EDITOR’S NOTE: This post will have nothing to do with sports. If you don’t want to read something that’s got nothing to do with sports, no hard feelings — I’ll see you Monday.
EDITOR’S NOTE, part deux: I owe a hat-tip to KSK for the headline … I hope I’m not misappropriating it too terribly for your tastes.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say I grew up with the comedy of Bill Hicks, but it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate either. See, the first comedy album I fell in love with was Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.
I wore that sucker out, man. I listened to it pretty much every day in eighth grade, even cleaning up Leary’s NyQuil bit and performing it for a school-wide public speaking contest. (I won my class competition, but lost in the eighth-grade finals to some chick reciting “Tikki Tikki Tembo” or something … fucking bullshit, dude.)
It wasn’t until far later that a college friend introduced me to Hicks’ stand-up, beginning a career of admiration that at times borders on proselytizing when I find out that likeminded individuals have never listened to him, and even led to an image of the man being included in a hastily assembled and poorly constructed photo illustration that serves as this site’s unique banner. (I’m sure he’d be thrilled to share studio space with the Shoryuken.)
Of course, part of being introduced to Hicks is learning of the popular comedy argument that Leary was a thief, a journeyman Boston hack that had appropriated Hicks’ persona and stole chunks of his act, then used it to successfully market himself as the kind of buzz comic that can be sold to overweight suburban 13-year-olds as “edgy.” The debate between the two comedians’ supporters is lengthy and jam-packed with vitriol … check out some side-by-sides of the material in question if you’d like to judge for yourself.
I wound up falling on the pro-Hicks side; the tonal and material similarities were too much for me to ignore. (Hicks’ alleged response to an interviewer’s question about Leary’s supposed theft: “I have a scoop for you. I stole his act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did.”)
But it was more than that … the more I listened to Hicks (another friend was kind enough to dub me a copy of Philosophy, which I still listen to every few weeks), the more I read by and about him (Love All the People remains one of my favorite books) and certainly the more I watched him (Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Criticm Stand-Up Comedian ought to be required viewing), the harder it became to enjoy Leary’s stand-up. It felt like I had spent years happily enjoying Steak-umms, then got treated to a juicy Porterhouse. I mean, the thing I used to like was still OK, I guess … but man, how fucking good was this new thing?
One of the more controversial elements of Hicks’ career was the censorship of his Oct. 1, 1993, appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” The in-depth details of the affair, recounted late in Love All the People, are sadly not available in the Google Books version, but the rundown in the foreword is (pgs. vii through xi), and it sets things up pretty well.
Here’s the gist: Hicks did some material making fun of the pro-life movement and the Christian celebration of Easter, someone got scared, and producer Robert Morton called Hicks to tell him the set had been cut. Hicks pressed for an explanation and/or a tape copy of the set, which led to a game of hot potato between the “Late Show” producers and CBS’ standards-and-practices department, neither one of which would take responsibility for the decision or give Hicks what he wanted. It was one of the last major career events in Hicks’ life — he died less than five six months later (EDITOR’S NOTE: Nice counting, dick), on Feb. 26, 1994, after a bout with pancreatic cancer.
Last night, nearly 16 years after inexplicably chopping her son’s set, Letterman brought Mary Hicks, Bill’s mother, on the show to apologize for the “heartache and sadness [his] decision caused [her] family.” He also, at long last, played the set. And of course, because the Internet is awesome, the whole deal is now available on YouTube. So without further ado:
Here’s part 1, in which Letterman discusses the circumstances surrounding the bit being cut:
Part 2, in which Mary Hicks proudly talks about her son, letting through just a glimmer of the hurt that Letterman’s censorship caused her son and comporting herself quite well (even showcasing a bit of natural timing):
And finally, what we’ve all been waiting for: Part 3, Hicks’ censored “Late Show” performance:
Since last night, I’ve been fixated on Letterman’s reaction after the clip ends … the quick head-shake, the immediacy with which he claims the situation says more about him than it does about Hicks, the disappointment, maybe even disgust, that he allowed this thing to take on such a life of its own. Welcome contrition.
More than anything, though, last night’s events gave me the image of Bill Hicks that I think I want to remember — looking happy, doing smart, biting material that’s still resonant after more than 15 years, and flat-out killing. A star shining brightest just before it flames out. It’s a beautiful sight.