Bill Hicks BANNED Last Appearance on the Late Night David Letterman Show Guest Mary Hicks (mom)
Update: View the original hand-written letter below.
Bill Hicks, the comedian who is the subject of “American,” a documentary opening in New York on Friday, made his network television début on “Late Night with David Letterman,” on November 15, 1984. He appeared ten more times on Letterman; here’s a routine about Elvis, from 1989.
On October 1, 1993, Hicks’s routine went too far for Letterman, who decided not to air the segment. In the same theatre, in the fifties, Elvis was censored from the waist down; now Hicks had been banned from head up.
Hicks’s outrage, bewilderment, and obsession is evident in a thirty-nine-page letter that he sent to me three months later, which recapitulates both his routine and the media politics going on around it. (You can read the letter starting on page 249 of “Love All the People,” a compilation of Hicks’s letters, lyrics, and routines.) He recounts his conversation with Robert Morton, the show’s producer, after he was told that his set had been cut from the show:
I said, “Bob, they’re just jokes. I don’t want them to be edited by you or anyone else. Why are people so afraid of jokes?” To which Morty replied, “Bill, you have to understand our audiences.” This is a line I’d heard before and it always pisses me off. “Your audiences!” I retorted. “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…” “Bill, look, it has to do with the subject matter you touched on, and our new time slot, we’re on an hour earlier you know.” “So, what? We taped the show at 5.30 in the afternoon, and your audience had no problem with the material then. What … does the audience become overly sensitive between the hours of 11:30 P.M. and 12:30 A.M.? And by the way, Bob, when I’m not performing on your show, I’m a member of the audience for your show. Are you saying my material is not suitable for me?”
I had been working on a story on Hicks for the magazine that had been held for a few months; this letter gave me the “hook” that liberated the profile and, ultimately, Hicks’s career in America.
At the time, no one, certainly not I, knew that Hicks had pancreatic cancer. He had only a few months to live. (After the piece ran but before he died, he wrote me another letter in response.)
Hicks’s routine did air on “Letterman” in 2009, when Hicks’s mother appeared on the show. With sixteen years of hindsight, Letterman called the decision to cut it “an error of judgment on my part, just a mistake … born of insecurity more than anything else.”
With Easter approaching, it seems fitting to highlight the closing of Hicks’s bit. While travelling in Australia, he says, he found that the Australians