BY JONATHAN VALANIA It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Tiffany sold a lot of records. When New Coke vs Old Coke embodied the national debate on aesthetics. When Jim and Tammy Faye still had their biblical theme park and the prospect of catching Jimmy Swaggart with a hooker was about as likely as anyone uttering the words “President Mondale.” It was a time when the two-headed hydra of Reagan-Bush zombified a nation with fiscal sleight of hand and don’t-worry-be-happy hypnosis, all the while secretly feeding the voracious appetite of the military-industrial complex with tender morsels torn from the mouths of welfare queens and passing out backdoor keys to the Savings and Loans to the marauding twin pirates of greed and over-speculation. Ahhhh, the ’80s. It was a sick time. The anti-dote—though few could be convinced to take the cure—was comedian Bill Hicks.
While his colleagues were busy hawking Doritos and or moistening the sphincter of Hollywood with their all-too-eager tongues in the hopes of landing a walk-on in Police Academy 17, Hicks was working the blue rooms on the highways and byways, the c-list small town circuit of comedy exile. Night after night he would deliver hellfire comedic sermons, smiting the demons of TV-fed ignorance, institutional corruption and the repression of personal liberty with transcendental wit, brutal satire and a healthy smattering of dick jokes.
His act was a car bomb parked in front of the Ministry of Disinformation. A middle finger up the ass of hypocrisy. He was punk as fuck, and I’m not sure he knew or cared much about punk rock. As we all know, stickin’ it to The Man is a job that rarely pays well and for his troubles, he died in 1994, poor and relatively unknown, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32. Without Bill Hicks, this black comedy we call life is a bit more dark and a good deal less funny.
Raised in the buckle of the bible belt, Hicks witnessed firsthand the lashings of small-mindedness, fear and hatred the region could dole out. The smothering confines of Southern Fundamentalism would fuel the rage of his best comedy and spur his lifelong pursuit of personal freedom and private epiphany. Blessed with a vibrant mind, Hicks’ intellectual and spiritual curiosity lead to a vigorous regimen of reading (The Bible, The Upanishads), writing (numerous doomed screenplays, an autobiography that may one day surface) and Herculean quantities of psychedelic drugs. He would become a Buddha in the land of Bubba. Working in comedy clubs since the tender age of fifteen—he had to sneak into clubs to perform and tell his parents he was studying at the library—he toured relentlessly for the next sixteen. Along the way his inherent comedic gifts—already prodigious—were amplified by the constant repetition of the road. His timing became impeccable, his wit honed slash-your-wrists sharp. All the while, his ideas grew larger.
Unlike the majority of working comics, his career was something more than an awkward lunge for the brass ring, it was a search for meaning in the meaninglessness of late 20th century Capitalism, a career in truth when lying paid better; a psychic odyssey—abetted by meditation, isolation tanks and psilocybin—when most had long since called off that particular road trip. He referred to it as “squeegeeing his third eye clean.” Towards the end of his life he spoke frequently of “evolving the ideas” and came to the conclusion that he would have to verbally kick our asses into the next evolutionary niche—drag the monkey kicking and screaming into man. And if that didn’t work, he would hop on the first UFO that would have him and leave us in the primordial ooze of our own bullshit.
While his audience share in the US remained modest, in England he was a full-blown phenomenon, selling out 2,000 seat theaters, his performances taped for broadcast on the BBC’s Channel Four. Hollywood flirted with him briefly until the high priests realized his intention was to destroy the temple, not help fill its coffers. (UPDATE: Russell Crowe is reportedly set to direct a proper Hollywood biopic) Friends and associates of Lenny Bruce called him the heir to the man who once had the temerity to suggest that the Lone Ranger was gay. He earned the respect of the major players of comedy—Letterman, Leno, Dennis Miller, Richard Belzer, Sam Kinison—becoming known as the comedian’s comedian. Leno took him under his wing and out on tour—though Hicks would later turn on the Tonight Show host, branding him a sell-out (See “Integrity,” below).
In the end he proved too hot for even Letterman to handle. He appeared on Late Night nearly a dozen times, and each time his routine was “de-balled” as he referred to it, by the production staff in the name of network standards. Finally, on his twelfth appearance in October of 1993, he felt that he had finally killed. His routine included bits about pro-lifers, school books about gay lifestyles, fundamentalists and his dream of producing a TV show called Let’s Hunt And Kill Billy Ray Cyrus. After the taping, Hicks kicked back in the bath of his hotel room with a cigar Letterman had bestowed on him, when the phone rang. It was then Late Night producer Robert “Morty” Morton informing him that the performance would not be aired because it “touched on too many hot spots.” They wanted him to come back, they said, but he would never get another chance. Less than five months later he would be dead.
His battle with cancer began in June of ’93 when recurring stomach pains were diagnosed as a malignancy in his pancreas. Doctors gave him two months to live. The diagnosis only stiffened his resolve and sharpened his focus—he referred to it as “the gift of cancer.” The pace of touring and writing continued unabated—he established a network of doctors on the road where he could receive chemotherapy—and the intensity of his performances were ratcheted up a few more notches. By fall, the tumor had decreased in size dramatically, but come Christmas his health took a turn for the worst. A five night run at Caroline’s in New York was canceled after opening night when Hicks had to leave the stage after a shortened thirty-five minute set. He moved in with his parents and began preparing for death’s eventuality: he re-read Huckleberry Finn; he made his mother listen to Elvis and Miles Davis; he nearly convinced his father to try mushrooms; he called every friend and lover he ever knew, said his good-byes and announced that “I’ve said all that I have to say.” Though he lived two weeks longer, those were his last words.
On Humanity: “I’m tired of this back-slappin’ ‘ain’t humanity neat?’ bullshit, we’re a virus with shoes.”
On Patriotism: “Whenever I travel abroad, people ask me if I’m proud to be an American and I tell ‘em I didn’t have much to do with it. My parents just fucked there.”
On Integrity: “You do a commercial and you are off the artistic roll call for life. You’re another corporate shill, another whore at the capitalist gang bang. Everything you say is suspect, every word that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.”
On George Michaels: “He is a demon set loose on the earth to lower the standards.”
On Rush Limbaugh: “Doesn’t he remind you of one of those gay guys that likes to lay in a tub while other men piss on him?”
On Waco: “We had to bust the compound down ’cuz we heard child molestation was going on… if that’s true how come we don’t see Bradley tanks knocking down Catholic churches.”
On Catholicism: “It’s gotta be one of the most ludicrous beliefs ever; these vampire priests sink their twin fangs of guilt and sin into you as a child and suck your joy of life out of you.”
On Psychedelics: “Just once I’d like to see a positive LSD story on the news: ‘Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.’”
On the Presidency: “You know only a handful of people actually run the country, it’s provable… After you’re elected you are ushered into this smoke-filled room with the twelve industrialist capitalist scum-fucks that got you elected, a screen comes down and you are shown a film of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before, looking suspiciously off the grassy knoll. The lights come up and they [say] to the new President, ‘Any questions?’”
On His Life: “No hard feelings, no sour grapes, been doing this sixteen years enjoyed every second of it, every plane trip, every delay, every canceled flight, every [piece of] lost luggage, living in hotel rooms, every broken relationship, playing the Comedy Pouch in Possum Ridge, Arkansas every fuckin’ year. It’s been my treat.”
R.I.P. Mr. Hicks, wherever you are.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared in issue #36 of Your Flesh magazine.