(Except Remembering His Gig In Lake Charles)
By Todd C. Elliott
The holy trinity of stand-up comics of the last half of the 20th century may have been George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. Any comedian worth his salt and any fan of stand-up comedy would agree.
So, who the hell was the late Bill Hicks?
Some folks from Lake Charles who saw him won’t remember him. Hicks might have clocked in about 25 minutes of total stand-up comedy time in a 48-hour period in Lake Charles in 1986. However, Hicks never forgot the tough Lake Area crowd.
Hicks was a 1980s “outlaw comic” from Houston, Texas, who emerged from the same talent pool that produced Sam Kinison. While Kinison got the fame, Hicks got the notoriety. Hicks was like an underground rockstar, one that had to go to England for stardom and return to America as a comedy hero. The internationally known comic gave listeners in the 1990s one of the best-selling comedy albums of all time, Rant In E-Minor (1997), while the band Tool even dedicated an entire album to his legacy. To put it simply: no Bill Hicks, no Denis Leary.
Apparently, Hicks was taking life seriously. A performer of stand-up comedy since the age of 16, Hicks’ short, meteoric rise was cut down by pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 34.
But, it’s true that, sometime in 1986, the legendary Hicks played in downtown Lake Charles, on Ryan Street at a place known as Oscar’s, which has since become known as Crystal’s Downtown at 720 Ryan Street.
The two-night gig would go down as “the worst” experience in Hicks’ professional career. And he got paid for it.
“The worst gig I ever had — and I call it the worst gig because there was a threat of violence and death — was in Baton Rouge, La., at a disco called Oscar’s,” said Hicks in a February, 1992, interview with Kevin Matthews.
Let’s stop right there. The interview, which has now resurfaced on the internet via Reddit, shows Bill “misremembering” his Lake Charles gig. Oscar’s was in downtown Lake Charles, as many patrons might (or might not) recall. Hicks either incorrectly remembered Lake Charles as Baton Rouge or had purposely blocked Lake Charles from his memory.
Then again, as this tale unfolds, readers might assume that Hicks was far enough under the influence that he may have incorrectly remembered where he was and when.
Another video that has recently surfaced on YouTube features one of the two supporting Houston comics who traveled with and opened for Hicks in Lake Charles. The late Ron Shock called the Lake Charles show “the gig from hell.”
“It was my first-ever road trip, first time I ever went out of (Houston) and we went to Lake Charles,” Shock said in the video. “We go to Lake Charles, we’re going to play a new club called Oscar’s, a disco. It was Tuesday night.”
The three Houston comics arrived at Oscar’s that Tuesday afternoon: Bill Silva, Ron Shock and the soon-to-be-legendary Bill Hicks. Hicks chimed in during the Shock interview.
“We got there during the daytime, we went in and said, ‘Hi, we’re the comics,’” and the guy went, ‘What?’,” said Hicks. “I said, ‘We’re the comics for the comedy show,’ and he went, ‘Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I’m the night manager.’ So, we left with that thought kind of biting away at our minds.”
“It was a redneck disco, it was ladies’ night, two-for-one drinks and they don’t know we’re coming,” said Shock. “And there were about 400 people there that night.”
Keep in mind, this was during Lake Charles’ pre-casino era. Clubs were responsible for booking the talent and marketing it as an attraction. Apparently, someone at Oscar’s booked the three Houston comics on the same night as a Louisiana women’s bowling league night. This error in scheduling would result in the two worst nights of Hicks’ professional career.
“The first night we got there, it was bowling night, women’s bowling league, and there were 300 women there, lined up and doing shooters, pitchers of shooters,” said Hicks in ’92. “Everybody’s dancing, women are dancing with each other, and the bouncer takes a mic stand and a stool, pushes through the dancers, gets on the dance floor and goes ‘Okay! We’re about to start a comedy show, everyone sit down. Turn the music off, Earl! Earl! (record scratch of needle on spinning record) We’re going to do a comedy show.’ People were still dancing.”
According to Bill, the unwelcome comedy show began with introduction of the first comic, Silva. Silva had to wade through the buzzed and wanting-to-dance crowd to get to the microphone. He took the first of the stink eyes as he stood there amongst the dancers on the dance floor, which still saw some people dancing. Then, comedy ensued.
Hicks and Shock were standing in the back of the room watching Silva slowly die on the dance floor that was passing for a stage. From the back entrance of the alleyway and parking lot, a guy rushed in holding a small hand-towel to the side of his head, dripping with blood. The man, an apparent victim of violence in the parking lot, came in laughing, ordering drinks, while trying to keep pressure on his bleeding ear.
Hicks and Shock wondered about this bleeding Lake Chuckian, and just had to ask the waitress.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Hicks.
“Knife fight,” said the waitress. “Happens every night here. Knife fights.”
“The guy’s ear was hanging on by a thread,” said Hicks in the ‘92 interview. “He stayed for the whole show. He was determined. And he heckled.”
The show was supposed to last an hour. It ended up lasting 15 minutes. Each comic got about five minutes of their act done that night. The first comic bailed immediately as the ladies on the dance floor refused to stop their dancing, despite the fact that no music was playing at the time. Silva panicked and called Shock to the mic and stool to try his luck with the turbulent Lake Charles crowd.
Shock took the mic stand to a heckler in the back of the room. The disembodied voice of the heckler kept yelling the word “blow” and “job” together in quick succession. It gets to the point where Shock decided to handle the heckler by drawing him into his comedy act.
“Is he asking or giving?”
“Oooooh,” cried the crowd.
Next thing Hicks remembered was one of the biggest guys in the club that night then lumbered through the dance floor, parting the dancers like the Red Sea, towards the stage area to take Shock’s spotlight.
Shock was literally brought to his knees with force from the enormous heckler. Expletives followed. The crowd, now 10 minutes into Comedy Night, awaited the next words out of Shock’s mouth.
“Give it up for your next comic, Mr. Bill Hicks!” said Shock (still on his knees), passing the buck to Hicks.
Hicks, who was scheduled to do a 45-minute set, found himself just about three minutes into his routine when a guest approached the railing on the dance floor. The fellow rested his head on the railing, looking up at Hicks from his folded arms. Hicks made the deadly mistake of making this guy part of his show. Bill looked right into the eyes of the spectator.
“Can I help you?” asked Hicks.
“Nope,” said the man without a smile.
“What do you want?” asked Hicks.
According to Hicks, the man then grabbed the microphone cord and brandished a large knife. He then folded the mic cord and promptly severed it. The music returned on the overhead speakers. People started dancing. Hicks’ first Lake Charles performance had ended after a scant few minutes.
“That was night one,” said Hicks. “We have to go back the next night.”
Hicks stated that upon arriving at Shock’s hotel room before the show the next night, the two decided that if they were to return to Oscar’s they would require psychedelic assistance in the form of two tabs of LSD-25. They dropped back into Oscar’s on Wednesday night. There were fewer people there that night, but every single person who was there on Wednesday was there the previous night for the disastrous comedy show, according to Hicks.
The first comic, Silva, stepped on stage, and within one minute another altercation arose. Silva, who had braved the throngs of dancing women on the dance floor the night before, now found himself being heckled by some dude at the bar.
“What are you going to do, pal? Shoot me?” asked the comic to the heckler.
“I might,” replied said the heckler, stone-faced.
“Then the guy raised up his pant leg, and there in his boot was a pistol,” said Hicks. “And Ron and I are tripping. They’re armed! The waitress goes walking by and hears. She said don’t worry if anything happens. She raises up her shirt, there was a .22 in her skirt. They’re all armed!”
When Shock and Hicks did grace the “stage area,” the LSD had kicked in, causing them to sweat profusely. Beer bottles were hurled at Shock. Hicks took the stage. Glass and beer bottle projectiles found Hicks, too, when he was 22 minutes into his second performance in Lake Charles.
“Again, I was supposed to be 45 (minutes) and the whole show lasted about 22 minutes,” said Hicks. “All I see in the back is the door opened and Ron and Bill silhouetted in the doorway with the check, waving it.”
Hicks’ two openers were ready to leave with their two-day paycheck. As beer bottles pelted the walls behind and around Hicks, he saw his fellow comics motioning to him to leave. Hicks literally ran through the Lake Charles audience and out the back-alley door to the parking lot. The mob of angry Southwest Louisiana partiers followed him out the door. Beer bottles and drink glasses continued to be hurled at the Houston comics as they ran for their van. The owner of Oscar’s allegedly started throwing chairs at the three funny men.
The comics, at last, reached their van. They were ready to head for Houston but realized that they had locked the keys inside the vehicle (thanks, probably, to the LSD-25).
The comedians stood there befuddled and fearful for their lives. The crowd surged towards the comedians, when one of the comics made the executive decision to break the van window.
This tale is confirmed by a second source, the late Ron Shock. But what’s the point of this whole story?
We can all laugh about it now. It’s funnier now. Hicks and Shock laughed about it years later. Silva probably doesn’t want to remember it. Hicks and his legacy endured over the years, into the internet age. His comedy is still relevant today.
It’s also part of Lake Charles’ history. If nothing else, this story unearths some unknown history of Lake Charles.
Year after year, Hicks is voted highly — usually in the Top 20 — in annual polls from Comedy Central and other media outlets. Hicks is survived in the world of comedy by his nephew, Ryan Hicks, who has also made a name for himself, perhaps having learned from his Uncle Bill. It should be noted that the dates in this story were verified by Steve Hicks, Bill Hicks’ brother, who wanted nothing to do with my latest effort involving Bill Hicks.
What’s my latest effort?
I wanted to honor one of my favorite comedians by, in a humorous way, commemorating his 25 minutes of fame in Lake Charles. I wanted to erect a historical placard on the site at Crystal’s Downtown. As the city rebuilds, acknowledging new-found history might be a way to save part of the culture of SWLA that the two hurricanes of 2020 nearly wiped away.
In my personal opinion, there needs to be a placard on the building that reads something to the effect of: “On this site in 1986, internationally known comedian Bill Hicks performed the worst show of his professional career.” Hicks fans and other traveling comics might consider downtown Lake Charles a destination to stop at and take a picture with the historical placard.
History can be a funny thing. And a history of Lake Charles with a world-famous comedian? That’s legendarily funny stuff. Being fans of both Hicks and Lake Charles, I’m still laughing over this story today.