Bill Hicks: 25 years on from the cult comedian's big break
Inspirational comic visionary, revered in Britain yet ignored at home
Sniggers with attitude
By then he was, and remained, a chain-smoker despite occasionally quitting for short periods. He even turned that habit into one of his routines, once telling one audience member, ‘You smoke a pack every night? You’re a pussy, I get through two lighters a day’. And, of course, as someone who’d stopped smoking a few times he knew all about the often sanctimonious attitude of many ex, and non, smokers.
After various ups and downs, and hundreds of badly-paid gigs, Bill Hicks got a break by being selected for Rodney Dangerfield’s TV show, Young Comedians Special in 1987. Hicks cleaned-up his act – knocking the drink and the hard drugs on the head and within a year had finally acquired his first professional manager, one Jack Mondrus.
But hypocrisy was always one of Hicks’ biggest targets so, even as an ex-user, he continued to publicly extol the virtues of cannabis and mushrooms (as opposed to alcohol).
One typical joke revolved around a parody of the ‘Just Say No, It’s All Bad’ attitude taken by TV news readers; ‘Today, a young man on LSD realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we all share one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. That there is no such thing as death, that life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves ... and now here's Tom with the weather.’
He also took on even more serious matters; sneering at both the woeful Warren report (into JFK’s assassination) and middle America’s acceptance of it.
None of the above made him the ideal man for American TV shows, even the late night ones, but the quality of Hicks' work was such that the album Dangerous did end up being performed on the HBO channel. But what really changed things – despite the occasional slot on the show Late Night With David Letterman – was being spotted by some Channel 4 producers during his stint at Canada’s Just For Laughs festival of 1990.
Within months he was appearing on British TV which, naturally, helped him appear more of a big deal when he returned to America (where fellow stand-ups such as Denis Leary were soon being accused, with some justification, of copying the Hicks’ schtick).
His Channel 4 appearances were so well received that he began to get offered serious money to do UK adverts. He turned them all down – as the advertisers should have expected, if they’d ever watched his full act.
Hicks’ act was now fully developed and seemingly conversational – he took no notes or cue cards, just walked on stage and started, often expounding what amounted to his own, surprisingly positive, philosophy.