Perhaps the most talented American comedian working the circuit these days is a native Houstonian who looks about as funny as a death in the family. Bill Hicks is a pallid, limp-haired, sad-faced, hostile thirty-year-old with a taste for black clothes, black humor, and musicians who die before their time. He tells his audiences, “People like to come up to me and say, ‘Takes more energy to frown than it does to smile!’ I say, ‘Yeah, and it takes more energy for you to tell me that than it does for you to shut up and leave me alone.’”

Hicks gets his laughs the way Lenny Bruce (to whom he is often compared) did: by attacking conventions of every sort, including those that govern what should and should not be fodder for humor. During last year’s flush of national patriotism for Desert Storm, Hicks proclaimed on Late Night With David Letterman, “I’m for the war, but I’m against the troops. I’m sorry, I just don’t like those young people. Don’t get me wrong, though—I’m all for the carnage.” Despite his provocations, or because of them, Hicks’s reputation as a comedian of ferocious passion and intellect has led to ten appearances on the Letterman show, as well as a spotlight segment on CBS’s 48 Hours and his own HBO comedy special. More important, his success has earned him the ultimate compliment in a cutthroat business: a rash of lesser competitors who pattern their acts after his.

“I only wish that the people who think I’m so worthy of imitation had production companies,” says Hicks, who, after fifteen years of live performances, has begun to wonder if his resentful demeanor is too forbidding for those who parcel out movie deals and TV series. Such offers have gone to comedians like Roseanne Arnold and Andrew Dice Clay, who are punchier, raunchier, louder, fatter, and possess a more camera-ready wardrobe than Hicks. Yet what Bill Hicks lacks in these areas he makes up for in sheer comic inspiration.

The titles of Hicks’s two live albums—Dangerous and the recently released Relentless—tell something about his bombing-raid approach. The ground he strafes is familiar enough: Bush, Baptists, the National Rifle Association, his parents, his ex-girlfriends. But his humor gets its edge from the punishing force of truth behind it, whether he is belittling the war in the Persian Gulf or the farmers in Fyffe, Alabama, who saw a UFO and immediately scrambled for their guns. Between bits, he paces the stage, grimacing and scratching violently at his scalp while the audience, mindful of his talent for eviscerating hecklers, maintains a respectful silence. At times Hicks will solicit an audience reaction, such as when he asks, “How many nonsmokers do we have tonight?” After taking stock of the applause, Hicks will light a cigarette. “I hate you nonsmokers with all my little black heart.”

“The richest kind of laughter is the laughter in response to things people would ordinarily never laugh at,” says Hicks, whose own laugh recalls the impudence of Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver. In person he is engaging, though there is an unease about him, as if at any moment he expects to be asked to leave. Hicks gives the impression that his search for humor is a mission to avoid despair. That Hicks grew up idolizing Woody Allen, a comedian with an entirely different style and range of targets, is not surprising—“The connection is a low self-esteem,” says Hicks.

Hicks was a fourteen-year-old introvert living in the suburbs of west Houston when he first saw Allen in What’s New, Pussycat? It was the funniest movie he had ever seen, and the notion of its nebbish screenwriter having cast himself as a hero rang all the right bells. Hicks began to write comedy stories. One morning while reading the newspaper, he noticed that a downtown club called the Comedy Workshop was sponsoring an amateur night. Hicks called and asked to perform, and the manager said he could. Hicks’s parents forbade him to do so, but he was undeterred. He sneaked out of his second-story window, crawled across the garage, and ran to a nearby church parking lot, where a friend with a car ferried him to his first gig. That night he earned $8 with such rehearsed lines as, “My girlfriend is very small—she’s a stewardess on a paper airplane.”

Gradually, as Hicks continued his clandestine pilgrimages to the Comedy Workshop, his material advanced from the merely absurd to the poignant: “I’ve been with the same girl for five years now, so I finally popped the question: ‘Why are we still seeing each other?’” His popularity grew. He performed his first solo show at the age of fifteen, at a church camp. His first major fee was $150, earned at a breakfast party at Sakowitz at six-thirty in the morning. “There was a huge buffet,” he recalls, “and they said, ‘We don’t have time to do the show. Just be funny while we get our food.’ I stood between the ham and the powdered eggs.”

The management and the older comedians at the Comedy Workshop adopted Hicks as a talented apprentice. His teachers and classmates at Stratford High School began to show up to see him perform, and before long Bill Hicks was accorded outlaw celebrity status among his peers. One night after a football game, he showed up at the local Wendy’s and was goaded into what became ninety minutes of stand-up before a packed house of hamburger-eating students. When word spread at school one afternoon that Hicks would be doing his routine in a nearby vacant field during lunch, more than two hundred students flocked to see the free show. Not everyone was enamored of the campus rebel. “You’re pathetic,” he remembers one of his principals telling him. “You have the sense of humor of a third-grader.”

Hicks knew a setup when he heard one. “Well, then,” he replied, “you must have the comprehension of a second-grader.”

Following his graduation in 1980, Hicks and three other Houston comedians—including the late Sam Kinison—moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find work at the burgeoning Comedy Store nightclub. They did, but Hicks grew bored with the scene, the city, and the very act of telling jokes for a living. He enrolled at Los Angeles Community College and on his first day got his nose broken in karate class. Taking that as a sign, Hicks returned to Texas and signed on at the University of Houston.

“It was the Great Postponement,” Hicks admits of his stint at the university. “I figured that if I hung in there for four years, something would strike me. I started off taking public speaking and philosophy. I thought it would be good to start off my college career with a couple of A’s. The public speaking guy tried to turn me into a Rotary Club speaker, with all the right gesticulations. I did my speech—muttered and paced and smoked and yelled at someone. And the philosophy professor wanted us to prove David Hume’s there-is-no-God thesis right at a time when I’d just taken mushrooms for the first time. He turned purple every time I raised my hand. I failed both classes.”

Sulking, Hicks returned to the Comedy Workshop, where he knew he could get free drinks. It was 1982, and for reasons Hicks now insists have something to do with Reagan’s presidency, the American comedy scene was exploding. The nightclub’s booking agent urged Hicks to rejoin the circuit. “It literally went like this: ‘Bill, we have a gig for you in Victoria, Texas. Oh, and while you’re there, a club just opened in El Paso.’ It happened in every state.”

Hicks and his menacing stage act became much in demand. In 1983, at 21, he opened for a hot New York comic named Jay Leno in an Austin nightclub. “What’re you doin’ down here?” Leno demanded after seeing Hicks’s performance. “Why aren’t you on TV?” A few months later, Leno arranged to get Hicks on David Letterman’s show. Subsequently, Hicks appeared several times, on the third visit incorporating an attack on the Reverend Jerry Falwell that greatly displeased Letterman’s producers. Hicks was not invited to hurry back. His defiance only fueled his renegade image—a reputation that included an overt fondness for alcohol and drugs.

“Rock and roll would not exist without drugs,” he delighted in pointing out in his shows, adding, “The Beatles were so high they even let Ringo sing a couple.” But drugs, especially alcohol, were slowly getting the best of Hicks, who would later tell crowds, “I was a weekend drinker—started on Saturday, ended on Friday.” His routines became more meandering, his words less comprehensible. By the mid-eighties, Hicks began to see in the faces of the audience the sentiments of his former principal: “You’re pathetic.” This time around he began to believe it.

One night was particularly grim. Hicks spent the entire evening on a binge, then had to do a radio show at seven the next morning. “I was up all night with the most satanic thoughts,” he said, “thinking, ‘I have chosen evil.’ Somehow I did the radio show—and was really funny.  But my heart was pounding and I thought I was gonna die. I went back to the hotel. And this guy I was working with who used to have a problem also, he was up whistling and looking peaceful. I said, ‘Man, you going to one of those AA meetings today?’ He said, ‘I’ve been waiting three years to hear you ask that. There’s a meeting in fifteen minutes. Let’s go.’”

Going straight was not easy for Hicks, who had come to think of the whiskey shots as stage props. He wondered if he would be funny without drugs. “But I also realized,” he says, “that I wouldn’t be funny if I was dead.” That Hicks’s shows are now more sharply focused is a matter of personal pride for him. Yet Bill Hicks does not sell his sobriety either as a story or as a stage sermonette—beyond telling his audiences, “I admit I’ve had bad experiences with drugs; I mean, look at this haircut.” He continues to insist that hallucinogens changed his life for the better, maintaining, with deadly seriousness, that he was taken aboard an alien spacecraft during a mushroom trip. He says that Debbie Gibson and Hammer are proof of what a lack of drugs does to rock and roll and that “marijuana should not only be made legal, it should be made mandatory.” If anything, his own misadventures have strengthened his convictions. “People from AA come up and say, ‘Bill, I loved the show.’ If reformed addicts aren’t offended, why should anyone else be?” he asks.

In 1988 Hicks moved to New York, in large part to redeem himself with Letterman’s people. He quickly did, and in January of this year, he again packed his bags and returned to Los Angeles. There he hopes to increase his exposure. He also wouldn’t mind if he happened to gain the favor of the Tonight show, soon to be hosted by his old friend Jay Leno, and those elusive Hollywood producers. Until then, he remains one of the few comics in America popular enough to pick and choose where he performs.

Which is not to say that Bill Hicks has it easy. Unmarried and forever on the road, he’s living a life that’s hellish—lonely, anyway. But as with everything he has survived, Hicks has managed to turn bad karma into good material. “All this traveling, all this moving from town to town, living out of a suitcase,” he murmurs to his audience, affecting a pout. “You know, it’s a hard life for anyone to comprehend. It’s really going to take one very special woman …” The crowd ponders this with him. Then the silence is broken by Hicks’s cackle. “Or a lot of average women,” he says.