Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

The Ghost of Bill Hicks

In 1993, less than half a year before he died, comedian Bill Hicks performed a routine on the recently-relaunched Late Show with David Letterman. The segment was dropped from the show, and has never been aired in its entirety

That'll change this Friday night. Letterman will show it finally, paired with an interview with Hicks's mother.

Word from (once again) Adam-Troy Castro, who gave context in this post at Harlan Ellison Dot Com:
Adam-Troy Castro
- Wednesday, January 28 2009 5:27:4
VCR/Tivo Alert: Bill Hicks

Comedian Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in February 1994, knew he was sick for much of his career; he continued performing, given leave by his illness to say the things that he felt even a comedian could not get away with saying. It's why so many comedians, and fans of comedians, consider him the unheralded fourth member of the heroic pantheon of comic deities that included Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.

Less than five months before he died he appeared on the David Letterman show and performed a routine that included among several other "objectionable" elements an extended bit mocking the pro-life movement.


Bill: You know who ís really bugging me these days. These pro-lifers ...

(Smattering of applause.)

Bill: You ever look at their faces? "I'm pro-life!"

(Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear, his lips are pursed as though he's just sucked on a lemon.)

Bill: "I'm pro-life!" Boy, they look it don't they? They just exude joie de vie. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long.

(end excerpt)

This is actually rather mild material for Hicks, the part of his act he could perform (or thought he could perform) on network television; some of his darker stuff about the first President Bush, or the politics of his era, or the nature of the world, is dark enough to qualify as dangerous.

In any event, though the segment contained nothing Hicks hadn't already performed untold times in various clubs, and the studio audience laughed uproariously, the segment was never broadcast; somebody at the network had decided to cut Hicks's performance entirely.

Hicks was informed of the excision by Letterman producer Robert Morton, with whom he had this conversation:


"Bill, you have to understand our audiences."

"Your audiences! What? Do you grow them on farms? Your audience is comprised of 'people', right? Well, I understand people, being a person myself. People are who I play to every night, Bob, and we get along just fine. And when I'm not performing on your show, I'm a member of the audience for your show. Are
you saying that my material is not suitable for me? This doesn't make sense. Why do you underestimate the intelligence of the audience? I think that shows a great deal of contempt on your part ..."

"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 on 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?"

(end excerpt)

Five months later, Hicks was dead.

I report all this because fourteen-and-a-half years later, Letterman is finally going to run the segment in its entirety. The show, already taped, will run Friday night. Letterman is interviewing Hicks's mother, and playing the segment. No doubt there will be some discussion, even possibly some remorse, of the censorship incident, one of the worst since Elvis was filmed only from the waist up. It's not the best Hicks available (I have two concerts on his on DVD, and he could be incendiary), but the best most people today will ever be able to see. A-TC says check it out.

Later: Edited to correct something in Castro's original story, thanks to other posters on Harlan's board, who also added some fantastic anecdotes about Hicks's life:
Bob McKinlay
Nailhac, France - Wednesday, January 28 2009 7:4:48
re: Bill Hicks

To A-TC,

While I agree wholeheartedly with your praise of Bill Hicks, I gotta wonder at your assertion he was "given leave by his illness to say the things that he felt even a comedian could not get away with saying."
Bill Hicks was always outspoken, always challenging, from his earliest performances to first and last recordings. If anyone personified Gunter Eich's quote; "be uncomfortable, be sand, not oil in the machinery of the world" - that one person (our esteemed host excepted) would have been Bill Hicks.
From what I remember of his biography, Hicks discovered he had cancer far too late to do anything about it, not "for much of his career." The reason he's now considered a comic genius is because he was a comic genius.
The cancer robbed him of his life, us of a way to laugh at ourselves and a viewpoint we've sorely needed since 1994 - can you imagine the riffs Bill Hicks could've ripped George W apart with?
Don't let the cancer rob him of his motivation too. The illness didn't make Bill Hicks say what he said, Bill Hicks did.

Josh Olson
- Wednesday, January 28 2009 8:4:19

Let me confirm Bob's comment - Bill Hicks was most definitely NOT sick for most of his career. It was only in the last year of his life that he knew about his cancer, and he was no more incendiary at the end of his life than he was at the beginning of his career. He was ALWAYS provocative, ALWAYS dancing out there on the edge, and while I'm sure no slight was meant, suggesting that that came from his awareness of his own impending death impugns the man's personal courage.

It's so hard to pick a favorite bit, but his routine about the Waffle House waitress who wonder why he reads is brilliant, as is his monologue on America's foreign policy in which we're Jack Palance in Shane and the rest of the world is a poor farmer who just wants gingham for his wife.

Or - a couple of angry Christians confront him after a show and say, "We're Christians, and we don't like what you said about us."

To which Bill replies, "Well, then forgive me."

I met a comedian once who knew Bill, and told me this story: In brief, he was living with a girl who was bipolar. One night, she attacked him in his sleep, stabbing him in the neck with a fork.

He grabbed her, held her down, and when she'd finally calmed down, she said, in tears, "I love you, I love you."

Says Bill, "No you don't. If you loved me, you'd have used a spoon."

Thanks for the heads up about Letterman. It's about time.

- Wednesday, January 28 2009 8:38:58
Hicks, To Bob and Josh

Bob, Josh: I bow to your superior knowledge of Hicks. What I heard anout his illness, I read in articles written about him after he died, articles that used the interpretation I quoted; it seems to be a common misperception oft-repeated that I foolishly bought into. However, what I say of his talent is dead on.

Jarod Hitchcock
Australia - Wednesday, January 28 2009 14:36:28
Bill Hicks

...Favourite Hicks Story: A young Hicks and some friends decide to go down to the local porno theatre. So they put on their Sunday best and are ready to go. Bill decides to call ahead and ask what's playing, the guy on the other end of the phone is a little surprised (I mean don’t they all end the same) but answers "Naughty Nurses 5." To which a deadpan Hicks retorts "What's it About?"

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