Comedian. He was a star in Britain although he never experienced wide success in the United States. After death, his reputation amplified, and he was revered as one of the most accomplished and complex performers in the history of stand-up comedy, often likened to the ground-breaking Lenny Bruce. He and his friend, Dwight Slade, shared an early interest in stand-up comedy and called themselves Bill & Dwight. In 1976, they successfully auditioned to appear on a local segment of Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon but Hicks’ parents would not allow him to do so. At age 15, he began sneaking out at night to appear onstage with Slade at a new comedy club, the Comedy Workshop. He quickly established himself as an audience favorite in this adult world before his parents once again put a stop to his performing. He stayed behind in Houston to complete his senior year of high school when his parents relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas. Without his parents knowing, he resumed performing stand-up, appearing at the Comix Annex and becoming a member of a group of comedians known as the Texas Outlaw Comics, which included rising comedian Sam Kinison. Upon graduation from high school, he headed to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. He performed regularly at the Comedy Store, a venue that served as the launchpad for an array of big-name comedians. By 1983, he had returned to Houston. Using the Comix Annex as his base, he became the “king” of the burgeoning local comedy scene that was evolving around the growing circle of Outlaws. He also began performing on the road, mostly in the South. For a time, he was the opening act for Jay Leno, and he made his first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in 1984. During this time, he began exploring altered states of consciousness including meditating, using sense deprivation tanks, and experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Hicks also began abusing other drugs and alcohol. Drinking and using drugs initially freed him to creatively express dark impulses that brought new complexity to his comedy, but being under the influence onstage soon became an end in itself, leading to sloppy performances, canceled dates, and deep debt. His descent into self-destruction lasted several years. In 1988, embracing sobriety, he relocated to New York City, beginning a period of intensive travel on the comedy club circuit during which he performed nearly 300 times per year for some five years. The video Sane Man captured two virtuoso performances by Hicks in a club in Austin, Texas, not long after he left Houston. In 1990 he released Dangerous, his first comedy album, to glowing reviews. Pointedly confrontational, he tackled an array of controversial subjects, including abortion, drugs, pornography, flag burning, religion, and conspiracy theories. He championed authenticity and hilariously debunked mediocrity and contrivance, displaying a special enmity for advertising, marketing, and created need. In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin, he punctured the pretension and sanctimonious hypocrisy he found in aspects of formal religion and in intolerant social and political attitudes. But Hicks became more than a satirical social critic. His comedy became ontological. Even as he wrestled with questions on the nature of existence, the road to his conclusions was paved with trenchant comedic observations. Hicks was a master of microphone technique and sound effects, called upon well-defined character voices, and acted brilliantly with facial gestures. He swaggered on the stage, prowled it demonstratively, squatted to address audience members, or flopped suddenly to the floor. He alternated between relaxed banter and impassioned shouts and deftly employed long pauses on the way to killer punch lines. In 1990, he recorded a set in Chicago for One Night Stand, an HBO special. An electric performance at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in 1990 further enhanced his reputation. Toward the end of the year, he made his first appearance in Britain, where his edgy, ironic critique of the American Dream soon earned him a wider, more devoted audience than he ever attained in the United States. In the U.S.A. which Hicks said stood for the United States of Advertising, he enjoyed a cult audience, a reputation as a critic’s darling, and the respect of his peers as a “comedian’s comedian,” but in Britain he was a rock star who packed large venues. Music was always an important part of his life. Entering the stage, dressed in black, to a thunderous rock soundtrack courtesy of Jimi Hendrix became a staple of his act, and it was often observed that he brought a “rock and roll” attitude to his comedy. He released another comedy album, Relentless, and in 1993, he toured Australia. His career continued to climb, and then in June 1993, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Having begun chemotherapy, he continued working, limiting knowledge of his diagnosis to a select few. He recorded two more albums, Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, in 1992 and 1993, though they would not be released until 1997. Over the years, he had become a frequent guest on David Letterman’s TV shows. In October 1993, he made his 12th appearance and was convinced that it had been his best only to learn that his entire performance was to be excised from the aired version of the show because Letterman and his producer were concerned about the controversial nature of the subject matter, much of which was religion-based. He was deeply wounded and angered by the incident. In 2009 Letterman, having admitted his mistake in the matter, devoted an episode of his show to Hicks, aired the set in its entirety, and apologized directly to Hicks’s mother on-air. As his illness progressed, he chose to spend the last part of his life with his family in Arkansas.
Bio by: Glendora
James Melvin Hicks