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.”


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 (9)
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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.

  • Bill Hicks Historian says:

    This is FAKE. Bill nev­er said any of these things. Fact. This is just made up inter­net garbage.

    - Bill Hicks His­to­ri­an

  • Bill Kilpatrick says:

    What is fake? The list? It could very well be. It’s attrib­uted to some list up on a wall in a Hous­ton club, but that could eas­i­ly be just apoc­rypha. If any­body wants to know what Bill Hicks thought, they need only watch his spe­cials.

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