Friday, January 30, 2009
Tonight the Late Show with David Letterman will air a stand-up routine by the comic Bill Hicks. This warrants special mention because, even though this will be the comedian’s twelfth appearance on the show, Hicks died nearly fifteen years ago.
In 1993, Bill Hicks became only the second performer to be censored on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre. This put him in some pretty good company. As Bill pointed out, Elvis had been censored from the waist down, whereas he’d been censored from the neck up. Not one second of his routine made it to air.
Initially, Letterman’s producers claimed that CBS’s standards-and-practices division has excised his routine because it violated their broadcast standards. Bill believed them, at first, because the show’s segment producers had approved the routine and he delivered it, word-for-word, in the same fashion in front of the studio audience.
However, he soon learned that CBS’s in-house censors couldn’t have removed the act because they never saw it. Letterman’s own producers, no doubt with the host’s tacit approval, cut the material, perhaps for fear that the show, recently moved from another network and a later timeslot, would lose sponsors.
Bill never appeared on the program again and died of pancreatic cancer not long afterward. No one outside of his closest friends knew of his condition, and when fighting to get his routine aired on the show he never mentioned it to Letterman’s people either. In the end, all he asked for was a copy of the tape--for his mom.
Bill Hicks’s mother will appear on the show tonight too, and whether he’d view this as a vindication or an affront is something we’ll never know. But don’t think for a second that this means the endless flood of vomit spewed out by corporate America’s satanic pimps has been choked down and swallowed for even one night.
Someone, somewhere, even with Letterman’s good intentions, believes there’s a buck to be made by warming up Bill Hicks’s corpse. Bill would know that. And as long as you treat his mom nice, at least a nice sandwich on the house maybe, he’d probably even be OK with it.
Love all the people, after all.
One complaint against comedy performances, either a live routine or recording, is that they don’t hold up to repeated listening, that if you’ve heard the punch lines once you’ve little need to hear them again. It gets old.
With Bill, I’m not sure that’s true: your first listen may be the least important; after you laugh at the joke, then you’re free hear what he said. When asked by an interviewer “what if I don’t want to think when I go to a comedy club?” Bill replied, “fine, let’s meet wherever you do go to think.”
So what’s in the routine?
Well, that’s the thing. It’s no secret, and if you’re a fan you’ve probably heard it before. You can hear most of the same jokes on his concert albums or see them on YouTube clips. Hell, in his final show, a smirking Hicks made a point of introducing a section of his act as the jokes, word-for-word, too dangerous to be heard by a network television audience. He couldn’t believe it himself.
Without giving too much away, there’s a bit about pro-lifers, one about Jesus and crosses, some quick gags about the lame top-forty acts that always got under his skin, and a few jokes in between. But tonight’s broadcast is more about the singer than the song.
When you watch Bill Hicks tonight, try to remember that the man you’re seeing has nothing to lose; his clock is ticking, and faster than most at that. So you get to see how a performer would act when he knows that tonight might be his last time in front of an audience. Then realize that Bill Hicks had been acting that way for pretty much his entire career. That’s the joke.
In general though, the routine contained--as the man himself said--everything your parents hate, everything your church preaches against, and everything your government fears. Enjoy.