Bill Hicks’ 12 Principles of Comedy

When we think of trash-talking, transgressive comedians, a few big names spring immediately to mind: George Carlin and Richard Pryor; Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce. Currently, we have Amy Schumer, and Louis CK and Chris Rock, who—though both prominent family men now—still piss people off from time to time. We’ve just scratched the surface, of course, but we might even think of Denis Leary, who dominated the 90s with his rapid-fire delivery and unrepentant chain smoking. And if you know Leary, you may know the man whose act he’s been accused of stealing—chain-smoking firebrand comic Bill Hicks.

I won’t get into the merits of those charges (comedy plagiarism is a long and storied subject). What I find interesting is that in one of the key similarities between Leary and Hicks lies one of their greatest differences: a distinctive regionalism—Leary the wiseass New Englander; Hicks the rebellious Southerner. Hicks grew up in Texas, and was very much a Texan, though not your red state, Bush-voter but the kind of Texan who once upon a time elected Democratic governor Ann Richards. (He described his family as “Yuppie Baptists,” who “worried about things like, ‘If you scratch your neighbor’s Subaru, should you leave a note?’”)




In rebelling against both an uptight urban liberalism and the angry rural chauvinism of his conservative Southern milieu, Hicks, who died of cancer in 1993, became something of a folk hero as well as a comedy legend. For a taste of his comic invective, see him rip into American anti-intellectualism in the clip above. And for a taste of his methodology, see the list below, once posted on the wall of Atlanta’s Laughing Skull comedy club. This comes to us via comedian Chris Hardwick at Nerdist, who, after offering his own advice, turns to Hicks to answer to the question, “How does one go about being a comic.”

BILL HICKS’ PRINCIPLES OF COMEDY

1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.

3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.

4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.

5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.

6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.

7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.

8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.

9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)

10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.

11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.

12. I love my cracker roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.

I’ve never for a second considered doing stand-up, but I’ve stood in front of many a crowded music venue and classroom and have had to conquer stage fright and self-doubt. Seems to me much of Hicks’ advice is plenty applicable to any kind of performance situation, whether its teaching, playing music, giving a job or conference talk, a magic act, or doing stand-up, which I don’t doubt is “the hardest thing there is to do.” I especially like number 12. Hicks’ misanthropic salvos against American ignorance hit the target so often because he genuinely seemed to care about the culture he took aim at.

via @WFMU

Related Content:

How the Great George Carlin Showed Louis CK the Way to Success (NSFW)

Joan Rivers (1933-2014) Describes on Louie Her Undying Commitment to Comedy

Lenny Bruce Riffs and Rants on Injustice and Hypocrisy in One of His Final Performances (NSFW)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (7)
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  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    I’m translating that into rules for poets.

  • John J says:

    Love this article. I agree with almost everything in it. The only part I question is where you doubt that stand up is the hardest thing to do. It might or might not be the hardest thing to do but why is that the one thing that you doubt? What is the hardest thing to do?

  • Bill says:

    @ John J. Learn to read before you start writing..

  • Archibald Wolfe says:

    What is up with you? A person acts completely respectful & nice but you insult them over a simple reading error? What bums me out is you think you’re demonstrating your intellectual superiority over “John J” but all you are really doing is displaying your own lack of etiquette, empathy,intellect & decency.

  • joe davis says:

    Thinking Bill Hicks was remotely intelligent or remotely good at his “job” is what makes him what he is: really doing is displaying your own lack of etiquette, empathy,intellect & decency.”

  • Kai Mann says:

    No Cure For Cancer Is one of the most important catalysts in stand up, whether you like Bill Hicks or not ( I am not a fan) Freedom of speech got really funny and the message wasn’t lost

    Nowadays the type of bullshit that hapoens online (anonymous comments, insults and personal attacks) is shameful. So many brave men and women, hiding their identity and bullying anyone that disagrees. Be real or be nice you fucking cowards.

  • Bill Kilpatrick says:

    Bill Hicks will always be one of my favorite comics. His material is decades old and not all of it stands the test of time. But looking at what he did right, he did a lot right. He was a fearless social critic. He spoke at the level of the common man. When he criticized any group, he criticized his own group first. He reassured his audience that they were were right – while the voices of government and big business were like ticks on a dog. He was the defender of the little guy, and no matter how old he got, he never lost the boy within him. He stood up to bullies. He was doing that in his family, with arguments between himself and his Bible-thumping parents. He did that in school, as he found himself a lone intellectual in Bubba Land. He did that in New York and continued to do that on the national stage as he found fault with the Reagan-Bush machine. Had he lived, he would have picked fights with Clinton, New Gingrich, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

    What we have is a fossil record, original thoughts preserved in amber. The spirit of Bill Hicks is the spirit of individual dignity, of common sense, of honesty and heroic independence against the forces of corruption that came at the man in his time. That same spirit transcends the decades and is as much needed today as at any time in our nation’s history.

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