At the age of 16, while still in high school, he began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas. During the 1980s, he toured the United States extensively and made a number of high-profile television appearances; but it was in the UK that he amassed a significant fan base, filling large venues during his 1991 tour. He also achieved a modicum of recognition as a guitarist and songwriter.
Hicks died of pancreatic cancer on February 26, 1994, in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the age of 32. In subsequent years his work gained a significant measure of acclaim in creative circles—particularly after a series of posthumous album releases—and he developed a substantial cult following. In 2007 he was voted sixth on Britain's Channel 4 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics, and rose to number four on the 2010 list. In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him thirteenth on its list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Hicks was born in Valdosta, Georgia, the son of James Melvin "Jim" Hicks (1923–2006) and Mary Reese Hicks, the younger sibling of Lynn and Steve. The family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey before settling in Houston, Texas, when Bill was seven. He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. At school he began performing comedy—mostly derivations of Woody Allen material—for his classmates. At home, he would write his own one-liners and slide them under the bedroom door of his brother Steve—the only family member Bill respected—for his critical analysis. "Keep it up", Steve told him. "You're really good at this."
Early on, Hicks began to mock his family's Southern Baptist religious beliefs. "We were Yuppie Baptists," he joked to the Houston Post in 1987. "We worried about things like, 'If you scratch your neighbor's Subaru, should you leave a note?'" Biographer Cynthia True described a typical argument with his father:
The elder Hicks would say, "I believe that the Bible is the literal word of God." And Bill would counter, "No it's not, Dad." "Well, I believe that it is." "Well," Bill replied, "you know, some people believe that they're Napoleon. That's fine. Beliefs are neat. Cherish them, but don't share them like they're the truth."
Hicks did not, however, reject spiritual ideology itself, and throughout his life he sought various alternative methods of experiencing it. Kevin Slade, elder brother of Dwight, introduced him to Transcendental Meditation and other forms of spirituality. Over one Thanksgiving weekend he took Hicks and Dwight to a TM residence course, in Galveston. Worried about his rebellious behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17. According to Hicks, after the first group session the analyst took him aside and told him, "You can continue coming if you want to, but it's them, not you."
Hicks was associated with the Texas Outlaw Comics group developed at the Comedy Workshop in Houston in the 1980s.
By January 1986, Hicks was using recreational drugs and his financial resources had dwindled. However his career received another upturn in 1987, when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special. The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years performed about 300 times a year. On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using drugs because "once you've been taken aboard a UFO, it's kind of hard to top that", although in his performances, he continued to extol the virtues of LSD, marijuana, and psychedelic mushrooms.
He eventually fell back to chain smoking, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on. His nicotine addiction, love of smoking, and occasional attempts to quit became a recurring theme in his act throughout his later years.
In 1988, Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus.
On the track "Modern Bummer" of his 1990 album Dangerous, Hicks says he quit drinking alcohol in 1988.
In 1989, he released his first video, Sane Man; a remastered version with 30 minutes of extra footage was released in 1999.
In 1990, Hicks released his first album, Dangerous, performed on the HBO special One Night Stand, and performed at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival. He was also part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in London's West End in November. Hicks was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to Just for Laughs and filmed his second video, Relentless.
Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the Marble Head Johnson album in 1992 collaborating with Houston high school friend Kevin Booth and Austin Texas drummer Pat Brown. During the same year he toured the UK, where he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4. He closed the show with his soon-to become-famous philosophy regarding life, "It's Just a Ride." Also in that tour he recorded the stand-up performance released in its entirety on a double CD titled Salvation. Hicks was voted "Hot Standup Comic" by Rolling Stone magazine in 1993. He moved to Los Angeles in 1992.
Progressive metal band Tool invited Hicks to open a number of concerts in its 1993 Lollapalooza appearances, where Hicks once asked the audience to look for a contact lens he had lost. Thousands of people complied.
Members of Tool felt that they and Hicks "were resonating similar concepts". Intending to raise awareness about Hicks's material and ideas, Tool dedicated their triple-platinum album Ænima (1996) to Hicks. Both the lenticular casing of the Ænima album packaging as well as the chorus of the title track "Ænema" make reference to a sketch from Hicks's Arizona Bay album, in which he contemplates the idea of Los Angeles falling into the Pacific Ocean. Ænima's final track, "Third Eye" contains samples from Hicks's Dangerous and Relentless albums.
An alternate version of the Ænima artwork shows a painting of Bill Hicks, calling him "Another Dead Hero," and mentions of Hicks are found both in the liner notes and on the record.
In 1984, Hicks was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman for the first time. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he caused a serious accident that left a classmate using a wheelchair. NBC had a policy that no handicapped jokes could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as "wheelchair."
On October 1, 1993, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, where Letterman had recently moved. It was his 12th appearance on a Letterman late-night show, but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast—until that point the only occasion where a comedian's entire routine was cut after taping. Hicks' stand-up routine was removed from the show, Hicks said, because Letterman's producers believed the material, which included jokes involving religion and the anti-abortion movement, was unsuitable for broadcast. Producer Robert Morton initially blamed CBS, which denied responsibility; Morton later conceded it was his decision. Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again.
Letterman finally aired the censored routine in its entirety on January 30, 2009. Hicks's mother, Mary, was present in the studio and appeared on-camera as a guest. Letterman took responsibility for the original decision to remove Hicks's set from the 1993 show. "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill," he said, after the set aired, "because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that."
For many years, Hicks was friends with fellow comedian Denis Leary. But in 1993, Hicks was angered by Leary's album No Cure for Cancer, which featured lines and subject matter similar to Hicks' routine. According to American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story by Cynthia True, upon hearing the album "Bill was furious. All these years, aside from the occasional jibe, he had pretty much shrugged off Leary's lifting. Comedians borrowed, stole stuff, and even bought bits from one another. Milton Berle and Robin Williams were famous for it. This was different. Leary had practically taken line for line huge chunks of Bill's act and recorded it." The friendship ended abruptly as a result.
At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole Hicks's material as well as his persona and attitude. In an interview, when Hicks was asked why he had quit smoking, he answered, "I just wanted to see if Denis would, too." In another interview, Hicks said, "I have a scoop for you. I stole his [Leary's] act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and, to really throw people off, I did it before he did." During a 2003 Comedy Central Roast of Denis Leary, comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes backstage from Bill Hicks with the message, "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." This joke was cut from the final broadcast.
The controversy surrounding plagiarism is also mentioned in American Scream:
Leary was in Montreal hosting the "Nasty Show" at Club Soda, and Colleen [McGarr?] was coordinating the talent so she stood backstage and overheard Leary doing material incredibly similar to old Hicks riffs, including his perennial Jim Fixx joke: "Keith Richards outlived Jim Fixx, the runner and health nut. The plot thickens." When Leary came offstage, Colleen, more stunned than angry, said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks's material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at her without saying a word, and briskly left the dressing room.
Hicks's performance style was seen as a play on his audience's emotions. He expressed anger, disgust, and apathy while addressing the audience in a casual and personal manner, which he likened to merely conversing with his friends. He would invite his audiences to challenge authority and the existential nature of "accepted truth." One such message, which he often used in his shows, was delivered in the style of a news report (in order to draw attention to the negative slant news organizations give to any story about drugs):
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're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather.
The American philosopher and ethnomycologist Terence McKenna was a frequent source of Hicks' most controversial psychedelic and philosophical counter-cultural material; he infamously acted out an abridged version of McKenna's "Stoned Ape" model of human evolution as a routine during several of his final shows.
Another of Hicks's most quoted lines was delivered during a gig in Chicago in 1989 (later released as the bootleg I'm Sorry, Folks). After a heckler repeatedly shouted "Free Bird", Hicks screamed that "Hitler had the right idea; he was just an underachiever!" Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity.
Much of Hicks's routine involved direct attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics, and consumerism. Asked in a BBC interview why he cannot do a routine that appeals "to everyone", he said that such an act was impossible. He responded by repeating a comment that an audience member once made to him, "We don't come to comedy to think!", to which he replied, "Gee, where do you go to think? I'll meet you there!" When asked whether there was a "half way" point between audience expectations and his own, he said: "but my way is half-way between, I mean, this is a night-club, and, you know, these are adults, and what do you expect?"
Hicks often discussed popular conspiracy theories in his performances, most notably the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mocked the Warren Report and the official version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a "lone nut assassin." He also questioned the guilt of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco Siege. Hicks would end some of his shows, especially those being recorded in front of larger audiences as albums, with a mock "assassination" of himself on stage, making gunshot sound effects into the microphone while falling to the ground.
On June 16, 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Booth. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new talk show, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and concept had been approved, and a pilot was filmed. The Counts of the Netherworld pilot was shown at the various Tenth Anniversary Tribute Night events around the world on February 26, 2004.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke that any given performance would be his last. The public, however, was unaware of Hicks's condition. Only a few close friends and family members knew of his disease. Hicks performed the final show of his career at Caroline's in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents' house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye before he stopped speaking on February 14. He died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, February 26, 1994 in Little Rock at the age of 32. Hicks was buried in the family plot in Magnolia Cemetery, Leakesville, Mississippi.
In early 1995 his family released a brief essay that Hicks had written a week prior to his death:
I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. Ugh. Melvin Hicks from Georgia. Yee Har! I already had gotten off to life on the wrong foot. I was always "awake," I guess you'd say. Some part of me clamoring for new insights and new ways to make the world a better place. All of this came out years down the line, in my multitude of creative interests that are the tools I now bring to the Party. Writing, acting, music, comedy. A deep love of literature and books. Thank God for all the artists who've helped me. I'd read these words and off I went – dreaming my own imaginative dreams. Exercising them at will, eventually to form bands, comedy, more bands, movies, anything creative. This is the coin of the realm I use in my words – Vision. On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having "liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas." One of life's weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I'd been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams that it just stood me on my head for a while. "Why me!?" I would cry out, and "Why now!?" Well, I know now there may never be any answers to those particular questions, but maybe in telling a little about myself, we can find some other answers to other questions. That might help our way down our own particular paths, towards realizing my dream of New Hope and New Happiness. Amen. I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.
Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Dangerous and Relentless were re-released simultaneously.
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks 13th on their list of "The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever". In "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" (2004), Hicks was ranked 19th. In March 2007, he was voted sixth on Britain's Channel 4 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics, and rose to number four on the 2010 list.
Devotees have incorporated Hicks's words, image, and attitude into their own creations. By means of audio sampling, fragments of his rants, diatribes, social criticisms, and philosophies have found their way into many musical works, such as the live version of Super Furry Animals' "The Man Don't Give a Fuck" and Adam Freeland's "We Want Your Soul". His influence on the band Tool is well documented as he is sampled at the beginning of their song "Third Eye"; he "appears" on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1996) and on SPA's self-titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the British band Radiohead's second album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory. American indie rock band Built to Spill's song "Planting Seeds" on its 2009 album There Is No Enemy alludes to Hicks's routine on advertising and marketing, which appears on the performance film Bill Hicks: Revelations. Singer/songwriter Tom Waits listed Rant in E-Minor as one of his 20 most cherished albums of all time.
Comedians who have cited Hicks as an inspiration include Joe Rogan, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Patton Oswalt David Cross, Russell Brand, Ron White Frankie Boyle, and Brendon Burns.
The British actor Chas Early portrayed Hicks in the one-man stage show Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which premiered in 2004. The show was co-written by Chas Early and Richard Hurst, and imagined Hicks's view of the world 10 years after his death.
On February 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled "Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks" (EDM 678 of the 2003–04 session), the text of which reads:
That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33 [sic]; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.
Hicks appeared in a flashback scene in writer Garth Ennis's Vertigo comic-book series Preacher, in the story "Underworld" in issue No. 31 (Nov. 1997).
Hicks is the subject of the 2000 tribute song "Bill Hicks" by fellow Texan Ed Hamell of Hamell on Trial.
In 2014, Bill Hicks Bar, a dive rock bar located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was opened in his honor.
Annex Houston (1986) was a video of an early stand up performance live at Texas.
Sane Man (1989) is the first officially video recorded Bill Hicks show.
Ninja Bachelor Party (1991) is a 1991 low-budget comedy film produced by and starring Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, and David Johndrow. It is a parody of martial arts movies and was intentionally dubbed improperly.
One Night Stand (1991) is an HBO stand-up series that first aired on February 15, 1989. The half-hour series aired weekly and featured stand-up comedy specials from some of the top performing comedians. The series originally comprised 55 specials over the course of its four years on HBO.
Relentless (1992) was recorded at the Centaur Theatre during the annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Despite the common title, the CD album was recorded at a separate performance, after the Just for Laughs festival had closed.
Revelations (1992) is one more live performance that Bill Hicks performed at the Dominion Theatre, London in November 1992.
A documentary entitled American: The Bill Hicks Story, based on interviews with his family and friends, premiered on March 12, 2010, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Russell Crowe announced in 2012 that he will direct a Bill Hicks biopic. Crowe was originally thought to be playing the comedian, but Mark Staufer, the actor's schoolmate and writer on the film, has suggested the part is now open for casting. Production was expected to start in 2013.