demand click away.
But most of these comedians specialize in so-called "observational comedy" or absurdist commentary, and they'd be the first to tell you none of them are doing what Hicks did. The closest approximation might be Doug Stanhope (who coincidentally seems the most likely to die prematurely), but the similarities are mostly related to his mockery of the Drug War, and Stanhope's anti-establishment posturing seems based solely on his anger at no longer being allowed to smoke in bars.
People continue to deify Hicks because he died before he could (potentially) disappoint them. Just like we'll never know if Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin might have co-headlined a Carnival Classic Rock Cruise (brought to you by Cialis), or if Nirvana would've played a Super Bowl halftime, we'll also never see Hicks appear in an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, or reconcile with Jay Leno. And having listened to most of Hicks' material, it's a toss-up as to which outcome would be less likely.
For that reason (and, I suspect, because he was almost as old as Christ when he died), Hicks' fans can be frighteningly worshipful. Funny as "failure pile in a sadness bowl" may be, there aren't a lot of people Photoshopping the word "Prophet" over Patton Oswalt's face, and I can't help but wonder how Hicks might have responded to this idolatry.
I know this is a day early, but I'm actually a little bummed by the lack of commemoration so far. I hope there will be more articles tomorrow, on the actual anniversary of his death. But it's telling that the only announced tributes (including the one where his actual family will be in attendance) are taking place in England, where Hicks' popularity was never tempered by aggravation at him telling us our children aren't special, or consternation over his abortion jokes. And while I don't doubt we'll see a flurry of 140-character tributes tomorrow, for all the lip service given to Hicks' influence and importance as a stand-up, American media outlets and celebrities have been curiously silent to this point.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Even that rumored biopic helmed by Russell Crowe(!) appears to be on hold (I suppose if Noah could wait 4,000 years for his movie, Hicks can hold out for a few more). Rest in peace, Bill. You taught me it was possible to rage against deceit and bigotry without losing hope, and I'm grateful for that.
And also the purple-veined dick jokes.
Sane Man American: The Bill Hicks Story Dangerous Relentless Arizona Bay Rant in E-Minor Bill Hicks' last show - Or so it says, I have no way of confirming this. Much of this material is on Rant in E-Minor.