At age 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 was associated with the Texas Outlaw Comics group developed at the Comedy Workshop in Houston in the 1980s. Once Hicks gained some underground success in night clubs and universities, he quit drinking. However, Hicks continued to smoke cigarettes. His nicotine addiction, love of smoking, and occasional attempts to quit became a recurring theme in his act throughout his later years.
By January 1986, Hicks was using recreational drugs and his financial resources were badly dwindled. His career received another upturn in 1987, however, when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Special. The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years performed about 300 times a year. On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using drugs because "once you've been taken aboard a UFO, it's kind of hard to top that", although in his performances, he continued to extol the virtues of LSD, marijuana, and psychedelic mushrooms. He fell back to chain-smoking, a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.
In 1988, Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus. Throughout 1989, Mondrus worked to convince many clubs to book Hicks, promising that the wild drug- and alcohol-induced behavior was behind him. Among the club managers hiring the newly sober Hicks was Colleen McGarr, who would become his girlfriend and fiancée in later years. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. In subsequent years — in particular after a series of posthumous album releases — his body of work gained a significant measure of acclaim in creative circles, and he developed a substantial "cult" following.
In 1984, Hicks was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman for the first time. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he caused a serious accident that left a classmate using a wheelchair. NBC had a policy that no handicapped jokes could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as "wheelchair."
On October 1, 1993, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, his 12th appearance on a Letterman late-night show, but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast—then the only occasion where a comedian's entire routine was cut after taping. Hicks's stand-up routine was removed from the show allegedly because Letterman and his producer were nervous about a religious joke ("If Jesus came back he might not want to see so many crosses"). Hicks said he believed it was due to a pro-life commercial aired during a commercial break. Both the show's producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker. Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again.
Letterman finally aired the censored routine in its entirety on January 30, 2009. Hicks's mother, Mary, was present in the studio and appeared on-camera as a guest. Letterman took full responsibility for the original decision to remove Hicks's set from the 1993 show. "It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill," he said, "because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that."
RELENTLESS (1991) Centaur Theatre Montreal, Canada
Hicks's style was a play on his audience's emotions. He expressed anger, disgust, and apathy while addressing the audience in a casual and personal manner, which he likened to merely conversing with his friends. He would invite his audiences to challenge authority and the existential nature of "accepted truth." One such message, which he often used in his shows, was delivered in the style of a news report (in order to draw attention to the negative slant news organizations give to any story about drugs): Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration—that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. And now, here's Tom with the weather.
Another of Hicks's most famous quotes was delivered during a gig in Chicago in 1989 (later released as the bootleg I'm Sorry, Folks). After a heckler repeatedly shouted "Free Bird", Hicks screamed that "Hitler had the right idea; he was just an underachiever!" Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity.
Much of Hicks's routine involved direct attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics, and consumerism. Asked in a BBC interview why he cannot do a routine that appeals "to everyone", he said that such an act was impossible. He responded by repeating a comment that an audience member once made to him, "We don't come to comedy to think!", to which he replied, "Gee! Where do you go to think? I'll meet you there!" In the same interview, he also said: "My way is half-way between: this is a night-club, and these are adults."
Hicks often discussed conspiracy theories in his performances, most notably the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mocked the Warren Report and the official version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a "lone nut assassin." He also questioned the guilt of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco Siege. Hicks would end some of his shows, especially those being recorded in front of larger audiences as albums, with a mock "assassination" of himself on stage, making gunshot sound effects into the microphone while falling to the ground.
On June 16, 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Kevin Booth. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new talk show, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and concept had been approved, and a pilot was filmed. The Counts of the Netherworld pilot was shown at the various Tenth Anniversary Tribute Night events around the world on February 26, 2004.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke that any given performance would be his last. The public, however, was unaware of Hicks's condition. Only a few close friends and family members knew of his disease. Hicks performed the final show of his career at Caroline's in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents' house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye, before he stopped speaking on February 14. He died of pancreatic cancer on February 26, 1994, at age 32. Hicks was buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.
INTERVIEW: AUSTIN PUBLIC ACCESS (10-24-1993 1:30am)
LAST SHOW: IGBY'S (Nov. 17, 1993) L.A., CA.
On February 7, 1994, a verse Hicks had authored, on his perspective, wishes, and thanks of his life, to be released after his death as his "last word", ended with the words: "I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."