Just this week, the audio of a never before heard interview with Bill Hicks was released online as part of the British comedy podcast Doubling Up. Co-host of the show and comedian Nick Doody conducted the interview in 1992; the legendary Hicks would die in 1994. And not only did Doody get a great interview out of Hicks; he got to open for the man in front of 1,500 people. Here’s Nick’s story about Hicks and the love of comedy.
“Shit! During your show?!”
It’s November 1992 and Bill Hicks has just stunned rookie stand-up Nick Doody by asking him to open for him at a 1,500-seater gig in Oxford University. Doody, a 19-year-old languages student, has been interviewing his idol on the phone for his university newspaper, and impressed by his questions, Hicks takes the unprecedented step of offering the young Englishman a 15-minute support slot.
Doody, his real name, chuckles in recollection. “It was really cool,” he says. “And I reacted to it in the least cool way imaginable – ‘Yeah, I’d love to, but I’m doing a play.’ I try not to listen back to it.”
Nevertheless, Doody did open for Hicks on that Oxford date on the Texan’s final UK tour before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, going on to become an established act on the UK’s stand-up circuit. Now, after 17 years, and despite his embarrassment, Doody has publicly released the recording of their conversation for the first time, on the Doubling Up podcast he hosts with fellow comic Rob Heeney.
Hicks was lionised in the UK and even went apartment hunting in Edinburgh. In the interview he tells Doody that he appreciates British audiences for their “respectful attitude to performers, they give you an opportunity to really explore ideas … you don’t necessarily have to be funny every three seconds like you do in the States”.
He was delighted to be performing in the institution that educated Oscar Wilde, reveals that he’d just quit smoking and recalls witnessing the infamous 1991 Just For Laughs Festival incident, in which New Jersey-born, Scottish comic Jerry Sadowitz was punched unconscious for beginning his set with: “Hello moosefuckers! I tell you why I hate Canada. Half of you speak French, and the other half let them!”
“Sadowitz was hilarious” claims Hicks. “I swear to God he was up there a minute when this happened and I didn’t understand a fucking word he said, he sounded like a bird tweeting to me … And then suddenly there’s this guy there and ‘boop’, ha, ha, ha. It was really, really shocking”
Along with Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and “the myth of Lenny Bruce,” Hicks cites Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as influences, interesting given the glimpse of slapstick skills he showed in the never-picked-up ABC pilot Bulba. “I don’t think many comics notice or care about [physical skills] but I do, it makes a big difference for me. I like creating a scene and using whatever it takes.”
When I call, Doody is about to head out to Méribel in France for the Altitude Festival, in which stand-ups and musicians perform for snowboarders and skiers at the Alpine resort. Although he’d been performing comedy for two years when he interviewed Hicks, “I’d actually only done about a dozen gigs.
“I remember at the time it was amazing, I was playing the tape to everyone,” he recalls. “He was such a major comic figure and pretty much a year later, he was dead. So it became this incredible, iconic thing to say I opened for Bill Hicks.”
“I’d only become aware of him the previous year, when Channel 4 showed Relentless on television. I remember me and my brother stumbling upon it by accident. I was fascinated by stand-up at the time, but it was one of the first times that gags really gut-punched me, the routines were ruder than anything I’d ever heard, in a really interesting way. It wasn’t like British comedy, it was a lot more like stand-up now – visceral, brutally honest, very graphic.”
As it transpired, there was another support act at the gig, the folk band Balloon.
“I met Bill at the sound check. And then he just went to his hotel room in a way that now, with plenty of years on the road, I can appreciate,” he recalls. “I don’t remember anything about Balloon except that they were heckled throughout because people had paid to see Hicks.”
“It was after midnight, the crowd were all pretty drunk and there was no announcement when I took the stage, a white guy, with dark hair, dressed all in black. I got this incredible fucking applause!”
“You can tell where this is going but I was only dimly aware and started doing jokes about trying to find a place to lock up my bicycle. And it was like watching a Guess Who? of disappointment, a Mexican Wave where the faces in successive rows flipped in disappointment when they realised “this isn’t him either!” I got some heckles and simply replied to them. But I knew my last line was going to be killer, because whatever else happened, I was going to introduce Bill Hicks. He did almost three hours and stormed it.”
Doody went on to write Tell Me The Truth: The Life And Works Of Bill Hicks, a study of the comic as a social commentator. But the bankruptcy of his initial publisher and then the 2002 publication of Cynthia True’s Hicks biography American Scream meant that it never saw the light of day, although the introduction was available on Hicks’ friend Kevin Booth’s Sacred Cows website for many years.
“I lived and breathed Hicks for the time I was writing the book, it was almost creepy” he says. “I was just listening to interviews with him all the time, watching little bits of footage, reading every single article. I could almost channel him. Not in a supernatural way, but I had a really good idea of what he’d probably say to most things, the phrasing of it.”
Like Hicks, Doody had a strict religious upbringing, experimented with drugs and has forged a career performing dark, intelligent, philosophically-inclined stand-up. Still, he’s reluctant to concede too much of an influence.
“There might have been phases as a student when I was into expanding my consciousness, but I ended up getting less mystical as I went on” he maintains. “Although Hicks rejected organized religion, he was into aliens from quite a druggy, mystical perspective and quite an introspective philosophy, so he was still fairly religious, just not in the standard way. The UFO stuff was a great device for him to comment on human affairs, as he says in the interview. I had a vision of heaven on acid once and it was fantastic. But I’m a rationalist and I don’t believe you could endure eternity and not go mental.”
In the course of their conversation, Hicks claims he talks to a crowd in exactly the same way as he does his friends. One of the negligible pities of his passing is that he never got to podcast.
“Our podcast was very much Rob’s idea,” agrees Doody. “But even since before podcasts had really penetrated the mainstream consciousness, there’d be some party or evening that turned into a morning and you’d realise you’d been hanging around with a bunch of very, very funny people for hours and nobody had recorded it. The number of conversations when you go: ‘Wouldn’t the good bits of the last few hours make really good radio?’ And I know a lot of comics have had that thought, about recording themselves chatting about the circuit and swapping stories.”
Doody is a close friend and sometime housemate of former Last Comic Standing contestant Matt Kirshen; the pair have collaborated on the BBC Radio series Bigipedia, an audio parody of Wikipedia that has been recommissioned and is now being pitched for British television in an adapted form, spoofing the Internet, television shows and mobile technology as “artificial intelligence that’s supposed to be helpful, but ends up being a little bit malevolent.”
He reckons Hicks’ legacy is every bit as double-edged, at least in terms of how it shaped British stand-up. “What’s most interesting, but perhaps isn’t often commented upon is just how many bad comics were waywardly influenced by the idea that he was the be all and end all. If it’s not like Hicks, it’s not worth doing. I’ve seen too many comics with his anger but none of his focus and ability to write such incredible routines.”