Valdosta Daily Times

Features

July 31, 2011

An American & Valdostan: New documentary on comedian Bill Hicks

VALDOSTA — Search for famous Valdostans on the Internet and a name that often pops up is that of Bill Hicks. Who, many may ask, is Bill Hicks?

Hicks was a comedian who made his name in the 1980s and early 1990s, with numerous comedy albums, on David Letterman, and as a stand-out in the age of stand-up.

This year, “American: The Bill Hicks Story” was released as a critically acclaimed documentary on Hicks’ life and comedy.

Still, some may wonder, Bill Hicks?

Jason Ankeny of All Music Guide wrote, according to answers.com, “Bill Hicks was the last great social satirist, the true descendent of comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Mort Sahl. The self-described ‘Prince of Darkness,’ his work confronted the hypocrisies of late 20th century American life, divining comedy from the more evil impulses of the government and the mass media while assaulting the soullessness of mainstream culture. ... His monologues addressed issues of expanded consciousness and spirituality rare to the comedy format; for all of the rage inherent in his stand-up, his message was one of transcendence — as he frequently reminded audiences, ‘The truth will set you free.’”

He recorded the comedy albums “Dangerous” and “Relentless.” Once developed, his style could be bitter and biting. This style and Hicks’ face were familiar to regular viewers of late-night talk shows as well as HBO comedy specials of a couple decades ago.

And he was born in Valdosta.

He was born William Melvin Hicks on Dec. 16, 1961, in Valdosta. He was the third and youngest child of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks. His two older siblings were Steve and Lynn. He was raised in the Southern Baptist faith.

“By the time he was 7, Bill had lived in four states before settling in Houston,” according to www.billhicks.com. “As a child, Bill yearned to be a comedian. He idolized Johnny Carson and the stand-up comedy of Woody Allen.”

As a teenager, he developed his performing skills. He moved to Los Angeles, performing alongside then-unknowns Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Gary Shandling. He eventually returned to Houston, but his drive and contacts propelled him forward. Leno helped get Hicks a 1984 gig on David Letterman’s late-night show then on NBC — back in the days when Leno and Letterman were not rivals and still friends.

The Letterman spot afforded Hicks an opportunity.

He further defined his style through the influence of Sam Kinison’s angry comedy.

Yet, as his fame grew, Hicks was diagnosed in the early 1990s with pancreatic cancer.

One of his last television performances was on Letterman, but it was       censored due to content about pro-lifers, and other controversial subject matter.

It was a frustrating blow. A couple of years ago, 15 years after Hicks’ death, Letterman invited Hicks’ mother onto the show and aired the censored routine.

With death approaching, Hicks often asked audiences to envision a “... choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defense each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”

Hicks’ last performance was Jan. 6, 1994, at Caroline’s in New York. He died Feb. 26, 1994, in Little Rock, Ark. He was 32 years old.

In a last word, he wrote on Feb. 6, 1994, according to billhicks.com, he mentioned Valdosta with his wry sense of humor.

“I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Ga. 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.”

“American: The Bill Hicks Story” charts Hicks’ life through clips of his comedy routines, photo animation, and memories from friends and comedians. The movie is available on Netflix.

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