The British makers of a film about US comedian Bill Hicks, who died 16 years ago, hope their work will win him long-overdue recognition in his homeland

It's January 2009 and David Letterman is making a public apology. The American chat show king is talking about an error of judgment he made years earlier, a mistake, he says, born out of his own feelings of insecurity. He hasn't been caught with his pants down.

No, the person he's making an apology to is Mary Hicks, the mother of the American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, whose final performance was controversially cut from the Letterman show, making Hicks one of the first comedy acts to be fully censored on the CBS network.

It's a decision that ultimately denied the American public what would turn out to be their final opportunity to see Hicks on mainstream television. Less than six months later, on 26 February 1994, Hicks died from pancreatic cancer at the criminally young age of 32.

Hide Ad

To be fair to Letterman, no one outside Hicks's immediate family knew he was sick. But considering the jokes had been pre-approved several times by the network's standards and practices committee, the decision to drop the routine was devastating for the comedian, who knew what he was facing and just wanted his material to have another shot at penetrating the American mainstream that had ignored him for much of his career.

"It was a hard time for all of us. I just need you to know that," Mrs Hicks later told Letterman sternly on that January 2009 show, stunning him into silence. After screening the routine – in which a painfully thin and bearded Hicks takes hilarious sideswipes at the pro-life lobby, mediocre celebrities and peculiarities of religious iconography – Letterman acknowledged how timeless the material seemed and sheepishly wondered: "What was the matter with me?"

It was an odd moment, not least because Hicks continues to be a relatively obscure figure in the US. He may have achieved rock star-like status in the UK before he died, but in his home country, aside from being celebrated by a few in-the-know comedians, musicians and writers, his name has yet to attain the kind of widespread recognition shared by his firebrand predecessors Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison.

Indeed, there seemed little demand for Letterman to make amends, especially 15 years after the event.

But that symbolic gesture may be a sign that the rest of the world is finally getting in synch with Hicks, whose savagely funny, philosophical, intellectually stimulating, sometimes lurid, frequently confrontational and increasingly spiritual observations on the world are as relevant today as they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A consciousness-expanding comic and libertarian at heart, he railed against the first Gulf War at a time when his fellow comics were keeping their mouths shut to avoid jeopardising lucrative sitcom/movie/MTV deals.

Hide Ad

He also challenged audiences with lurid defences of pornography as a means of highlighting the damaging impact of advertising, decried the way television – which he called "Lucifer's dream box" – was increasingly used as a weapon of mass distraction by the government, and frequently objected in darkly poetic and funny ways to the insidious bonds that exist between corporations and government.

He also got his start ridiculously young, rebelling against the banality of his suburban Houston surroundings and the rigours of his otherwise rational parents' southern Baptist beliefs by studying comedy.

Hide Ad

The young Hicks developed routines with his best friend Dwight Slade and sneaked out at night to perform in comedy clubs where he would hold his own among the adult comedians.

It's a story movingly told in the new film, American: The Bill Hicks Story, an innovative documentary that will receive its Scottish premiere later this month at the Glasgow Film Festival, six days ahead of the 16th anniversary of Hicks's death.

Produced and directed by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, the film uses a kind of paper-cut-out form of animation to bring to life a vast archive of never-before-seen photos, as well as rare (and not so rare) performance footage, as a way of illustrating Hicks's story as told to them by the ten people that knew him best, including his mother, his brother Steve, and Slade.

The result is an intimate portrait of Hicks as both person and performer, one that strips away some of the reverential myth-making that has grown up around him since his early death to get at the heart of who he was.

"That approach really emerged from the interviews," says Harlock, who got the idea for doing the film after putting on a couple of events showcasing rare Hicks material.

"There are some very famous Bill fans out there who have quoted their reverence for him publicly, but once we'd spoken to those ten people who knew Bill through his whole life, we knew it was going to be more powerful focusing solely on them, because they all seemed to carry a bit of Bill with them."

Hide Ad

The animation technique, which Thomas admits they borrowed from The Kid Stays in the Picture (the innovative 2002 documentary about legendary producer Robert Evans), also enabled them to keep Hicks in the picture by recreating scenes from his past not covered by original photos or video footage.

"We didn't really want to have these ten people talking about a dead person," Thomas says. "This way you're back in that time and place and Bill is there like everybody else; it's a way of maintaining his presence in the film."

Hide Ad

Slade, who admits he had mixed feelings while watching the finished film, confirms: "It is like he lives again. Your childhood is this sacred thing, and suddenly it's up there on screen, but at the same time it's great to have a connection to my friend again. I miss him and I think about him every day."

Harlock and Thomas hope that sense of connection translates to audiences, especially ones who know nothing about Hicks. Indeed, it's become something of a mission to spread the word of Bill, as it were.

"He should be part of the cultural timeline, but somehow his place has been missed," says Thomas. "And it's not all about American censorship. It's just this wider cultural thing that has happened in America. He keeps on falling through the cracks."

Hicks didn't exactly fall through the cracks in the UK. After being spotted at the Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival in July 1990, he made his UK live debut that November in London's West End as part of an ongoing showcase of new US talent called Stand Up America.

The following year, after another hugely successful one-man show at Montreal – later broadcast in full in the UK as Relentless – he really broke big, playing the Edinburgh Fringe to packed crowds (he kicked off his opening show by yelling out: "Hello, Glasgow") and winning the critics' award.

Uncensored TV appearances followed and in 1992 he did a sell-out tour of the UK and Ireland, culminating in the now legendary Revelations show at the 2,000-seat Dominion theatre in London, where he took to the stage looking like Johnny Cash's "Man in Black" and proceeded to deliver impassioned, wonderfully reasoned rants against the Iraq war, corruption and creationism before tying it all together with an unexpectedly moving avowal of the need to choose love and peace over fear in order to make the world a better place.

Hide Ad

Despite such success, when he returned to the US he was still barely able to fill tiny clubs, despite touring there constantly for 15 years. His despair at this state of affairs courses through American and is one of the reasons Harlock and Thomas chose that title.

"We hoped it would be something of a 'f*** you' to people who didn't know him there. We want people to sort of say, well, hang on, who is this guy they're calling 'American'. It's a big word to own and we like the idea that Bill would own that word and cause people to ask questions. If it's enough for someone to say 'I don't know who this is, maybe I should find out', then maybe it's enough to hook people in."

Hide Ad

Ask Slade what repeatedly drove Hicks towards the stage and he says: "A sense of destiny. It was very present in Bill. There always seemed to be something that was drawing him to it, a force beyond him. In many ways I think subconsciously he knew he only had a short time and that's why he accomplished so much – and why he had this fearlessness about it."

But it's precisely this – and his uncompromised idealism – that makes him such a tricky figure to put on film. Hicks genuinely despised corporate culture, especially the way anything artistic can be tainted and compromised by the lure of money.

In his act he used to implore anyone who worked in advertising or marketing to kill themselves, and then became exasperated imagining the ways in which that routine might be seized upon by marketing men to spin money out of it. At a time when images of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain can be used to sell video games, it's easy to imagine a lucrative but potentially damaging industry sprouting up around Hicks.

Harlock and Thomas are sensitive to this. "We've had comments suggesting this film is part of the consumerist machine Bill was so against," says Thomas. "But we're just trying to get his material out there and at the moment we've put most of the funding in."

Harlock adds: "I hope we're not leaving ourselves open to charges of marketing Bill, but the overriding things Bill was talking about are much more important than any short-term concerns we might have about people wondering if we're marketing him or not."

The involvement of the Hicks family helps defuse such suspicions. "I don't think it's ever financial with them," says Harlock, who started talking to them about doing the film more than three years ago.

Hide Ad

"I think they see it as their responsibility to get Bill's work out, but they were also starting to realise they needed to talk about Bill after not talking about him for 12 years. Bill's dad Jim passed away in summer 2006 and they just thought, if we're going to do this, we've got to do it now with a team we trust."

Though Dwight Slade only ever thinks of Hicks in terms of their friendship, he does understand the iconic appeal he holds. "Younger generations are hearing this stuff and they're realising there's this tragic story.

Hide Ad

Here's a guy who was nipped in the bud at a really early age – a raging voice of hilarity and social justice." But he cautions against viewing Hicks as some kind of abrasive, black-clad rebel who purposely talked about pornography and smoked cigarettes just to get in people's faces.

"Towards the end of his life, Bill wore a beard, he wore khakis, and he didn't smoke. He was evolving into a different type of spokesman. He realised he wanted people to listen to him.

I think what the film does is get rid of that myth that you have to be a chain-smoking tortured artist to bring truth to the stage. You just have to be yourself."

This might also be his real legacy. In America, Slade says, the comedy scene has changed for the better, with the Daily Show using biting satire to demolish media spin and with cutting-edge comics such as Louis CK, Louis Black and Doug Stanhope selling out tours in big theatres. "That's because of Bill's precedent," Slade suggests.

He thinks that might be why Letterman, long a cornerstone of stand-up, issued that apology to Bill's mother. "I think he's tying up the loose ends of his own career (in relation to] what he's done for American stand-up."

Harlock agrees: "I think audiences are more receptive to being told the emperor has no clothes." He refers to a Tom Waits quote that describes Hicks as "blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer, and brain specialist. He will correct your vision. Others will drive on the road he built."

Hide Ad

"People saw Hicks as someone who could really help people achieve things... hopefully he will."

American: The Bill Hicks Story screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on 20 February, 8.15pm, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, for tickets, 7/6 concession. The film is released on 6 May.

• This article first appeared in The Scotsman, Saturday February 13, 2010

Related topics: