By: Will Guess
Few comedians in this world have ever had the status legendary attached to their name. When you left a Bill Hicks show, it wasn’t just another night out – He flipped your world view on its head, made you question your ideals, and left you thinking about your life for days after.
Bill was a rare breed of human; A guy that comes along once in a lifetime to challenge us to be better. He made you think, he kept you on the edge of your seat, and he was completely fearless. He’s one of the few comedians that is still relevant almost 20 years after being taken from the world too soon, and his legacy grows every day. I had the overwhelming pleasure of being able to talk to Bill’s mother, Mary, and his brother, Steve, about Bill’s life. What follows is a conversation that gives a little more personal insight into the man many of us admire and sincerely miss.
He was always a nice guy. His whole life he was that way and that was evident from an early age.
When Bill was growing up, what kind of music did he listen to?
SH: I remember Kiss and Elvis Presley! When he was 9 or 10, he wanted Elvis records for Xmas.
Mary Hicks: Bill liked Elvis and his music. I’m sure he listened to other artist who were popular then, but soon he was playing his own music. He had musical talent, was a good guitar player and could play the piano.
Why did you move to Houston to raise a family?
MH: The move from New Jersey to Houston was because of another transfer. We liked Houston. Bill was in 2nd grade and went through high school there. Lynn and Steve finished high school in Houston. Lynn went to the University of Texas and Steve to Texas A&M. It was a good time to raise a family there. It was a busy time. The boys played sports, Lynn was a Wranglerette. That, plus school activities and Jim’s work kept us busy.
Bill returned to live in Houston again after having lived in L.A. for awhile. It felt like home to him.
Mary, When Bill was 17, you and your husband moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. What was the reason for the move, who did Bill stay with, and do you think it affected or influenced his pursuit of a career in comedy in any way?
MH: Mr. Hicks worked for GMAC, a division of General Motors and was transferred often.The move from Houston to Little Rock was because of a transfer.
Bill was a Senior in High School and had planned to move to Little Rock with us. He came to LR for an interview with a counselor at Pulaski Academy, a private school in the area where we planned to live. He was accepted and was looking forward to the move. After the interview, the counselor took Bill on a tour of the school and to the door of the auditorium where an assembly was being dismissed. As the girls were leaving the assembly, they were eyeing Bill and he was eyeing them. Bill was looking forward to the move.
By Christmas we had not found a house. We decided to build. This changed our plans for Bill. By Christmas he had finished the first semester of his Senior, so we and Bill decided to let him remain in LR to complete his Senior.year.
Bill stayed alone in our Houston house. We were back and forth frequently to check on Bill. He and the house and yard were always well cared for when we arrived.
In May of 1980, we went to Houston to attend Bill’s graduation. Bill went to the Comedy Club and performed. The next morning he arose early, rode his bike to the school to pick up his diploma, returned home, handed me the diploma and went back upstairs to bed.
The only way Bill being alone in Houston affected his outlook or interest in comedy was to give him more time to spend at the comedy Club honing his craft.
What were some of Bill’s favorite places to hang out in Houston?
SH: The Comedy Workshop for sure. Also, I know they loved Birraporetti’s and I think a lot of his time was hanging with his good friends at his apartment in the Houston House, a high rise apartment building downtown. I don’t know if that is still there or not.
MH: In Houston I think the Houston House where Bill lived could have been called Party City – the stories told of parties there could confirm it. Birraporetti’s was a favorite hangout as was the Comedy Workshop.
What moment did you realize that Bill was going to be a career comedian?
SH: This is a story that’s been told often but it is true. When he was maybe 13 or 14 years old, possibly even younger, he would slide jokes under my bedroom door. I would write notes on them about if I thought they were funny or not. Although I had no concept at that time of what it meant to be a comedian, he had clearly found something at that early age that he was passionate about. It wasn’t much longer before he was sneaking out of his bedroom window and getting rides with his friend Kevin Booth down to the Comedy Annex in downtown Houston. I think the first time I went and saw him perform there it seemed obvious he was doing “his thing” even in his teenage years.
MH: Since Bill’s performance at church camp when he was 13 years old, I have known this was his interest. It didn’t make me think this would be his life work. At this age, if you asked Bill what he wanted to do after high school, he would tell you he wanted to go to Texas A&M and be a veterinarian. As Bill grew older and began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, I still didn’t think he was preparing to be a professional comedian. When Bill performed in Houston, he asked us not to come to the club so we didn’t go. Maybe not having seen him perform kept the thought of comedy as a career out of mind.
After graduating high school, he and a few comedians put a show together hoping to make enough money for them to move to Los Angeles. They had invited Argus Hamilton, a comedian and Mitzi Shores’ right hand man, to be their headliner. Argus was impressed with Bill’s performance and called Mitzi on his behalf. Mitzi told Argus to get him to LA. So, one day I found myself at the airport in Houston with Bill waiting for the plane that would take him to LA. I cried; Bill paced. Finally, he asked me to quit crying. He said it was hard for him too but he had to try it and if it didn’t work out he would come back to Houston and go to college.
With all of the information about Bill currently available, there is almost no mention of his love life. Was there ever a special woman in his life or did he remain single for the majority of it?
SH: Bill had significant relationships in his life. It is not my story to tell. None of the women have decided to talk about that for whatever their reasons are. I have total respect for that and will leave it there.
MH: Bill never married but he did have long term relationships. He and his first love kept in touch all of Bill’s life. She was at the memorial service in Little Rock.
Did Bill ever talk to you about his use of hallucinogenic drugs and how they affected his outlook on life?
SH: Not really. I knew he did them, I did not. That difference was no big deal but I guess it didn’t give us common ground on that topic. Many years later, Bill tried to get me to take mushrooms with him. We went out to the desert together in the middle of the night and we got real close to doing them, but I got cold feet, then a storm blew in, and we had to leave. So, I never did partake. He did give me these tapes(I still have them) of a medium who supposedly was channeling this alien who lived in the future. Bill liked that for the idea that it was similar to some of his experiences. I couldn’t tell you if it was real or not, but Bill definitely wanted to share it. This was even before mushrooms, etc. Bill was always very spiritual, deep, complex. So, we always experienced that with him in conversations, books he read, experiences he shared. I think he believed the drugs enhanced all that perception for him. Again, it was all good. To each his own, this was just one area we didn’t share the same experiences in.
MH: There was no exclusive in depth discussion of hallucinogenic drugs. Bill did begin to tell me details of his life after high school graduation and moving to LA. The subject of drugs was part of the information. I asked Bill why after not getting caught up in that world did he begin? He said, “It just seemed to be the thing to do at the time.” Bill was glad to be free of the need for drugs and I know I was.
Did Bill’s views on life change yours in any way?
SH: I think it came after Bill passed away and we’ve come in contact with his fans that just absolutely love him. It has made me very humble about that and more respectful of people’s need or want for that kind of connection. 99.9% of the people I’ve come in contact with are unbelievable people and I feel honored to be just a tiny part of this thing they feel. I do my best to uphold the good things about Bill as I represent his legacy and I think that just makes me better appreciate these others.
Despite some of the public’s perception that Bill had a good amount of “negative material,” do you think his message was ultimately positive?
SH: Without a doubt. The name of his book is “Love All the People”. I think that although there were negative elements to some of the material, the overall message was always positive. If it was negative, there would not be such a connection and growth in his legacy all these years later.
MH: The more I listen to Bill’s material, the more I can see his intent was to be positive. He may have taken a circuitous route occasionally, but he came back to hope.
What do you think Bill’s legacy is?
SH: You know, it seems to have gone beyond comedy at this point. We have so many people that want to tell us not how funny Bill was, but how much Bill changed their lives, or how he changed the way they look at the world now. He definitely had a way to tap into the bigger picture, bigger issues and that coupled with his warmth and heart is what people connect with in my opinion.
We just hear so often from people that had gotten to know or meet Bill how nice he was, how friendly, how compassionate, how respectful of others. We hear it all the time. Of course, that is no surprise to us, we’re his family.
So, I think Bill’s talent for conveying these thoughts to others plus the connection with these strong, humanistic traits have made his work transcend the comedy stage. Bill deserves that and we are very proud to be a part of his legacy.
MH: Bill has been called many things- a prophet, a Shaman, a poet and a truth sayer. I have heard him called a humanitarian. I like that because I think it speaks to the fact that Bill was a very caring person. He tried to jolt us awake to see how we are manipulated and hoped we would do something to change things around to a more even society.
What do you think about the idea of a monument for Bill in Houston?
SH: I think it would be great. Thanks for trying to get something started there.
MH: A monument to Bill in Houston would be amazing.
Tell me about the Bill Hicks Wildlife Foundation and what people can do to support it.
MH: The Bill Hicks Foundation for Wildlife was established after Bill’s death. It is run by sisters Teri and Lynn Raridon. They do a great job. I am in awe of all they do which is to take in injured animals and nurse them until they can be returned to their natural habitat. There is a website where people can make donations to help offset the cost of food and medicine and others needs until the animals are ready to be returned to the wild.
Steve, I know that you traveled with Bill on the road sometimes. Do you have any good stories from those times that you’d be willing to share?
SH: Shortly after Bill moved to LA right out of Stratford High School my wife and I, and a friend of hers flew to LA to visit Bill. We stayed in his small apartment in Burbank. The night we got there, on a late flight, Bill wanted to take us to eat at a favorite Chinese restaurant he had found. It was very late at night and we were all very hungry. They came and took our order, then a long time went by and we had not received our food. Bill went to check it out and came back said they were all on break! The whole restaurant staff; so they took our orders, then went on break for half an hour before serving us.
While we were there we went to the famous Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. We’d see Bill perform-this would have been when he was just 18 or 19. We also saw Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal. I don’t remember who all else we may have seen, but all those guys were there. That was the place to be if you were a comedian. That’s why Bill went out there in the first place. He was real proud to be able to help us have that chance to see these legendary comedians.
He was able to get us tickets through the William Morris talent agency(that’s who was representing him) to the Merv Griffin show. It was a day time talk show, very big back in that time. We all stood in line together waiting to be let in, feeling very special that Bill was big enough at the time(he wasn’t big at all yet but it felt like he was) to get us free tickets to a real Hollywood show. We loved it.
We would also, all four of us, hop into his little white Chevy Chevette (he really did own a Chevette) and drive around LA, up the Pacific Coast Highway, just seeing the sights and hanging out, putting along in that little crappy car!
I went to Chicago to see Bill when he filmed his HBO One Night Stand. Bill wanted to go out shopping and he bought himself a $30 pair of socks. I said, “Man, what are you doing – 30 bucks for socks?” Neither of us had any money to speak of back then, so that seemed very exorbitant to me. He just said, “Hey, if I’m going to perform well, I’ve got to feel good. Good socks feel good!” So, he bought them. Now when you watch that show again, think of those damn $30.00 socks!!
I also remember that we rode in the cab from the hotel to the theater for Bill’s taping with Norm McDonald. This was way before he had taken off on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t see his show that night but I remember him as being pretty nice in the cab ride.
After Bill’s performance, another comedian came up to him and said he really liked his stuff, and he and Bill should try writing together sometime. Bill said, “No thanks, I don’t write with anybody else, I do all my own stuff.” I never really hear much about that other comedian. Maybe he did need a writing partner.
I was in Las Vegas when he opened the brand new Rodney Dangerfield club at the Tropicana Hotel. Bill had already filmed Rodney Dangerfield’s HBO Young Comedian’s Special and from that Rodney asked Bill to be the comedian to open the new Tropicana club. It was my first time in Vegas, and Bill had to come keep pulling me away from the video poker machines. I couldn’t get enough of those things but he knew I didn’t need to be blowing my money like that. He’d pull me away and make sure I went back to my room. I’d wait a few minutes then head back down to the machines! He’d come find me again….On one of those late night excursions, Rodney Dangerfield was walking through the casino in his bathrobe. Bill took me over and introduced me to him – That was neat.
My parents left to go home and Bill actually also left, so I was there by myself until my flight the next day. Bill was able to get me into the taping of the next Rodney Dangerfield Young Comedian’s Special. I remember Tim Allen was the big hit at that one; this was before his big TV career even started.
Also, this is the first time I realized Bill had had a substance abuse problem. One day he asked me to drive him somewhere in the rental car he had. He said we were going to a meeting he needed to go to for his well-being. Found out when I picked him up it was an AA meeting. This was early on in his recovery so he would attend meetings in the various cities he was performing. I think he was a little nervous about letting me in on this, but I did not judge. I never did. He knew I was there for him. I think it was a relief now that he knew I knew and all was still good. I was glad to see he was feeling good about himself and was happy.
There were plenty of other times Bill and I were together, whether he was performing or not, with our family or alone just us. Depending on his travel and performance commitments he would spend holidays, birthdays, vacations, time off, etc. with his family, as well as with his friends. We were a big part of Bill’s life and, of course, he was a big part of ours.
Do you think he is portrayed correctly in documentaries including American: The Bill Hicks Story?
SH: Let me expand my answer to also include books, articles, essays, and anything that portrays Bill.
I’ve always been amazed at the level of respect for Bill that is so consistent with everyone who writes about him or portrays things about him in any way. It is very gratifying to know he has touched so many people that way.
So, my answer is yes, I think he is portrayed correctly in the sense that those doing it are coming from that perspective of love, respect and honor.
Having said that, not everything said is correct and that is irritating at times. Bill was all about truth and honor so why not fight to make sure the things said about him also are reflective of that. It is a reason our family has taken a more public role in representing Bill’s legacy.
A common thing that is out in the Bill-universe is that he hated his family. It is so far from the truth it is laughable, but I guess it makes good copy. Bill spent vacations, holidays, and many times with his family. All of us together or some of us alone, depending on the time and circumstance.
Someone actually said in a book that the Hicks family did not do everything they could to treat Bill’s cancer. The very idea is repugnant and how someone who was not there during those times could propose that is just wrong.
I’ve heard it said that after Bill got sick he decided to go back to his estranged family to try to make things right. Make what things right? Bill was never estranged from his family. Anyone close to Bill would know without a doubt that in any time of need he would rely on his family; that’s why he went back to our parents’ house when he got so sick. Of course he was going to go to his family, it was a no-brainer. Whoever would think otherwise just didn’t understand what they were talking about.
But I think a lot of this stuff came about because other people were out there talking and the Hicks family was not doing much talking. Over the years, these things just became part of the accepted story about Bill. I think anyone who knows us or has met us realizes our intent is to represent Bill’s legacy with honor and respect.
No doubt Bill had his very close friends and had lifelong relationships with them. Bill was very loyal, as were his friends. I liked all those guys a lot, not that they need my validation. When they were all together they clearly had a strong camaraderie and I know Bill’s friends meant the world to him.
MH: When Bill is portrayed with love, respect and dignity, I think the documentaries are very good. Working with the people who have made the documentaries has been an interesting experience. I believe Bill is portrayed well in all of them.
Do you still keep in touch with any of Bill’s comedian co-workers from The Comedy Annex in Houston?
SH: Very infrequently. A little bit more the last year or two from the attention that came from the American: The Bill Hicks Story documentary since we were all in it. And, now with Facebook and Twitter you can drop a quick line, or a Thumb’s Up!
But also, these were Bill’s friends and it’s not my place to encroach on that. I know those guys, I know how much they meant to
Bill. I’m around, I know they’re around. We always interacted with each other with the utmost respect.
MH: Bill used to say he had the best friends in the world. They have been extremely nice to me. We are not in constant contact but occasionally we will end up at an event together. It is always good to catch up and hear they are doing well.
How much unreleased material is there of Bill’s currently and can we expect to hear it any time soon?
SH: About a year and a half ago we put out a box set called the Essential Collection. It has five hours of previously unreleased video of Bill performing, some unreleased audio, and 10 original songs written and recorded by Bill, plus the classic Ninja Bachelor Party movie he, Kevin Booth and David Johndrow made. It’s chock-full of gems!!
Beyond that we have 100 more hours of video and an equal amount of audio only. So, there is a chance of some further releases. I’m always curious what it is the fans would like to see. We try to come up with things people haven’t seen before or that we think fans would find interesting.
If Bill were here today, what do you think his views on the position of America would be? Given that he opened people’s minds to some of the hypocrisies during his comedy career and a lot of them haven’t changed.
SH: I’m always reluctant to answer what would Bill be doing today type of questions. We just don’t know where his life would have gone. In addition to continuing his standup, he wanted to get more into writing and other things. He had a couple of book publishers talking to him about writing a book but he ran out of time before anything came of that. He also had been invited to do a lecture series at Lincoln Center in New York City; and, there was the Counts of the Netherworld talk show he was going to do in England. Lots of different opportunities were presenting themselves. I do think he would have never compromised his integrity no matter which path he took. That was just too much a part of his DNA and I’m fairly sure he would have continued to challenge the status quo.
MH: If Bill were here today I think he would be pleased to know his ideas are still being heard. He may be disappointed to know there have been few changes. I cannot ever see Bill backing down from his beliefs so, I imagine he would continue trying to make a change, This, of course, is a supposition.
Are there any good stories about Bill that you haven’t shared before that you’d be willing to now?
MH: When Bill came back to Houston for a visit after being in LA, we met him at the airport. In the car he leaned on the front seat and handed me some newspaper clippings and said “Here is my report card.” – Some of his first reviews from LA.
SH: Hmm…. I think our family has been very open and forthcoming about sharing parts of our lives with Bill. Some things we will always just keep for ourselves. I will just say thanks to everyone who keeps Bill’s memory alive. He was a really good guy and is always sorely missed. It is amazing and rewarding to know how much he has meant to so many people around the world, and that base just continues to grow. Our family is very appreciative.