Something truly magical happened last Friday on The Late Show with David Letterman. Cher didn’t call Dave an ass. Drew Barrymore didn’t flash her breasts. Madonna didn’t say the F-word 1756 times. Instead, as best he could, Santa Claus came back to life.
On January 30th, 2009, David Letterman invited Mary Hicks onto his show and delivered an extremely genuine and heartfelt apology for something that happened over 15 years ago. On October 1, 1993, Mary’s son Bill Hicks became the first performer to be censored in the Ed Sullivan Theater since Elvis Presley, when the routine Bill had done earlier that night was deemed too controversial for late-night television. Presley had been censored for his swinging hips, Hicks for his ideas. Letterman not only apologized to Hicks’ mother, but after airing the 1993 appearance for the first time anywhere, took full responsibility on himself for the decision to completely excise Hicks from the October 1st show.
“I’ve not seen that videotape or any part of it since that night, and seeing it now, it raises the question – what was the matter with me? What was I thinking? That was just tremendous. If anything … it says a great deal about me, it says more about me than it does about Bill, because there was absolutely nothing wrong with that… just perfect … I expected it to be somewhat dated, being this old and it’s not and in fact, I guess this speaks to the suggestion that he was way ahead of his time."
The incident perhaps resolves the darkest spot on David Letterman’s innovative television career. One that grew only darker when it was revealed that Hicks had been secretly dealing with pancreatic cancer and would be dead in less than six months.
Not many people knew it at the time, but Bill Hicks, in his abbreviated tenure on this planet, fulfilled the early promise of Lenny Bruce. He was a fearless, angry, no sell-out social commentator/preacher, whose live performances were as funny as his ideas were brave. He was so ahead of his time that Bill Maher essentially lost his Politically Incorrect show, when he merely paraphrased a joke of Hicks’ in the wake of September 11th, nearly a decade after Bill Hicks had been one of the few entertainers on the planet with the gall to question the “God Bless, America” party atmosphere of Operation Desert Storm. Brutally ignored during his lifetime, time has been good to Bill Hicks. His reputation as a comedian with a mission has reached near Olympian levels since his death, and his acolytes speak of him in almost religious reverence.
Oddly enough, in his entire career, the only time Hicks was ever guilty of softening his fierce language and ideals was during his previous 11 appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. The comedian was a true fan of Letterman and his show. To hear why Hicks refused to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, one only needs to listen to Hicks’ utter evisceration of Leno, a friend whose show he considered to be a sellout “cultural train wreck,” on his 1997 posthumous release Rant in E Minor.
Nevertheless, Hicks’ experience with the Letterman show had continuously been a source of frustration for the fiery comedian. Each time Hicks appeared on the show, he was forced to negotiate with the Letterman producers over content, and it was a major blow to the comedian that the show wouldn’t let him be true to his real persona.
The October 1993 appearance was originally a huge triumph for Hicks. He had felt for the first time that he had been able to be true to his craft on network television. When told by Late Show producer Bob Morton later that night that his entire appearance had touched too many “hot spots,” Hicks was crushed.
In a 39-page letter to journalist John Lahr describing the entire imbroglio, Hicks summed up the conversation as follows:
“Morty bursts in with, ‘Bill, it’s not our decision. We have to answer to the networks, and this is the way they want to handle it. Again, I’m sorry. You’re not at fault here. Now let me get to work editing you from the show and we’ll set another date as soon as possible with some different material, OK?’
‘What kind of material? How bad airline food is? Boy, 7-11s sure are expensive? Golly, Ross Perot has big ears? Bob, you keep saying that you want me on the show, then you don’t let me be me. Now, you’re cutting me out completely. I feel like a beaten wife who keeps coming back for more. I try and write the best material I can for you guys. You’re the only show I do because I’m a big fan, and I think you’re the best talk show on. And this is how you treat me?’”
Morton was being less than truthful when he had blamed CBS for the censoring. As Letterman acknowledged Friday night, the decision had come from him, and the blame rested on his shoulders.
The original incident came at a crucial time in David Letterman’s career. Letterman had only recently left NBC for CBS, and was determined to show the world that he could be successful in a time slot (11:30 p.m.) that skewed older and more conservative than his youthful 12:30 a.m. audience on NBC. This would be Hicks’ first appearance on the CBS version of the Letterman show, and the entire performance was deleted from the show despite the fact that the set had previously been approved by the producers of the show. Letterman had even congratulated Hicks off the air for his performance.
Apparently, there were second thoughts after the original 5:30 p.m. recording that Hicks had felt was a personal triumph. The Hicks routine had touched on politics, lesbianism and homosexuality, religion, and perhaps most threateningly abortion.
When Lenny Bruce attempted to defend himself against obscenity charges after many arrests in the early 1960s, his biggest disappointment was that he was not allowed to perform in court for his juries. Instead of being able to show the context of his material, Bruce was forced to sit by and listen to an officer of the court read the best available police transcription of his material in a monotone, misunderstanding drone.
Hicks, suffered similarly, he wanted a copy of his performance in order to show the world that what he had said had not been in bad taste. Despite many requests, the Letterman people never sent Bill or his family a copy of the appearance, and it had never aired until this previous Friday night’s apology.
After the incident, Hicks made several appearances where he would perform his Letterman routine word for word so that his audience could judge for themselves, and Hicks being Hicks, it would be followed up by an amazing, proudly profane rant against the greed, power, and hypocrisy of network television.
The response, which can be heard here:
is in my opinion the pinnacle of Hicks’ career. In the course of his rant, one can’t help, but be amazed that even though he was filled with anger at his censure, Hicks’ true emotions ran deeper. He had been depicted as obscene by a fellow comedian that he truly respected, and he had been told that his ideas were inappropriate to be broadcast on network television. Hicks was truly hurt. “I am a big David Letterman fan and it’s almost like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.”
Apologies always come too late, but Letterman’s apology to Hicks’ mother was heartfelt and touching. He devoted close to 20 minutes of airtime to Bill and his legacy.
Bill Hicks used to imagine heaven as a place where people could smoke cigarettes in peace and listen to Jimi Hendrix play the harp. Hopefully, somewhere, he now knows that 15 years later Santa Claus finally came by to pay his long owed respects.