On October 1st, the comedian Bill Hicks, after doing his twelfth gig on the David Letterman show, became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Letterman is now in residence, and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down. Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all. It’s not what’s in Hicks’ pants but what’s in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums. Hicks, a tall thirty-one-year-old Texan with a pudgy face aged beyond its years from hard living on the road, is no motormouth vulgarian but an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own. Until the ban, which, according to Hicks, earned him “more attention than my other eleven appearances on Letterman times one hundred,” Hicks’ caustic observations and mischievous cultural connections had found a wide audience in England, where he is something of a cult figure. I caught up with Hicks backstage on a rainy Sunday last November at the Dominion Theatre, in London, where a record-breaking crowd of two thousand Brits was packed so tightly that they were standing three deep at the back of the dress circle to hear Hicks deliver some acid home truths about the U.S.A., which to him stands for United States of Advertising. Hicks thinks against society and insists on the importance of this intellectual freedom as a way to inspire others to think for themselves. “To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms,” Hicks told me as we climbed the stairs to his dressing room. “He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame—like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are. He keeps cutting everything back to the moment.”
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Even then, the talk about courting comic danger had Hicks worrying about his prospects in America. “Comedy in the States has been totally gutted,” he told me when we’d settled into the dressing room. “It’s commercialized. They don’t have people on TV who have points of view, because that defies the status quo, and we can’t have that in the totalitarian mind-control government that runs the fuckin’ airwaves. I can’t get a shot there. I get David Letterman a lot. I love Letterman, but every time I go on, we have tiffs over material. They love me, but his people have this fictitious mainstream audience they think they play to. It’s untrue. It doesn’t exist. I like doing the show, but it’s almost like working a puzzle: How can I be me in the context of doing this material? The best thing I do is make connections. I connect everything. It’s hard to do it in six minutes.”
Hicks certainly went for broke and pronounced his real comic self in the banned Letterman performance, which he’ll be reprising in New York at Caroline’s Comedy Club on October 27th, and which he wrote out for me in a thirty-nine-page letter that also recounts his version of events. Hicks had to write out his set because the tape of it, which the Letterman people said they’d send three weeks ago, had not yet reached him. He doubts it ever will. But the routine, which he had prepared for a Letterman appearance a week earlier (he was bumped because the show ran long), had been, he wrote, “approved and reapproved” by a segment producer of the show. Indicating stage directions and his recollection of significant audience response, Hicks set out some of the “hot points” to which the network took exception.
Hicks, who delivered his monologue dressed not in his usual gunslinger black but in “bright fall colors—an outfit bought just for the show and reflective of my bright and cheerful mood,” seemed to have a lot to smile about. Letterman—who Hicks says greeted him as he sat down to talk with “Good set, Bill! Always nice to have you drop by with an uplifting message!” and signed off saying, “Bill, enjoy answering your mail for the next few weeks”—had been seen to laugh. The word in the Green Room was also good. A couple of hours later, Hicks was back in his hotel, wearing nothing but a towel, when the call came from Robert Morton, the executive producer of the Letterman show, telling him he’d been deep-sixed. Hicks sat down on the bed. “I don’t understand, Robert. What’s the problem? I thought the show went great.” The following is a condensed version of what Hicks remembers from the long conversation.
“You killed out there,” Morton said, and went on to say, according to Hicks, that the CBS office of standards and practices felt that some of the material was unsuitable for broadcast.
“Ah, which material exactly did they find . . .”
“Well, almost all of it.”
“Bob, they’re so obviously jokes.”
Hicks protested that he had run his routine by his sixty-three-year-old mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it passed the test. Morton insisted that the situation was out of his hands. He offered to set up another appearance and, according to Hicks, shouldered the blame for not having spent more time beforehand editing out the “hot points.”
“Bob, they’re just jokes. I don’t want to be edited by you or anyone else. Why are people so afraid of jokes?”
“Bill, you’ve got to understand our audience.”
“Your audience! Your audience is comprised of people, right? Well, I understand people, being one myself. People are who I play to every night, Bob. We get along just fine. We taped the show at five-thirty in the afternoon, and your audience had no problem with the material then. Does your audience become overly sensitive between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.? And by the way, Bob, when I’m not performing on your show, I’m a member of the audience of your show. Are you saying my material is not suitable for me? This doesn’t make any sense. Why do you underestimate the intelligence of your audience?”
“Bill, it’s not our decision.”
Morton apologized to Hicks, explaining that the show had to answer to the network, and said that he’d reschedule him soon. The conversation ended soon after that exchange, and in the intervening weeks Hicks has had no further word, he says, from Morton or Letterman. He has, however, heard indirectly from the CBS standards-and-practices office. A man who heard an interview with Hicks on the radio and was outraged over the censorship wrote to CBS to upbraid the network for not airing Hicks’ set. He faxed the reply from CBS standards-and-practices to the radio station, which faxed it to Hicks’ office. “It is true that Bill Hicks was taped that evening and that his performance did not air,” the letter said. “What is inaccurate is that the deletion of his routine was required by CBS. In fact, although a CBS Program Practices editor works on that show, the decision was solely that of the producers of the program who decided to substitute his performance with that of another comedian. Therefore, your criticism that CBS censored the program is totally without foundation. Creative judgments must be made in the course of producing and airing any program and, while we regret that you disagreed with this one, the producers felt it necessary and that is not a decision we would override.”
Hicks, who refers to the television set as Lucifer’s Dream Box, is now in Lucifer’s Limbo. He can’t get the Letterman show to send him a tape of his performance. He can’t get to the bottom of who censored him. And, as yet, he has no return date on Letterman. I called Robert Morton two weeks ago, and, when pressed, he finally grasped the nettle. He had begun by saying that the decision not to show Hicks’ routine was made jointly by the Letterman show and CBS and ended up telling me that the producers of the show were solely responsible. “Ultimately, it was our decision,” he said. “We’re the packagers and owners of the program. It’s our job to deliver a finished product to the network.”
“It’s been a strange little adventure for Willy,” Hicks told me at the Dominion last year, referring to his American comedy career. And so it has proved—stranger, in fact, than Hicks’ most maverick imaginings. The farce came full circle in the week following the Letterman debacle. A friend called Hicks to tell him about a commercial she’d seen during the Letterman show—a pro-life commercial. “The networks are delivering an audience to the advertisers,” Hicks said later. “They showed their hand. They’ll continue to pretend they’re a hip talk show. And I’ll continue to be me. As Bob Dylan said, the only way to live outside the law is to be totally honest. So I will remain lawless.”
Outlaw is how Hicks was styling himself last year for the Dominion performance as he put on his black rifleman’s coat and Stetson in the dressing room. When the curtain came up on his performance, Hicks was revealed in his hat, long coat, and cowboy boots, while behind him huge orange flames licked the air. Images of heat and hunting are the perfect backdrop to Hicks’ kind of comic attack. He was a hostile sharpshooter taking aim at the culture’s received opinions and trying to shoot them down. The British, who have an appetite for this kind of intellectual anarchy, embraced Hicks with a rare and real enthusiasm from the moment he stumbled onto the vivacious English comedy scene in November, 1990, as one of eighteen comedians in “Stand Up America!,” a six-week limited engagement in the West End. The next year, Hicks was at the Edinburgh Festival, where he outclassed the native talent and won the Critics’ Award. This led to his 1992 “Dangerous Tour” of Britain and Ireland, which culminated in appearances in the West End, at the Queen’s Theatre, that May. The response was overwhelming, and now Hicks was doing one of the final performances of the “Relentless Tour,” his second lap of honor around the British Isles in one year. Hicks was at home with the English, whose sense of irony made them more receptive to his combative humor than the credulous American public had been. “There’s a greater respect for the performer,” he said. “If you’re onstage, people think you’ve earned it. In America—I’m not kidding—people bark their approval.” I looked at him dubiously. “Ask around,” Hicks said, and he simulated the sound. “They bark like animals. It’s frightening. It’s what American society has reduced people to. Ironically, in this show I call myself Goat Boy. They shouldn’t be barking, they should be baaing.”
My first encounter with Hicks was his Gulf War routine, which had been broadcast during the postwar euphoria at the beginning of 1992 on England’s Channel 4. My sixteen-year-old son, Chris, was bellowing from the living room for me to come quickly. It was midnight, and he was sprawled, laughing, on the sofa, watching Hicks at the Montreal Comedy Festival calling a massacre a massacre. “So scary, watching the news. How they built it all out of proportion. Like Iraq was ever, or could ever, under any stretch of the imagination, be any threat to us whatsoever. But, watching the news, you never would have got that idea. Remember how it started? They kept talking about ‘the élite Republican Guard’ in these hushed tones, like these guys were the bogeyman or something. ‘Yeah, we’re doing well now, but we have yet to face . . . the élite Republican Guard.’ Like these guys were twelve-feet-tall desert warriors—’never lost a battle. we shit bullets.’ Well, after two months of continuous carpet bombing and not one reaction at all from them, they became simply ‘the Republican Guard’—not nearly as élite as we may have led you to believe. And after another month of bombing they went from ‘the élite Republican Guard’ to ‘the Republican Guard’ to ‘the Republicans made this shit up about there being guards out there.’
“People said, ‘Uh, uh, Bill, Iraq had the fourth-largest Army in the world.’ Yeah, maybe, but you know what? After the first three largest armies, there’s a real big fuckin’ drop-off. The Hare Krishnas are the fifth-largest army in the world. And they’ve already got our airports.”
Most TV comics trade in brand-name jokes or jokes that play off physical stereotypes. They don’t question their culture so much as pander to its insatiable hunger for distraction. But Hicks’ mischievous flights of fantasy bring the audience back to reality with a thump. Hicks is a kind of ventriloquist of his contradictory nature, letting voices and sound effects act out both his angst and his appetites. Occasionally, the instinct for Goat Boy comes over him, and Hicks, a man of instincts, goes with it. Goat Boy is Pan, or Hicks’ version of him—a randy goat “with a placid look in his eyes, completely at peace with nature”—through which he celebrates his own rampaging libido.
“I am Goat Boy,” he would say in the act that night, in a grave baritone. “Come here, my little fruit basket.”
“What do you want, Goat Boy?” he answered, in a coy Southern falsetto. “You big old shaggy thing.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” Hicks growled into the microphone. “I am here to please you.”
“Tie me to your headboard. Throw your legs over my shoulders, let me roll you like a feed bag.” Hicks brought the microphone close to his mouth. He snorted, slurped, and finally screamed, “Hold on to my horns!” Then, as suddenly as the impulse had come upon him, Hicks broke off the fantasy, saying, “I need professional help at this point.”
The secret of Hicks’ psychic survival has always been comedy. He started writing and performing his jokes as an alienated thirteen-year-old in Houston in 1975, and, by his own count, for the last five years he has been performing about two hundred and sixty-five days a year, sometimes doing as many as three two-hour gigs a night. Few contemporary comics or actors have such an opportunity to get their education in public. Hicks uses the stage time to write his material in front of an audience. “I do it all onstage, all of it,” he said, and then began to relate how he’d started on his eccentric journey. “When I was about eleven, it dawned on me that I didn’t like where I was,” he said, speaking of the subdivision where he lived, which was called Nottingham Forest; of Stratford High School, which looked like a prison and where he was bored out of his skull for four years; and of his father, who was a midrange executive with General Motors. The Hicks family lived in “strict Southern Baptist ozone.” The memory still rankled. “One time a friend of mine—we were nine—runs over and goes, ‘Bill, I just saw some hippies down at the store.’ I go, ‘No way.’ He goes, ‘I swear.’ My dad goes, ‘Get off this property! We don’t swear on this property!’
“We were living the American dream. This was the best life had to offer. But there was no life, and no creativity. My dad, for instance, plays the piano. The same song for thirty years—I think it’s ‘Kitten on the Keys.’ I don’t play the piano, but all my friends are musicians. My dad goes, ‘Do they read music?’ I go, ‘No.’ ‘Well, how do they play it?’ I go to the piano and I write a song. What’s the difference? He can’t improvise. That, to me, is the suburbs. You get to a point, and that’s it—it’s over.”
Once he’d seized on the idea of writing jokes, Hicks closeted himself in his bedroom and went to school on comedians. He started watching Johnny Carson. “I thought he was the only comic in the world, because I never stayed up later,” he said. Soon Hicks began burning the midnight oil, taping other comic acts on television. “I’d take their jokes and also write my own. I performed them around school, and what I loved was when both got equal laughs. I knew which one was me and which one I’d seen on TV the night before. I learned how to mesh these things. How to get into character. I was very, very popular and known as a comedian at school. I’d always have to have material, constantly, all day. It got to the point where my English teacher gave me five minutes to do before class. My older brother Steve encouraged me. I typed up about two pages of jokes—whimsical stuff in the Woody Allen vein, which really appealed to me—and slipped them under his door. He came in later that night and said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘I dunno. I’m writing these things. They’re jokes.’ He couldn’t believe it. ‘These are funny, man. Keep doing this.’ “
Hicks’ first partner in comedy was Dwight Slade, with whom he formed the act Bill and Dwight in the eighth grade. A tape exists of Hicks and Slade giggling through some of their early routines, which involved pretending to be brothers with “many, many problems.” “Ladies and gentlemen, the comedy sensation Dwight Slade and Bill Hicks. And here they are!” it begins, and then the two of them collapse into roars of amusement at their own vain attempts to strike adult postures while reading gags about God, sex, abortion, and parents.
The jokes illustrated Hicks’ precocity, and suggested how comedy both masked and admitted the hostility that kept him sullen and virtually silent around his family. “I can remember being at dinner when Bill would come down to eat,” Steve Hicks told me. “He’d sit there with his face buried in a book. Absolutely no conversation from him or to him. Nothing. Then he would go up to his room and close and lock the door. We had no idea what he was doing.” Hicks’ room, which had nothing on the walls but a guitar, was a cell of rebellious solitude. He kept a typewriter under his bed and hid his pages of jokes inside its case.
In 1976, there were no comedy clubs in Houston. Except for school, the only outlets for Bill and Dwight’s routines were talent shows and night clubs. They scoured the paper for auditions, and often rode their bikes the seventeen miles into town and back for a tryout. That summer, when they were both fourteen, a talent agent to whom they’d sent a tape liked it enough to get them airtime on Jerry Lewis’s Telethon from 2 to 2:45 a.m. Their big break posed three immediate problems: (1) they didn’t have forty-five minutes of material, (2) they’d never performed as Bill and Dwight in front of a live audience, and (3) they had to tell their parents. The first two problems were surmountable, but the third proved the sticking point. Hicks’ parents said no. Hicks and Slade had to cancel, explaining that they were too young to drive themselves to the job. But in 1978, when the Comedy Workshop opened on San Felipe, in Houston, they talked their way into the lineup. This time, they made the gig. To get to it, Hicks had to climb out his window, shin down the drainpipe to the garage roof, jump from the roof to the ground, and hightail it to the Catholic church behind his house, where Kevin Booth, a friend who had a car, picked him up and then drove both performers to the club. Bill and Dwight did fifteen minutes—a kind of double solo performance, each doing Woody Allen shtick without the actual give-and-take of a comedy team. “What was really funny was when my friends would come and I’d go, ‘I . . . uh . . . I have trouble . . . trouble with women,’ “ Hicks said. “And my friends would go, ‘No, you don’t!’ I’d go, ‘My parents are very poor.’ ‘No, they’re not!’ They were amazed we were in this adult world. They were seventeen and could drive us there, but when they got us there we were in the adult world.”
The comedy team performed five times before Slade moved to Portland, Oregon, where he still lives, working as a standup comic. Hicks put his anarchic energy into a hapless punk-rock group called Stress, in which he sang a song called “I’m Glad I’m Not a Hubcap (Hubcaps Don’t Get Laid).” At some point in his seventeenth year, Hicks’ parents took him to a psychotherapist. “There was no connection between me and my parents—none,” he said. “They had no idea of who I was. They still don’t get what I do. How could they have understood it fifteen years ago?” The therapist met with the family, then with Hicks. At the end of the session, the therapist took Hicks aside. “Listen, you can continue to come if you feel like it,” Hicks recalled him saying. “But it’s them, not you.” Soon afterward, at the beginning of Hicks’ senior year, his father was transferred to Little Rock, Arkansas. He and his wife left Hicks behind in the house and left him the keys to the car. Hicks began doing comedy every night. His parents thought he was studying. The comedy club put him on first, because he had to get home early. Sometimes the phone would be ringing just as he walked in the door. “The conversations were like this,” Hicks said. He fell easily into his father’s Southern accent: “ ‘Where were you?’ ‘Library.’ ‘Again?’ “ Even after his parents left, his material was almost entirely about them.
To this day, Hicks continues to mythologize his parents and his relationship with them, in comic routines that spoof their Southern propriety. But this is only professional acrimony, and doesn’t stop Hicks from thanking his parents on his record albums or turning up regularly for ritual family occasions. Hicks, like all comedians, picks at ancient wounds to keep open the soreness that feeds his laughter and to demonstrate his mastery over the past.
In 1982, Hicks’ parents finally saw him perform. They had been visiting Steve in Dallas, where the family had assembled for Thanksgiving, and his parents decided to surprise him. The plan was to drive the three hours to Austin, see the show, and drive back to Dallas the same night before setting out the next day for the six-hour ride to Little Rock. Steve and his wife waited up for them but finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. At nine, their phone rang. The Hickses had been so appalled by their son’s act that they’d got in their car and driven non-stop to Little Rock. “They were in a state of shock,” Steve says. “They didn’t say a word to each other for nine hours. They didn’t even realize they’d driven through Dallas!”
At one end of Hicks’ long, corridor-like dressing room at the Dominion was a window overlooking the stage. Hicks walked over and looked out at the paying customers. “It’s about that time,” he said. Isolation suddenly fell over him like some fog blown in by his unconscious. Showtime was approaching, and he wanted to be alone. Fifteen minutes later, he brought his aggression roaring onstage. The narrative swung into attack as Hicks, like a man driven to distraction by the media, fought his way free of its overload by momentarily becoming its exaggerated voice: “Go back to bed! America is in control again. . . . Here . . . here is American Gladiators. Watch this! Shut up. Go back to bed. Here’s fifty-six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fuckin’ skulls together and congratulate yourself on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free!”
Hicks worked at a tremendous rate, pounding away at the absurdities of American culture with short jabs of wit and following up with a flurry of counterpunches. “Ever notice how people who believe in creationism look really unevolved?” he said. “Their eyes real close together. Eyebrow ridges. Big, furry hands and feet. ‘I believe God created me in one day.’ Looks like he rushed it.” Later, near the end of the evening, Hicks drew one final lesson. “The world is like a ride at an amusement park,” he said. “And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real. Because that’s how powerful our minds are.” A young Englishman three seats away from me shouted “Bollocks!” And, without missing a beat, completely caught up in the dialogue he was having with his audience, Hicks said, “There is a lot of denial in this ride. The ride, in fact, is made up of denial. All things work in Goat Boy’s favor!” Thrilled by the improvised insight, the audience burst into applause, and then Hicks guided the rest of the show smoothly to its conclusion, which, for all its combativeness, ended on the word “peace.”
Hicks came to my house the next day for tea. He was tired and a little distracted, and was wondering out loud which way to take his quirky talent. “Once this stuff is done, it’s over with—I’m not married to any of it,” he said. “Goat Boy is the only thing that really intrigues me right now. He’s not Satan. He’s not Evil. He’s Nature.” Hicks paused and added, “I’m trying to come up with this thing about ‘Conversations with Goat Boy.’ “ Then, suddenly, the interrogator and Goat Boy started a conversation at my tea table:
“You don’t like America?”
“I don’t see America. To me, there is just a rapidly decreasing wilderness.”
Hicks stopped and smiled. “That is Goat Boy. There is no America. It’s just a big pavement now to him. That’s the whole point. What is America anyway—a landmass including the Philippines? There are so many different Americas. To him, to Nature, it’s just land, the earth. Indian spirit—Indians would understand randy Pan, the Goat Boy. They’d probably have a mask and a celebration.”
My son wandered into the kitchen and lingered to eavesdrop on the conversation. At one point, he broke in. “I don’t know how you have the courage to say those things,” he said. “I could never talk like that in front of people.”
Hicks smiled but had no response. Saying the unsayable was just his job. He analyzed the previous night’s performance, which had been filmed for an HBO special. (It was broadcast in September to good reviews.) “People watch TV not to think,” he said. “I’d like the opportunity to stir things up once, and see what happens. But I’ve got a question. Do I even want to be part of it anymore? Show business or art—these are choices. It’s hard to get a grip on me. It’s also hard for me to have a career, because there’s no archetype for what I do. I have to create it, or uncover it.” To that end, he said, he and Fallon Woodland, a standup from Kansas City, were writing “The Counts of the Netherworld,” a TV comedy commissioned for England’s Channel 4 and set in the collective unconscious of mankind. Hicks was doing a column for the English satire magazine Scallywag. He was planning a comedy album, called “Arizona Bay,” a narrative rant against California with his own guitar accompaniment. Should he stay in England, where he was already a cult figure, or return to America? He recounted a joke on the subject by his friend Barry Crimmins, another American political comedian. “ ‘Hey, buddy,’ this guy says to him after a show. ‘America—love it or leave it!’ And Crimmins goes, ‘What? And be a victim of our foreign policy?’ “
As Hicks was about to go, he said, “We are facilitators of our creative evolution. We can ignite our brains with light.” The line brought back something his high-school friend Kevin Booth had told me: “Bill was the first person I ever met whose goal was to become enlightened.” At various times in his life, Hicks had meditated, studied Hindu texts, gobbled hallucinogens, searched for U.F.O.s—anything to make some larger spiritual and intellectual connection. His comedy takes an audience on a journey to places in the heart where it can’t or won’t go without him. Through laughter, Hicks makes unacceptable ideas irresistible. He is particularly lethal because he persuades not with reason but with joy. “I believe everyone has this fuckin’ poem in his heart,” he said on his way out. ♦