We're coming up on the 15 year anniversary of Bill Hicks' death. I didn't catch on to Hicks until afterwards (though I'm sure I saw some of his Letterman appearances when I was an 80's teenager as I watched that show every night then) but he means a whole lot to me. There's something a bit transcendent in both his humor and his personal story, how like a perfect prankster his words aspire to break down set ways by causing one to think and decipher the underlying message (more on the philosophy of "pranks" HERE). I personally believe he was the greatest comedian we've ever had, partly because he was so much more than a comedian. Maybe George Carlin came close to what Hicks did, I don't know ... but Bill Hicks is up there in my personal pantheon with Robert Anton Wilson, Burroughs, Tony Wilson, Tim Leary, etc ... figures whose way of thinking ended up shaping mine.
If you're familiar with Bill Hicks then you know the tragic story of how he appeared on David Letterman for the twelfth time in 1993 while secretly dying of pancreatic cancer. Hicks loved Letterman as the show really helped break his career and he personally looked up to the talk show host. Some time before his taped bit was to air on the show Hicks was informed that his appearance was to be removed with no real reason given. Some references from the producers that the material was a bit too 'edgy' led Hicks to believe that he was censored by Letterman for the jokes he included about the pro-life movement.
Of course, this was a huge blow to Hicks as he knew he was dying. This Letterman bit was to be his last big television appearance and, sure enough, five months later in February 1994 Hicks had succumbed.
Bill Hicks was on his way to being so much more than a mere comedian as his message-based humor began to enter into philosophy, with many jokes containing ruminations about the nature of reality and our place in it ("It's just a ride"). His impending death may have shaped and influenced this a bit and it could be argued that his best work may have never materialized without the upcoming tragedy. I haven't examined Hicks' work that deeply but what he was doing in the last few years of his life remains so important and thought-provoking ... and it's fucking hilarious, too.
This Letterman appearance has been a bit of a holy grail to Hicks fans. My obsession with Hicks led me to collect what I believe is every bootleg audio snippet and grainy video on the man that is in circulation. However, all I could find of the Letterman appearance was a low quality audio tape and a reenactment of the entire bit at a Florida stand-up appearance Hicks performed a week later. As for David Letterman, he hasn't exactly been mum on the issue ... he's quoted about the episode in many Bill Hicks books and biographies as being regretful and sorry that the censorship occurred, and one gets the feeling the circumstances of it cause the decision to weigh heavily on him.
Last night on David Letterman's show it is announced that Mary Hicks, mother of Bill, is the lead guest. This is a bit odd as the first guest spot on a Friday Letterman show is usually reserved for A-list movie stars. I tune in (I rarely watch Dave anymore) and to my astonishment almost half of the show is devoted to Hicks' censored performance from 1993. Letterman profusely apologies to the public for the decision (which he admits was his), then movingly apologies to Bill Hicks' mother. Finally, Letterman shows the excised 1993 Hicks appearance in its entirety. If you're not a Bill Hicks follower or fan then you probably don't realize what a big deal this is ... it's huge.
Below I have the YouTube captures of what happened on The David Letterman Show last night. I'm hoping these don't get pulled down any time soon but if they are gone do a web search for "Mary Hicks Letterman". They are so worth seeing.
If you're not familiar with Bill Hicks yet then just watch the third and last video for a taste of his brilliant comedy. And this is just a taste ... go out and find the numerous comedy CDs and DVDs he's left us. They are all great. Hicks may not change your life as he has mine, but it could happen. I love that guy.
Addendum: Here's a great Metafilter post on Bill Hicks and the Letterman appearance. A few naysayers have inspired some thoughtful defenses of Hicks' work, including this one and this one, both of which I can relate to.