Bill Hicks on David Letterman

Outspoken stand-up comedian Bill Hicks was invited to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman on October 1, 1993. Though he had often felt constrained by the limited amount of time he had to work with in his appearances on David Letterman’s show, he typically used his strongest material for these segments. And Bill Hicks was particularly looking forward to this appearance, his first on David Letterman’s 11:30 show on CBS, which had only been on the air for just over a month. Just a few months earlier Bill Hicks had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and knew he had little time left.

Rather than wear his customary black attire, Bill Hicks chose “bright fall colors–‘an outfit bought just for the show and reflective of my bright and cheerful mood.'” He was happy with the way his segment had gone and left the studio feeling like it had been a success. Later in his hotel room, however, Bill Hicks received a call from producer Robert Morton telling him that the entire segment was going to be cut from the show.

Bill Hicks had appeared 11 times on David Letterman’s NBC show. Though Late Night with David Letterman had aired at 12:30, Bill Hicks had had his share of problems with the censor on that program. But this was different–his entire segment was cut from the show and Bill Hicks was understandably upset. His routine had been “approved and re-approved” by the segment producer, Mary Connelly. Robert Morton told Bill Hicks that the culprit was CBS Standards and Practices, and that Dave was furious about it. They had fought “tooth and nail” to keep Hicks’s segment in the show but to no avail. Hicks asked for a tape of his segment, but he never got one.  He was so incensed that he wrote a 39-page letter to John Lahr of the New Yorker, including a detailed account of his routine as best he could remember it. Lahr’s article appeared in the New Yorker on November 1, 1993. Bill Hicks still wasn’t done talking about the unreasonableness of the situation, but he didn’t have much time left to make his case. He died on February 26th of the following year at the age of 32.

But the story doesn’t end there. On January 30, 2009–over 15 years later–David Letterman invited Bill Hicks’s mother, Mary Hicks, to appear on The Late Show to talk about her son’s life and work.

Then, admitting that the decision to cut Bill Hicks’s segment had been his own, David Letterman sought to right a wrong by airing Bill Hicks’s entire censored routine.

It’s interesting to speculate not only about why David Letterman did this, but also why he waited until 2009 to do it. I would point to two reasons. One reason Dave was willing to air Bill Hicks’s censored segment is that he had long since given up in the ratings war with Jay Leno.

The Late Show with David Letterman premiered on CBS on August 30, 1993–the end result of a rather messy, public battle over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show. David Letterman was bitterly disappointed when NBC selected Jay Leno as Johnny Carson’s permanent replacement. David Letterman left NBC and took the 11:30 time slot with CBS in direct competition to the Tonight Show.

A few features of the show had to be renamed in order to avoid intellectual property issues with NBC, but The Late Show with David Letterman was much like his old show on NBC. In same ways, however, David Letterman changed how he approached the show in order to broaden his appeal.  He took to wearing tailored suits and monitored the content of the show more closely.  Bill Hicks’s routine, with its references to Christians and the pro-life movement, hit too many hot buttons for David Letterman to allow it on the air.

For a couple of years Letterman’s new approach to the show worked, as his show’s ratings were consistently higher than those of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It wasn’t until Jay Leno’s interview with Hugh Grant (“What the hell were you thinking?”) that the ratings of the Tonight Show topped those of David Letterman’s show. Since that time Jay Leno has maintained his ratings dominance in late night programming.

In an interview with Rolling Stone quoted in Bill Carter’s book The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, when asked why the Tonight Show has consistently scored higher ratings than The Late Show, “The answer is me,” Dave said, “I just think that Jay has wider appeal than I do.” Bill Carter also provides further reasons why Jay Leno has consistently bested David Letterman in the ratings game. Quite simply, Jay Leno follows the ratings of all the late-night talk show hosts with great interest and he has tailored his show to suit popular tastes based on his study of the ratings. According to Bill Carter, none of the other late night talk show hosts even came close to Jay Leno’s level of interest in these numbers. Also, unlike Jay Leno, Letterman shows little interest in working with the network’s affiliates, Letterman rarely does remote segments anymore, and he has taken to only working four days a week–the Friday show has gone from being taped on Friday to Thursday to Monday so that Dave can have a relaxed long weekend.

Another (perhaps related) reason David Letterman chose to air Bill Hicks’s segment in 2009 is that it appears he is no longer so wary of expressing a political viewpoint. Johnny Carson had established the image of the talk show host as a genial, neutral presence.  He certainly made reference to political events of the day, but he joked about them in a lighthearted way that caused few to take offense.  Letterman’s humor was always more caustic than Carson’s, but much like Johnny Carson he shied away from making political statements to the point where his political leanings were anyone’s guess. David Letterman has shown greater willingness to tangle with political figures in recent years, however, particularly during the 2008 presidential campaign. Granted, his sarcastic jabs at John McCain arose in large part from McCain’s abrupt cancellation of his appearance on the Late Show in the midst of the financial crisis–only to be interviewed by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News at the time we would have been taping his appearance on David Letterman. But it goes beyond that. In one of John McCain’s appearances on The Late Show, David Letterman made the observation, “It seems like everyone’s gone wacky in the Republican party.”

Perhaps this helped clear the way for David Letterman to revisit the censoring of Bill Hicks. In a sense, David Letterman gave Bill Hicks the last word, even though Bill Hicks had effectively given his “last word” in a statement he wrote just before his death.

I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. Ugh. Melvin Hicks from Georgia. Yee Har! I already had gotten off to life on the wrong foot. I was always “awake,” I guess you’d say. Some part of me clamoring for new insights and new ways to make the world a better place’

All of this came out years down the line, in my multitude of creative interests that are the tools I now bring to the Party. Writing, acting, music, comedy. A deep love of literature and books. Thank God for all the artists who’ve helped me. I’d read these words and off I went – dreaming my own imaginative dreams. Exercising them at will, eventually to form bands, comedy, more bands, movies, anything creative. This is the coin of the realm I use in my words – Vision.

On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having “liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas.” One of life’s weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I’d been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams that it just stood me on my head for a while. “Why me!?” I would cry out, and “Why now!?”

Well, I know now there may never be any answers to those particular questions, but maybe in telling a little about myself, we can find some other answers to other questions. That might help our way down our own particular paths, towards realizing my dream of New Hope and New Happiness.

Amen 

I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is available for free viewing (with commercial interruptions) on Hulu.

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