David Letterman airs the 'lost' Bill Hicks routine

This past Friday night, David Letterman devoted a chunk of his show to a bit of insider baseball, a piece of late-night talk show history that probably meant nothing to 99 percent of his audience, but enough to him to give about half his show over to it. The segment centered around a legendary ”lost” routine by the comedian Bill Hicks from the early days of the Late Show in 1993. Its legend comes not from viewers’ memories of it, but because no one got to see it (this was a time before all video made its way onto the Internet within hours). As Letterman explained on Friday, he deemed the routine not suitable to air, for reasons he seems at a loss to explain. In a sad coda, Hicks, a frequent guest on Letterman’s 12:30 a.m. show on NBC who was visiting the then-new CBS 11:30 p.m. Late Show for the first time, would be dead from cancer months later.

See David Letterman’s introduction of the segment here:

With Hicks’ mother as his guest on Friday, Letterman revisited this long-ago episode, finally airing the 1993 routine in its entirety. It’s a fascinating segment, watching him tread on this uncomfortable ground, coming face-to-face with the idea you can’t put your arms around a memory; whatever he’d want to say to Hicks now, he can’t. In the second part of the segment, here he is trying to say it to Hicks’ mom:

 

It’s compelling to watch Letterman seeming to struggle from theperspective of 2009 to understand –- or make us understand — adecision made in the far-different television universe of 1993. Hicks’brand of social commentary -– his routine, embedded below, includesbarbs on aggressively mindless pop culture figures of the day, culturalattitudes about homosexuality, pro-lifers, and religious symbolism –must have seemed discomfiting so soon after Letterman lost The Tonight Showgig to Jay Leno, and an endless stream of commentary questioned ifLetterman’s ”edgier”-by-comparison approach had a chance to succeedon CBS at the earlier hour.

Flash ahead a decade and a half, and time has changedeverything: The 11:30 Letterman show is a fixed spot on the nationalpop culture landscape, and Bill Hicks’ work still has resonance. Afterthe Hicks routine, Letterman notes that the piece really doesn’t seemdated, and other than a reference to Billy Ray Cyrus here and ”MarkyMark” there, that’s true (the names may change, but a mind-set remainsthe same). But here’s what I’m wondering: Even with all theproliferation of late-night talk, would someone with something to sayon issues that Bill Hicks tackles here even get booked in 2009? Ifthere’s a Bill Hicks out there working now, will he or she get on Late Show, The Tonight Show, or Jimmy Kimmel Live? In the age of the Internet and cable, does it even matter?

Still, it’s interesting to see Letterman’s perspective shift from oneof a younger, competitive host wanting to win a ratings war, to a morehuman attempt to tell a mom who seems still to feel stung by how therejection affected her critically ill son (a fact Letterman makes clearwas not known by the show at the time) that his work deserved betterand to at least publicly acknowledgea lingering regret that a decision made in the heat of one moment looksunnecessarily harsh with the passage of time. What happened then can’tbe undone, but give Letterman points for trying to wrestle with it allthese years on, and letting us watch.

Anyone else moved by this last Friday? Do you think late-night TV –or TV in general — is still willing to address issues Hicks deals within 2009, or has the ratings war destroyed that aspect?

Comments (70 total) Add your comment
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  • Benj

    Thanks EW for posting this. I have been an infrequent viewer of the Late Show, but am a huge fan of Dave’s Late Night years and of Bill Hick’s appearances. I am sure this story will get no coverage in other media, so it was a treat to see. I was completely unaware this had aired and it’s great to have Bill’s final appearance seen after so many years of mystery.

  • barr

    I agree it was quite interesting to see Letterman deal with the outcome of his decision so many years after the fact, but I wasn’t particularly wow’ed by Hicks’ routine. I just didn’t think it contained anything that one would regret not hearing at the time. Had Hicks not died of cancer, I wonder if Lettermsn would’ve still felt compelled to air the segment. The whole thing brought up a lot of “what if” questions for me that I finally had to dismiss as I would for any act that may have been cut over the years. There’s a story behind everyone, after all.

  • Lynny

    You have to think of this routine in context. The style of comedy was not as rough and harsh as it is now. This was waaaaay different.

  • Binky

    What’s funny is that in 1993, he was censored for possibly offending religious and pro-life people.
    Nowadays, people would be upset about the anti-gay and pro-smoking content. (Yes, I get that his labeling “Daddy’s New Roomate” as “evil” was irony, setting up a joke, but he plays it very close to his vest so some might see it as homophobic. Certainly, a few homophobes in the audience saw fit to agree with him.)

  • Al

    I don’t see why the routine was considered controversial. I also don’t see why it would be considered funny.

  • sheky17g

    How does Paul Shaffer not know who Eric Johnson is? He’s one of the most well known and respected guitar players on the planet. I’m sure he has played with him on the show. Was he just trying to be funny?

  • Mariane

    The fact that Hicks died makes his “comedy” seem more brilliant and ahead-of-its-time than it was. Even in retrospective, it is not funny or clever. Just kind of Archie Bunker tasteless.

  • Robert

    Bill Hicks was a brilliant stand-up comic – and while this routine was far from his best, if you’d like to know who he really was as a comic, check out Denis Leary’s entire career as a comic. He stole his personality and ranting from Hicks, and basically all of Bill’s jokes, except they weren’t nearly as funny.

  • rockgolf

    The gutsy part was Letterman taking full blame for the censorship, knowing he’d get pilloried in some quarters. At the time, Hicks got a call from Letterman’s director (Robert Morton) blaming CBS Standards & Practices for the deletion. See http://www.konformist.com/2000/bill-hicks.htm for contemporary coverage of the event.

  • j. rod

    This was watered-down Hicks. Get some serious Hicks on youtube
    “Bill Hicks – American Politics”

    Over 15 years ago, but never truer.

  • starsweeper

    I find it interesting that most commenters seem to think that Letterman was afraid of offending religious pro-lifers with this. The jokes that I find offensive are the ones about chasing down and murdering Billy Ray Cyrus, et al. Sure all those celebs deserve to be the butt of jokes, but to suggest that they should be killed isn’t very funny to me. I didn’t find myself laughing out loud at any of his jokes (and I’m a big fan of comics many find offensive, like Billy Connolly and George Carlin) and the audience seemed pretty luke-warm on his set as well. I think Letterman’s being too hard on himself. It’s his show and he has every right to decide if someone’s jokes cross the line.

  • Ned

    Also important to note: The entire set was pre-approved by Letterman’s staff. It’s not like he went off on a tangent, or lied to them about what he was going to do. Much of the controversy surrounding the censorship was due to the fact the the show was running ads from Pro-Life groups at the times. Thus it looked like they were kowtowing to their advertisers.

  • Nico

    Argh why is everyone dissing on Bill Hicks? The man made some insightful,funny observations, and just because they may offend you doesn’t lessen that. WHY do people wear crosses? Have you ever even thought about that? It’s stupid. The original Christian symbol was the infinity fish, until a Roman emperor decided to militarize Christianity by adopting the Cross…And also, his segment on killing annoying celebrities is not so far off from some of George Carlin or David Cross’s standup. Lighten up people, and let the man rest in peace.

  • August

    In 1993 Dave and Jay didn’t put this type of material on at 11:30. It wasn’t until Comedy Central that this kind of humor made it into your TV before Midnight. Thanks, Dave

    • Jeff

      Actually, Letterman had had Hicks on his show as far back as at least 1989. He was on at least three times; 89, 91, and 93. Leno didn’t, but that’s cuz he’s a complete pud, schill, douchebag!

  • mj

    i, too, thank you for posting..i never make it to late night..lol..and i LOVED bill hicks.
    it’s nice to see letterman sort of “right a wrong”..
    and MRS. HICKS..what a class act. as a mom, i can’t imagine having to take care of my son and watch him die..and then to so graciously handle a man who obviously wounded her sickened child (no matter how grown he was, he’s still her child)..and i LOVE how she put him nicely in his place..heh heh
    good job ew

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