William Melvin Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, and musician. His material, encompassing a wide range of social issues including religion, politics, and philosophy, was controversial, and often steeped in dark comedy.
At the age of 16, while still in high school, he began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas. During the 1980s, he toured the United States extensively and made a number of high-profile television appearances; but it was in the UK that he amassed a significant fan base, filling large venues during his 1991 tour. He also achieved a modicum of recognition as a guitarist and songwriter.
Hicks died of pancreatic cancer on February 26, 1994, in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the age of 32. In subsequent years his work gained a significant measure of acclaim in creative circles—particularly after a series of posthumous album releases—and he developed a substantial cult following. In 2007 he was voted sixth on Britain’s Channel 4 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics, and rose to number four on the 2010 list. In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him thirteenth on its list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Hicks was born in Valdosta, Georgia, the son of James Melvin “Jim” Hicks (1923–2006) and Mary Reese Hicks, the younger sibling of Lynn and Steve. The family lived in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey before settling in Houston, Texas, when Bill was seven. He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. At school he began performing comedy, mostly derivations of Woody Allen material, for his classmates. At home, he would write his own one-liners and slide them under the bedroom door of his brother Steve, the only family member Bill respected, for his critical analysis. “Keep it up”, Steve told him. “You’re really good at this.”
Early on, Hicks began to mock his family’s Southern Baptist religious beliefs. “We were Yuppie Baptists,” he joked to the Houston Post in 1987. “We worried about things like, ‘If you scratch your neighbor’s Subaru, should you leave a note?'” Biographer Cynthia True described a typical argument with his father:
The elder Hicks would say, “I believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.” And Bill would counter, “No it’s not, Dad.” “Well, I believe that it is.” “Well,” Bill replied, “you know, some people believe that they’re Napoleon. That’s fine. Beliefs are neat. Cherish them, but don’t share them like they’re the truth.”
Hicks did not, however, reject spiritual ideology itself, and throughout his life he sought various alternative methods of experiencing it. Kevin Slade, elder brother of Dwight, introduced him to Transcendental Meditation and other forms of spirituality. Over one Thanksgiving weekend he took Hicks and Dwight to a TM residence course, in Galveston. Worried about his rebellious behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17. According to Hicks, after the first group session the analyst took him aside and told him, “You can continue coming if you want to, but it’s them, not you.”