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"American: The Bill Hicks Story"

Updated on October 27, 2012

When it comes to groundbreaking comedy, three stand-up comedians come to mind in the latter half of the 20th century. First there was Lenny Bruce who pushed the limits on language. Second, there was George Carlin who took on social taboos and the Supreme Court. Third, there was Bill Hicks, who pushed on politics, consumerism and authority. Unfortunately, Hick’s life was cut short by cancer. He made a lasting impression among comedy fans and his legacy continues on.

In “American: The Bill Hicks Story,” filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas chronicle Hick’s life and career through interviews with family and friends wrapped around an interesting visual style of storytelling. Aided by cut-and-paste animation, vintage photos of Hicks would zoom in and out of visual locations such as his home or comedy stages that document a particular moment in time. What followed was a storied career of a young boy from Texas who wanted to make people laugh.

During his adolescence, Hicks dreamed of getting into comedy after seeing the likes of Woody Allen performing and realizing you can be paid to be funny. He had a chest full of jokes that he would only show to his friends, particularly childhood friend Dwight Slade. His original intention was to form a comedy team with Slade after the two snuck out of their homes to attend the Houston Comedy Workshop for open mic nights.

“We had a chance, we could become real comics.” - Dwight Slade

The duo worked at crafting an act but were not supported by their parents. While in high school, Dwight’s father informed him that his family was relocating to Oregon, thus breaking up both the comedy team and the friendship. During the course of Hick’s life, home footage of his stand up while still in high school focused on his home life but even at a young age, he was able to take command of the stage with complete confidence.

Deciding to skip college, Hicks moved out to Los Angeles to make it in the comedy scene. He strived to make a name for himself at the legendary Comedy Store, which at the time featured stars Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, and Jay Leno. Hicks started out performing on amateur nights. Soon, Slade moved away from Oregon to meet up with Hicks and the two lived in a tiny apartment while Hicks established his routine. However, at the time Hicks was the clean-cut comic that never swore.

Without any luck, Hicks moves back to the Houston comedy scene and soon engaged in alcohol and drugs (primarily mushrooms) in order to inspire himself to overhaul his routine. At the time, he believed that intoxication would loosen him up and start talking bluntly about a number of social themes, no matter how controversial. His parents would sneak into a club to see their son perform without his knowledge. There were in complete awe over what he said and his stage demeanor. When Hicks learned they were in the audience, his parents ultimately accepted the fact that this is what their son does for a living.
Over time, Hicks would soon rely on alcohol before going on stage to perform and used drinking as a characteristic for his stage presence. The adrenaline of being on stage and commanding the crowd would encourage himself to drink more. His performances suffered and soon clubs were reluctant to book him. Realizing the need to quit, Hicks became sober in early 1988 and started attending AA meetings.

Hicks relocated to New York City and his only vice was chain-smoking (which would be the trademark theme in his stand-up routine). At this point, close friends and his comedic colleagues noticed Hicks was back on his game newly sober. Hicks now focused on social satire, dark humor, and was not afraid to take on hecklers.

(Note: the following clip features bad language!)

By the early 1990s, Hicks was getting HBO comedy specials and made a lasting impression at the “Just For Laughs” festival in Montreal, Canada. He toured the United Kingdom in 1992 and caught attention for bits bashing the ugliness of American politics and society. He would record his stand-up album “Salvation” in Oxford, which was released posthumously. While touching on these types of topics, fellow comics defended Hicks, stating that as a patriot, Hicks both upheld his First Amendment rights while questioning the actions of his government.

In 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and started undergoing chemotherapy treatment. He continued doing stand-up and would often joke with the audience that each performance would be his last. A topic he focused on near the end of his life was the government ATF intervention in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. With the acceptance of his own mortality, Hicks took a no-holds barred approach to criticizing authority with nothing to lose. In a poignant moment, his close friends discuss experiencing the final days of Hicks and coming to terms with his eventual death. He died on February 26th, 1994. He was only 32.

In the years since, Hick’s reputation would grow and became more respected amongst comics. His stand up albums “Arizona Bay” and “Rant in E-Minor” were released in 1997. “American: The Bill Hicks Story” serves as a proper tribute to his life and career told by the people who knew him best.


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