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The life of Bill Hicks

The life of Bill Hicks — Poised for stardom, the irreverent comedian battled censors and cancer before his death on February 26th

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Bill Hicks was poised for a breakthrough when he prepared to appear on Late Show With David Letterman last October. The native Texan’s outrageous stand-up humor had already made him a star in England. In America, he had done two solo HBO specials and had won the admiration of such colleagues as Jay Leno and Tim Allen. He had appeared on Letterman’s old NBC show 11 times. Yet Hicks remained relatively unknown. At the Oct. 1 Late Show taping, Hicks’ routine included bits about pro-lifers, schoolbooks about gay lifestyles, a fantasy TV show entitled Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus, and fundamentalists. ”It’s interesting to note how people act on their beliefs,” Hicks said. ”A lot of Christians, for instance, wear crosses around their necks. Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus comes back he’s really going to want to see a cross? Ow! That may be why he hasn’t shown up yet.”

The segment was cut from the broadcast. Hicks later said that Late Show executive producer Robert Morton told him the routine ”touched on too many hot spots.” A spokesperson for Letterman put the case more cautiously: The monologue ”did not pass the standards that we set and that the network sets. We respect Bill, but if it doesn’t pass the standards that we have, we can’t show it.”

Hicks never got another chance to appear before a national audience. Though his illness was unknown to all but his closest friends and family, the comedian was fighting pancreatic cancer. Less than five months later, on Feb. 26, Hicks died at the age of 32.

”Bill was right up there with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor,” says Grace Under Fire‘s Brett Butler. ”He was easily the best comedian of my generation.”

”He was a genius,” says Dennis Miller. ”He was one of the five best comics I’ve ever seen in my life.”

This month on Comedy Central, It’s Just a Ride: The Bill Hicks Tribute offers viewers another chance to discover the comedian. Hicks fancied himself, as he put it, a ”cowboy hero, that lone voice in the wilderness fighting corruption and evil.” He mocked antidrug paranoia — ”Rock & roll would not exist without drugs. The Beatles were so high they even let Ringo sing a couple” — as well as the stupidity of drug users: ”Always that same LSD story on the news. ‘Young man on acid thought he could fly, jumped out of a building, what a tragedy.’… If he thought he could fly, why didn’t he take off from the ground first?” Taste was not a concern: ”You heard about this Judas Priest trial? Two kids, big fans of (heavy-metal group) Judas Priest, commit suicide. Wow! Two less gas station attendants in the world.”

Over the years, Hicks had fielded many offers: sitcoms, commercials, grade-C movies. But he had no interest in softening his style. ”He took a lot of s— ’cause he wouldn’t play the game,” recalls longtime friend Stephen Doster, a musician. ”But he didn’t want to end up on a talk show interviewing the cast of Full House for the rest of his life.”

Raised in the suburbs of Houston, Hicks was 12 years old when he began writing and performing his own jokes; by 15, he was sneaking out of his house to perform at the Comedy Workshop with Sam Kinison and the other so-called Outlaw Comics. He barely kept pace in school. ”I graduated number 409 out of 417 in high school,” he said years later, ”just ahead of the AC/DC fan club.”

Hicks joined the comedy circuit for good in 1980. By 1983 he was opening for Leno, which led to his first appearance on Letterman’s show. But the following year, Hicks took the drugs-and-drink detour. Night after night, he and Kinison would stay up snorting coke, downing whiskey, and dissecting religion. (A spiritual man, Hicks had read the Bible several dozen times, studied Hindu texts, and meditated regularly.) The partying didn’t help his act. ”He’d have these terrible shows,” says David Johndrow, a friend of Hicks’ since high school. ”By the end, he’d just be sitting on the edge of the stage, depressed, telling the audience how f—ed up they were and how f—ed up he was.”

”I was an embarrassing drunk,” Hicks once admitted. ”I’d get pulled over by the cops and I’d be so drunk I’d be dancing in their lights thinking I’d made it to the next club. What’s this, a leather bar?

By most accounts, Hicks hit bottom in Austin, Tex., one night in 1988, when a bartender threw him up against a jukebox and broke his leg. Shortly thereafter he went cold turkey.

In 1990, a cleaned-up Hicks crashed London’s West End as one of 18 comedians in Stand Up America!, a five-night comedy extravaganza. The next year he won a Critics’ Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. On tours of Britain and Ireland, he packed 2,000-seat theaters.

Then, last June, Hicks was intermittently seized with severe stomach pains. Tests revealed a malignancy in his pancreas, and the doctors figured he had two months to live. The death sentence left him not so much bitter as determined. He sometimes referred to his sickness as his ”gift of cancer.”

Hicks continued performing, had his third and fourth albums (Rant in E Minor and Arizona Bay) in the works, created a series for England’s Channel 4, and was planning several films. He was also writing a book of personal essays, New Happiness, the ending of which was supposed to be the miracle of his defeating the cancer.

With the diagnosis came weekly chemo treatments. ”He created this network of doctors everywhere because he was always on the road,” explains his brother Steve, a retail buyer for a men’s clothing store. ”It took two hours with an IV drip, always in his left hand, so he could keep writing his book. And (he) never had any bad side effects. He’d do chemo and then do two shows.”

”The last period of his life, it was like Bill to the 10th power,” says Kevin Booth, his best friend and producer. ”He couldn’t be involved in any kind of mundane situation for even a second. He was like a bolt of lightning.”

Within four months, the size of the tumor had decreased dramatically. But by Christmas, Hicks’ health began to decline again. A few weeks later he made it to New York for the opening of a five-night run at Carolines Comedy Club, but after a shortened 35-minute act, he had to leave the stage.

Hicks stayed at his parents’ home in Little Rock, Ark. He kept his optimism almost until the end. Shortly before his death, recalls his brother, ”you could tell his mental outlook had changed. He said to me, ‘You know, man, I’ve been working my whole life for this thing to be coming together, and now I find out the joke’s on me.’ ”

But a line from one of his monologues might better serve as Bill Hicks’ epitaph: ”They say rock & roll’s the devil’s music. Well, at least he f—in’ jams. If it’s a choice between eternal hell and good tunes or eternal heaven and New Kids on the F—in’ Block, I’m gonna be surfin’ on the lake of fire, rockin’ out.”