A Brit on the side: Why American comic Bill Hicks felt most at home in the UK

Bill Hicks is a byword for acerbic brilliance in the UK – but he couldn't buy a laugh in his native America. On the eve of a new documentary about the maverick comedian, Peter Watts asks: what makes us love him so?

Bill Hicks was, in many ways, the consummate American. The iconoclastic comedian was born in Georgia and lived in Texas, Los Angeles and New York. He smoked like the Marlboro Man, swore like Richard Nixon, joked like Lenny Bruce, died young like Jimmy Dean and dressed like Johnny Cash. But despite a 16-year career that included a dozen appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, Hicks' career took off only when he came to Britain in 1991. And even now, 16 years after his death from cancer in February 1994, it is Brits who are keeping Hicks' legacy alive. Why do the British celebrate this quintessentially American comedian so intently? And how did he get so popular in the first place?

A film about Hicks is released next month. It's called American and, naturally enough, it was made by two Brits, Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock. Harlock's story stands for many. "I came across Bill at university in the early 1990s, when people were discussing this sensation who had ripped up Edinburgh," he says. "He was a key figure for the student community. On the 10th anniversary of his death, I started putting on Bill Hicks events in London, and lots of people came along."

Hicks' success was partly about timing. He was born in 1961 into a bookish Southern Baptist family and developed an interest in comedy after seeing Woody Allen films on TV. He began doing stand-up at 15 and gigged all over the States thereafter, surviving a bout of drink and drug abuse and never quite breaking into the mainstream – until the Montreal Comedy Festival in 1991. There, Hicks went down a storm and was spotted by Channel 4, which was televising the event after a resurgence of interest in stand-up in the UK. Clive Anderson, the presenter of the channel's popular improv show Whose Line is it Anyway?, went to see Hicks for himself.

"Chris Bould, a director, was making this TV special," Anderson recalls now. "So I watched [Hicks'] set in Montreal and straight away saw that he was a very impressive performer, and a massive presence. He did stuff about politics, war, religion and cancer and could knock your socks off with the power of his delivery. It's not that he didn't have jokes – he did have laugh lines at regular spaces. But he was all about striking an attitude."

Although Anderson's semi-apologetic, ultra-English style was far removed from Hicks' forthright freewheeling rants about drugs and religion, the two got on well. "He was a nice guy. If he liked a joke you made, he wouldn't just laugh, he'd applaud," says Anderson. "It was a charming gesture that didn't quite fit in with his aggressive stance."

By the time Anderson interviewed Hicks on his chat-show Clive Anderson Talks Back in 1992, Hicks' fame had spread thanks to Bould's hour-long Relentless special and sold-out shows at the Queen's Theatre in London.

At the same time, Hicks was having a considerable impact on a younger generation thanks to his regular appearances in the rock press. The writer and DJ Andrew Collins was at New Musical Express when the magazine opened a new front by putting the comedian Vic Reeves on the cover in 1990. "The idea of comedy being the new rock'n'roll was rife, and it held a lot of water," says Collins. "They toured like bands, they had groupies and some of them were quite good-looking. I remember seeing Hicks in the West End. He was a revelation, and he came on [the stage] to the Rolling Stones, so his positioning within rock'n'roll was deliberate and significant. His cassettes circulated around the office, and once Relentless had been on TV, we felt vindicated. Hicks' reputation was built on Relentless. He was so different, so diffident, so frightening, and so dark. He was rock'n'roll without trying, and without it being a pose. This was a long way from Dave Baddiel wearing a hooded top."

Terry Staunton, also a writer at NME, recalls: "The 1980s promise of alternative comedy never delivered. With the exception of Alexei Sayle, the whole Comic Strip crowd embraced the mainstream, and the few political comedians there were tended to be a little one-note. Hicks was the voice of rebellion, and it was a breath of fresh air for us at the NME – who were brought up on articulate and politically motivated musicians such as Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and Jerry Dammers – to have someone on our doorstep who could be relied upon to give a good interview."

Two weeks before the NME put Reeves on the cover, it did the same to a dynamic new American band called Nirvana. By 1992, the US invasion of English rock was in full flow and a succession of visceral Yank bands were lumped together under the term "grunge". Hicks, an angry American comedian with a love of rock, was perfectly poised to take advantage of English students' new obsessions.

It helped that Hicks was an extraordinary performer. "He was certainly more challenging than [US rockers] Soundgarden," jokes Collins. "He was mature beyond his years,' adds Anderson. "He had that confidence of somebody who had been around for years – which he had, as he'd run away from home to perform at comedy clubs when he was 16."

Harlock expands on this point. "He appeared here just as he was fully formed. Nowadays, people are aware of comedians at a much earlier stage, but he arrived out of nowhere as a complete package. He'd already done the work and dealt with the problems he needed to surmount."

Hicks once said, "People in the UK share my bemusement with the United States that America doesn't share with itself. They have a sense of irony, which America doesn't have, seeing as it's being run by fundamentalists who take things literally." But this is an oversimplification. After all, there are few things the British like more than jokes about America, especially when they are told by Americans, making Hicks' routines less difficult for English ears. As Dan Hind, the (English) editor of Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, a compilation of Hicks' writing, says, "It's an easy sell. Hicks said he was Chomsky with dick jokes, and the British are much happier reading Chomsky than the British equivalent. You can experience that thrill of thinking 'Isn't America terrible?' without having to consider the parallels or our own relationship with American culture.

"A lot of Hicks' comedy was based on a hate-hate relationship with Southern, white working-class or rural culture. He loathed it. And if you imagine a British comic ripping the hell out of the British white working-class, it would be difficult to stomach. I don't imagine that those who enjoy him having a go at rednecks would be anywhere near as comfortable if he was doing the same to our equivalent."

Paul Thomas notes also the simple logistical difficulties of breaking America. "The size of the country is crucial," he says. "In the UK, if somebody makes a splash in Edinburgh, you hear about them in London, but America is so vast, everything is held together by television and if it isn't up there on that screen on prime-time you won't hear about them, even if they are huge in New York."

Hicks himself thought TV went some way towards explaining why he didn't have the same cultural impact at home. "Bill's brother Steve asked Bill why he hadn't kicked off in the US in the way he had here," says Harlock. "And Bill said it was simple: it was because his material was played on prime-time British TV unedited in a full-length set, whereas in America he was given only five minutes on late-night TV, he wasn't allowed to swear and there were other restrictions."

(Famously, his final routine – his 12th appearance – on Letterman, in 1993, was pulled, as network executives found it too offensive. The set, which included an attack on pro- lifers, was finally shown by Letterman last year, when the chat-show host apologised to Hicks' mother for the routine being banned.)

"It wasn't a cultural difference," adds Harlock, "it's just that in the UK we were given full access to who he was. It wasn't to do with our supposed more sophisticated sense of humour or that we 'get' irony, it was to do with the fact that he was able to do his thing in unrestricted surroundings. It came back to the way advertisers and commercial channels have to work, and Bill had a lot to say about advertising. It ended up affecting him directly."

Understandably, Hicks became a keen Anglophile. Before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 1993, he considered moving to England, and even made a pilot "chat-show" for Channel 4. "He spent his last few weeks re-reading Lord of the Rings," says Hind. "There's a lot of piss-taking in his stand-up about England – coming to Hobbitland – but it was informed by a deep love for some aspects of our national culture."

Harlock wonders whether this ultimately would have spelt the end of Hicks' special relationship with the UK. "He had a razor-sharp view of the world, and he used that to scrutinise where he was from, and that would have been the case wherever he ended up. Bill had talked about moving here and you can imagine that, before long, he'd have turned his beam to English society. Maybe we wouldn't have liked him so much if he'd been here a couple of years and started to tear us apart." n

'American: The Bill Hicks Story' (15) is released on 14 May

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?