Bill Hicks - the anti-war, pro-smoking, corporate-bashing American comedian
- died 10 years ago this week. What is it about his work that has meant his reputation has grown and grown?
Hicks was born in Georgia in 1961. He worked his way around the US's stand-up comedy circuit in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. He was a star turn at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, at the age of 17, when he was still a high-school student by day.
In the late 80s, he became a familiar face on TV shows like Tonight With David Letterman, and by the early 90s, he hit the big time. But his career, and life, were cut short; he died from pancreatic cancer on 26 February 1994, at the age of 32.
For many, Hicks was, and remains, the "angry young man" of stand-up comedy. His act included material on the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the first Gulf War, of which he said: "A war is when two armies are fighting. So you see, right there, I think we can all agree it wasn't exactly a war."
But Hicks is perhaps best remembered for his attitude to smoking - he revelled in being a chain smoker and baited the "prissy non-smokers" who urged him to give up. When Hicks asked an audience member how many he smoked a day, and the audience member replied "a pack and a half", Hicks said: "Why don't you just put on a dress and swish around.... I go through two lighters a day."
Ten years after his death, Hicks is bigger than ever. His comedy CDs are bestsellers, there are websites devoted to his life and work, and this week, for the 10th anniversary of his death, comedy events in his memory will be hosted in London, Belfast and across the US.
Some of his fans go so far as to talk about Hicks with religious awe, describing him as some kind of latter-day Jesus. Hicks certainly had some good gags and excellent comic timing - but is all of this posthumous fuss justified?
According to Chris Lockie, a 26-year-old fan from London, one thing that stands out about Hicks was that every show was a great performance - even the bad ones. "He put everything into his performances. Even those where he clearly wasn't into it and was being heckled, he still made into some of the funniest performances, filled with righteous rage and anger at the stupidity of some of his audiences."
One of many fansites for the late comedian
For the UK comedy writer Timandra Harkness, it is not the strength of Hicks' comedy that explains his long-lasting appeal. "The videos I have seen of Hicks show somebody who was charismatic, angry, witty - in other words, a talented comedian. But he was not necessarily greater than others, including some who are still working today."
"His unique status seems to stem from the fact that he died tragically young, and therefore retains the seductive perfume of unfulfilled promise. It's the Princess Diana syndrome," says Harkness.
Generation of cynics
Harkness argues that Hicks remains popular because his comedy taps into a cynical, shoulder-shrugging attitude that is widespread today, where many believe the worst of politicians, corporations and other figures in authority, almost as a knee-jerk response.
"The targets of his anger were exactly the right ones for his time," she says. "Like 'people who work in advertising', whom Hicks urged to kill themselves. These are not exactly difficult targets."
Fans of Hicks will disagree - though many admit that they are, indeed, drawn to Hicks for more than his funny routines.
Micah Holmquist, a 26-year-old writer from Michigan, US, says, "I listen to Hicks' recordings because they are not just funny, but also embody a lot of the rage I often feel at the world. In the days and weeks after 11 September 2001, I found myself regularly listening to Hicks as an antidote to the hegemonic opinion in the US that there could be no context for what happened that day."
For others, Hicks has become a symbol of authenticity in an era of reality TV, ready-made pop and visionless popular culture. Tom Quinn, a 27-year-old fan from Wandsworth, London, says: "Hicks didn't sell out. He didn't bow to television stations or huge sponsorship deals. And he didn't seem to care about fame and huge earnings."
Prophet of new millennium
Catherine Curtis, an American who knew Hicks in the early 1990s, says there was something almost spiritual about him.
"Toward the end, he told me that he was getting more interested in 'goatboy' - the whole Pan/New Age/Magick spiritual movement - than politics. Had he lived, I am quite sure Bill would have been a leading voice and lightning rod for alternate spirituality.
"As this is at the secret heart of the culture wars, Bill was uniquely suited as prophet for the new millennium. Perhaps if we peeled back the encrusted layers on Jesus, these two men would not seem so different."
From a controversial comedian of the 1990s who died young to a Christ-like figure of authenticity for the new millennium... Timandra Harkness says there is a certain irony to Hicks' posthumous "canonisation".
"Hicks wanted to be an iconoclast," she says, as captured by his love of smoking, which was a controversial line to take in a world that was becoming more and more hostile to the evil weed. "But posthumously he himself has become an untouchable icon. The more popular a comedian is, the more we should ask ourselves whether we like them for provoking and challenging us, or whether they are stroking our prejudices and pushing our buttons."
Some of your comments so far:
I don't think Hicks was funny then or now. And in many ways he was pretty stupid. He wallowed in the anti-establishment message that smoking wasn't that bad and then died of cancer. I got bored with listening to how hard he was for smoking. Big deal.
Rod Findlay, UK
Bill Hicks was funny, but is now massively overrated. His early death, while of course sad, has opened the door for him to be considered alongside pop stars such as Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain who's fans make out that they were something godlike, whereas the rest of us just sit around thinking "yeah, they were all right - but nothing extraordinary".
Frank Ferreit, UK
Hicks isn't just special because he's dead. I saw him twice, and the sheer, sweating rage of the man was unlike anything I've seen from any mere stand-up. And his material hasn't dated. If anything it's become more relevant.
I think Bill Hicks is the one major reason for the amount of apathy among people my age (the twenty somethings). After Hicks and Denis Leary, there's just no space left for trusting our politicians. Most of us now realise that life is 'Just a ride' and we are here for such a short amount of time that we need to make a difference and ignore the shiny things and flashy lights and push the people in power to make a difference.
Rod Zamora, UK
Bill is still an inspiration and his comments on the first Gulf war are equally valid today - e.g. "How do we know what weapons they had? Well we looked at the receipt.."
I saw Bill Hicks on my 19th birthday, which was also my first day at Newcastle University. For nearly three hours this one man kept a packed hall enthralled with his wit and charisma - I recall having to lean against a pillar I was laughing so much. It was a seminal moment in my life.
In a way I'm glad he died young, as I'd hate him to have mellowed out and been given his own chat show.
Michael Harker, UK
Is the reason Hick's popularity is undiminished is that unlike his anti-establishment peers he never had the chance to become part of the establishment?
The reason that I remain a devoted Bill Hicks fan is that he never pulled his punches; he remained emotionally honest even when it would have been easier to step back a bit. He did anti-war material in front of rednecks who would heckle him were most comedians would tone it down a bit. Oh yeah, he was also the downright funniest man this planet will ever produce. Miss ya Bill!
Duncan Hoffmann, Sheffield, UK
Obviously dying young can create a timeless aura around an artist. Think James Dean or John Lennon. But they need a rare talent in the first place to ensure they don't slip into obscurity.
Paul Lynch, Japan
It really is a shame that Hicks isn't around to see how his targets have grown in influence. From Bush's war and vested corporate interests to the radical religious right, all of them riper than ever to be on the receiving end of Hicks'quickfire wit and venom. I guess now we'll just have to make do with Michael Moore.
Bill Hicks' comments on society are as relevant today as they were when he first spoke them. I appreciate that fans might love him more because his comedy never had the chance to degenerate, but I still cannot think of another comedian who has come close to him in terms of laugh out loud humour, but also his very real skill at making his audience think and learn. I believe he certainly provoked and challenged, and that's why he is remembered today.
Hicks is just good, old fashioned, funny.
He stood up on stage and spoke the truth. Some thought he was comic genius for this. I think he was just a genius; someone who realised that when you point out how ridiculous the world is people laugh rather than do something about it.
Nick, Kent, UK
I saw Hicks live in Glasgow and he truly was the funniest comedian I have ever seen - and he made you think. He is still the only celebrity whose death has genuinely shocked and saddened me; at the time I didn't even know he was ill. I still listen to his stuff and it still makes me laugh. His comments pointing out the hypocrisies of the powerful still resonate. However I find his "spiritual" stuff trite and simplistic - I find myself thinking "come on Bill, you're smart enough to say something more interesting than that". But he is still Great.
Robert, Zürich, Switzerland
I've introduced people to the talents of Bill Hicks and when they used up my entire collection they asked where they could see him. At this, I had to inform them he's dead. I truly doubt the theory that he's popular as a result of his death. No "Princess Diana Syndrome", just honesty and talent.
Michael Curry, Czech Republic
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