Bill Hicks’ Legacy Experiences New Life

Some comedians are as famous in death as they were in life. Lenny Bruce. Groucho Marx. George Carlin. Some are more famous, like Bill Hicks.

Hicks, a Texas-born Southern Baptist whose conservative upbringing supplied him with his core material, died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. A self-described Noam Chomsky “with dick jokes,” his comedy was ribald, borderline obscene and featured envelope-pushing diatribes on war, religion, television, drugs and patriotism.

His material frequently skewered religion, even taking aim at Christians wearing crosses: “You think when Jesus comes back he’s really going to want to look at a cross?” he asked in one memorable bit.

It was this sort of material that kept him well out of the mainstream in the U.S., where he toured tiny comedy clubs. He was booed off stage, shot at after a show in Baton Rouge, La., and even had the dubious distinction of having his act completely cut from “The Late Show with David Letterman.” “He was scary to some people because he was a rebel,” says Jeffrey Gurian, a comedy writer and stand-up performer since the ’80s, “People found him to be really outrageous.”

In Europe, however, Hicks sold out amphitheaters and was particularly popular in Britain, and remains so. Just last year, on the British television Channel 4, he was voted the fourth-greatest stand-up comic, up from sixth in the same poll from 2007.

“People in the United Kingdom and outside the United States share my bemusement with the United States that America doesn’t share with itself,” said Hicks, explaining his success abroad. His celebrity never caught on in America, even though he toured relentlessly. In recent years, the recognition he sought in his native land is coming to fruition.

Hicks’ comedy prompted Keith Olbermann to do an on-air tribute on what would have been Hicks’ 47thbirthday in 2008. Calling him “a comedian so searingly insightful, that had he had more time he could have started his own church,” the host of “Countdown” on MSNBC praised the late comedian for pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency. Olbermann added, “He’s still being quoted, and probably will be for several millennia to come.”

His commentary on the first Gulf war is especially timeless: “This needs to be said: There never was a war. ‘How can you say that, Bill?’ Well, a war is when two armies are fighting. So you can see, right there.”

In death, Hicks is getting the kind of press that most living comics would kill for. Four books have been written about him since 2002, and YouTube videos of him doing his comedy bits have been watched cumulatively more than 40 million times.

The advent of alternative media outlets changed the game for a lot of comedians, benefiting even the dead ones. Jonathan Gray, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an expert on contemporary television and comedy, says, “If Hicks was alive in this media era, he would have found significant popularity.” Gray, who co-edited “Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era,” says that comedians have often been edgy, but “we just weren’t allowed to enjoy them as public as we can now.”

Now, Hicks’ comedy is available to an even wider audience in a documentary that opened in the U.S. in April. “American: The Bill Hicks Story,” was made in 2009 by independent filmmakers Mark Harlock and Paul Thomas. It has played throughout Europe, and is the second-highest grossing documentary of 2010 in the U.K. In the U.S.,  it is the No. 2 most downloaded documentary and No. 4 independent film on the iTunes Movie Store for early April.

“It’s a complete irony,” says Steve Hicks, Bill’s older brother. “Towards the end of his life he said ‘the joke’s on me, I worked so hard and now I’m going to die.’ Seventeen years after his death he’s reaching millions of people around the world. It’s bittersweet.” Steve says he’s started to receive hundreds of emails about Bill, some with requests for Bill’s contact info.

It was shortly after his diagnosis, in what Hicks described as “one of life’s little ironies” that he was able to enjoy his biggest dose of fame. In October 1993, Hicks was invited to be on Letterman, in what would have been his 12th appearance on the show; Hicks knew it would likely be his last.

But his set was excised from the show after the taping, and Letterman was never specific about what was the offending material that led to the decision. Hicks speculated that it his joke about abortion: “If you’re really pro-life do me a favor. Don’t lock arms and block med clinics,” he said with his characteristic acerbic wit. “Lock arms and block cemeteries.”

As Hicks was dying, the controversy over the cut Letterman material brought him offers for book deals, television shows, and dozens of interviews. The U.S. market, which he had tried to break into for so long, had finally found him. He died three months later.

In January 2009, Letterman aired the routine with Mary Hicks, Bill’s mother,  as his guest. Letterman apologized for censoring her son and blamed himself for the decision. “It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he said, adding that the material felt fresh, and that Bill was  “ahead of his time.” Steve Hicks said this move was all Letterman: “It really shows something to have the 80-year-old mother of a dead comedian on to apologize for something that happened 15 years ago.”