David Letterman righted a wrong – over 15 years too late.
On Friday night’s The Late Show With David Letterman, a long standing controversy was finally put to rest. Letterman invited Mary Hicks, the mother of late comedian Bill Hicks, to be a guest on the program. He aired a routine Bill did back on October 1, 1993, which at the time ended up being cut from the broadcast and never shown to the public.
I’m sure many out there are asking “What controversy?” or “Who’s Bill Hicks?” Allow me to fill in some blanks.
Bill Hicks was a brilliant and an ahead-of-this-time comedian from the 1980s and early 1990s. Originally from Houston, Texas, his style involved enlightenment with a sledgehammer (figuratively of course). He challenged Americans, who were embroiled in a pointless war in Iraq (the first one) and who embraced mindless things like shallow pop-culture icons and automatic religious beliefs to think for themselves. He did so by delivering controversial comedy routines that under no uncertain terms pointed out how ridiculous society was. I like his personal description of his comedy best though, "Chomsky with dick jokes."
Nothing was sacred to this man. Religion, politics, sex, drug use, smoking, society, his parents, he said things that made even the most open-minded blush. He was also funny as hell. Through his gifts of timing, strange faces, making very weird noises with the microphone, and introspective material that not only make you laugh but made you think, he was a mastermind of a genre that at the time was dominated by Gallagher and Carrot Top. Needless to say, he didn't get Radio City Music Hall gigs.
He was a celebrity in England and Australia, who openly embraced his forward-thinking. In the U.S. though, he was often shunned, censored, and once two Vietnam veterans broke his leg once after a gig. Bill Hicks was never pleased with how he couldn't get through to his own country and the oppression he faced for expressing his beliefs.
In 1984, Bill Hicks' long history with David Letterman started. Hicks made a strong impression after his first appearance on what was then Late Night With David Letterman on NBC, which aired at 12:30. Letterman became a big fan. Hicks appeared on the NBC version of the show 11 times and his 12th appearance came on Letterman’s new show, The Late Show With David Letterman, which had premiered few months earlier on CBS in an 11:30 timeslot.
That entire 12th and what would be final performance was cut from the broadcast without warning. CBS never gave a good reason why and neither did the network, the show's producers, nor David Letterman. This sent Bill Hicks into a fit, and he expressed his outrage over the censorship through multiple interviews and in a 39-page letter he wrote to the New Yorker. Fans were outraged too, but nothing was done to fix the situation.
Sadly, Bill Hicks didn't live to see this injustice corrected. On Februray 26, 1994, he died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Letterman had always expressed regret every time the incident was brought up, but that original performance still remained unaired.
That is until Friday night. I watched the entire broadcast with skepticism, unsure if Letterman would go through with it. After all, why was he doing this now? What prompted this gesture in a controversy that has long since died down? Sure, avid Bill Hicks fans never forgot, but even I put it behind me long ago.
David Letterman openly proclaimed that the decision to cut the performance was solely his, and he apologized to Mary Hicks multiple times. Mary was delightful, not at all intimidated by Letterman and his line of questions. She spoke lovingly of her son, how she cared for him after he got sick, how he told her about all the awful things he experienced in his life, and how he never wanted her or his dad to come see one of his shows or he wouldn’t go on. She shared a story about how Bill got her and his dad to show up at a club to watch a good musician where they were the only old people in the room. He was always doing things like that to them.
Finally, the moment of reckoning: the routine of controversy aired in its entirety. It was classic Bill Hicks, watered down for network TV only by removing his usual swearing. His popular targets remained. He joked of starting a reality show where he would hunt down and kill pop-culture icons Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton. He ripped on men who danced in clubs, calling them gay. He expressed his outrage over books explaining gay lifestyles to children like “Heather’s Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s New Roommate.” He was only disgusted with the latter and thought the former was pretty cool. He attacked the pro-lifers, joking they should block cemeteries instead of medical clinics. He went for religion, his favorite target, noticing there was no mention of an Easter Bunny or chocolate in the Bible (“I wonder why we’re messed up as a race”) and how Jesus won’t come back because the last thing he wants to see is crosses around people’s necks.
It what came across as the most bittersweet joke, he visualized a smoker’s paradise at the gates of heaven. St. Peter is asking him for a light, Heaven is filled with cigarette smoke and not clouds, Hendrix is playing harp, and Hell is the non-smoking section. No one knew at the time Bill was dying from cancer, so many of us hope that he got to go on to his ideal version of paradise.
I appreciate David Letterman claiming responsibility, but there was nothing about that routine that was any more controversial than the other eleven times Hicks appeared on NBC. It’s my guess that back in 1993 David Letterman caved to the pressure of his new conservative network that had an ill tolerance for taboo comedians that belonged at 12:30 or on cable. Bill Hicks was very hurt by this, and Mary Hicks made that clear Friday night.
So was this redemption? Not really, but I’m not objecting, for I actually loved seeing Bill Hicks on TV again. It gave me a chance to remember a man who had an incredible gift to get people to open their eyes through extreme laughter but often got beat down for it. It reminded me how much a mind like his is missed. Too bad CBS didn’t allow a dick joke.