“”I”ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. ‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ ‘Hey, wait a minute, there”s one guy holding out both puppets!'””
Feb 26, 2009 will mark the 15th anniversary of Bill’s passing.
On February 26, 1994, Bill Hicks, the last truly great comic genius of the 20th century, died of pancreatic cancer. His death as a comedian happened less than five months before, when his act was cut from the David Letterman show. What follows is a reprint of what happened, with a transcript of the censored act itself.
Index on Censorship Magazine
Issue 6, 2000
The Last Laugh: Dear Bill
Introduction by John Lahr:
On 1 October 1993, the comedian Bill Hicks, after doing his twelfth gig on the David Letterman show, became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Letterman was in residence and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down. Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all. It’s not what was in Hicks’ pants but what was in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums.
Hicks, a tall 31-year-old Texan with a podgy face, aged beyond its years from hard living on the road, was no motormouth vulgarian but an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own. Until the ban, which, according to Hicks, earned him “more attention than my other 11 appearances on Letterman times 100”, Hicks’ caustic observations and mischievous cultural connections had found a wide audience in the UK, where he is still something of a cult figure.
Hicks certainly went for broke and pronounced his real comic self in the banned Letterman performance, which he wrote out for me in a 39-page letter that also recounts his version of events. Hicks had to write out his set because the tape of it, which the Letterman people said they’d send three weeks earlier, had not yet reached him. Hicks, who delivered his monologue dressed not in his usual gunslinger black but in “bright fall colours, an outfit bought just for the show and reflective of my bright and cheerful mood”, seemed to have a lot to smile about.
Letterman, who Hicks says greeted him as he sat down to talk with, “Good set, Bill! Always nice to have you drop by with an uplifting message!” and signed off saying, “Bill, enjoy answering your mail for the next few weeks,” had been seen to laugh. The word in the green room was also good. A couple of hours later, Hicks was back in his hotel, wearing nothing but a towel, when the call came from Robert Morton, the executive producer of the Letterman show, telling him he’d been deep-sixed. Hicks sat down on the bed.
The New Yorker, 1 November 1993.
What follows is an edited version of Hicks’ 39 page letter to Lahr.
Here is the material (verbatim) that CBS’s standards and practices found “unsuitable” for the viewing public in 1993, year of our Lord. These are the “hotspotsí”I believe were not mentioned. Iím going to include audience responses as well, for it does play a part in my thoughts on the incident which will follow the jokes. Jokes, John: this is what America now fears – one man with a point of view, speaking out, unafraid of our vaunted institutions, or the loathsome superstitions the CBS hierarchy feels the masses (the herd) use as their religion. I’m feeling good. The set I’ve prepared has been approved and reapproved by Mary Connelly, the segment producer of the show. It is exactly the same set that was approved for the previous Friday, the night where I was “bumped” due to lack of time. It is the material that I am excited about performing, for it best reflects – out of all the other appearances I’ve made on the show – myself.
Bill: Good evening! I’m very excited to be here tonight, and I’m very excited because I got some great news today. Iíve finally got my own TV show coming out as a replacement show this fall!
The audience applauds.
Bill: Don’t worry, it’s not a talk show.
The audience laughs.
Bill: Thank God! It’s a half-hour weekly show that I will be hosting, entitled “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus”.
Audience bursts into laughter and applause.
Bill: I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. Each week we let the Hounds of Hell loose and chase the jar-head, no talent, cracker-idiot all over the globe till I finally catch that fruity little ponytail of his, pull him to his chippendaleís knees, put a shotgun in his mouth and “pow”.
Audience continues to applaud and laugh.
Bill: Then weíll be back in ’94 with “Let’s Hunt and Kill Michael Bolton”.
Audience laughs and applauds.
Bill: Yeah, so you can see that, with guests like this, our run will be fairly limitless.
Bill: And we’re kicking the whole series off with our MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Markie Mark Christmas special …
Audience laughs and applauds.
Bill: And I don’t want to give any surprises away, but the first one we hunt and kill on that show is Markie Mark, because his pants keep falling around his ankles and he can’t run away … Bill mimes a hobbling Markie Mark.
The audience laughs.
Bill: Yeah, I get to cross-bow him right in the abs. Itís a beautiful thing. Bring the family. Tape it. It’s definitely a show for the nineties …
At this point I did a line about men dancing. Since it was never mentioned as a reason for excising me from the show, letís skip ahead to the next “hot point” that was mentioned (by the way, the joke about men dancing got a huge laugh).
Bill: You know, I consider myself an open-minded person. But speaking of homosexuality, something has come to my attention that has shocked even me, Have you heard about these new grade school books for children theyíre trying to add to the curriculum, to help children understand the gay lifestyle. One’s called Heather’s Two Mommies and the other is called Daddy’s New Roommate.
(Here I make a shocked, disgusted, face.)
Bill: Folks, I gotta draw the line here and say this is absolutely disgusting. It is grotesque, and it is pure evil.
Bill: I’m talking, of course, about Daddy’s New Roommate.
Bill: Heather’s Two Mommies is quite fetching. You know they’re hugging on page seven.
Bill: (lasciviously) Ooh! Go Mommies, go! Ooh! They kiss in chapter four!
Bill: Me and my nephew wrestle over that book every night …
(Bill mimes his little nephew jumping up and down.)
Bill: (as nephew) Uncle Bill, I’ve gotta do my homework.
Bill: Shut up and do your math! I’m proof-reading this for you …
We move directly into the next “hot point”:
Bill: You know whoís really bugging me these days. These pro-lifers …
Smattering of applause.
Bill: You ever look at their faces? “I’m pro-life!”
(Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear, his lips are pursed as though he’s just sucked on a lemon.)
Bill: “I’m pro-life!” Boy, they look it don’t they? They just exude joie de vie. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long.
Bill: You know what bugs me about them? If you’re so pro-life, do me a favour – don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.
Bill: Let’s see how committed you are to this idea.
(Bill mimes the pursed lipped pro-lifers locking arms.)
Bill: (as pro-lifer) She can’t come in!
Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) She was 98. She was hit by a bus!
Bill: (as pro-lifer) There’s options!
Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) What else can we do? Have her stuffed?
Bill: I want to see pro-lifers with crowbars at funerals opening caskets – “get out!” Then I’d be really impressed by their mission.
Audience laughs and applauds.
(At this point I did a routine on smoking, which was never brought up as a “hot point”, so let’s move ahead to the end of my routine, and another series of jokes that were mentioned as “unsuitable”.)
Bill: I’ve been travelling a lot lately. I was over in Australia during Easter. It was interesting to note that they celebrate Easter the same way as we do – commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.
Bill: I wonder why we’re so messed up as a race? You know, I’ve read the Bible – can’t find the words “bunny” or “chocolate” in the whole book.
Bill: Where do we get this stuff from? And why those two things? Why not “goldfish left Lincoln logs in our sock drawers”? I mean, as long as we are making things up, why not go hog wild?
Audience laughs and applauds.
Bill: I think it’s interesting how people act on their beliefs. A lot of Christians, for instance, wear crosses around their necks. Nice sentiment, but do you think that when Jesus comes back, heís really going to want to look at a cross?
Audience laughs. Bill makes a face of pain and horror.
Bill: Ow. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet …
Bill: (as Jesus looking down from heaven) I’m not going, Dad, no, they’re still wearing crosses – they totally missed the point. When they start wearing fishes, I might go back again … no, I’m not going … OK, I’ll tell you what – I’ll go back as a bunny …
Audience bursts into applause and laughter. The band kicks into Revolution by The Beatles.
Bill: Thank you very much! Good night!
(Bill crosses over to the seat next to Letterman’s desk. )
Letterman: Good set, Bill! Always nice to have you drop by with an uplifting message!
Audience and Bill laugh. Cut to commercial.
Then closes the show with …
Letterman: I want to thank our guests tonight – Andie McDowell, Graham Parker, and Bill Hicks … Bill, enjoy answering your mail over the next few weeks. Goodnight everybody!
The audience and Bill crack up at Letterman’s closing line.
… and we’re off the air.
Bill Sheft, a comic and one of the writers on the show, comes up to me saying, “Hicks, that was great!” I ask him if he thinks Letterman liked it. Bill Sheft, whose other duties include warming up the audience and getting them to applaud when the show goes in and out of commercials says, “Are you kidding? Letterman was cracking up throughout the whole set.”
Since I am a fan of Dave’s and the show, it meant a lot to me that he enjoyed my work. The fact that it was over, and by all accounts went fine, was a huge relief.
After the show, I returned to my hotel and took a long hot bath. As I was getting out of the tub, the phone rang. It was now half past seven. Robert Morton, the producer of the Letterman show, was on the line. He said, “Bill, I’ve got some bad news …” My first thought was that Dave had been chopped up and sauted by the mob cook. Robert Morton went on, “Bill, we’ve had to edit your set from tonight’s show.”
I sat down on the bed, stunned, wearing nothing but a towel. “I don’t understand, Robert. What’s the problem? I thought the show went great.”
Morton replied, “It did, Bill. You killed out there. It’s just that the CBS Standards and Practices felt that some of the material was unsuitable for broadcast.”
I rubbed my head, confused. “Ah. Which material did they find unsuitable?”
“Well,” Morty replied, “almost all of it. If I had to edit everything they object to, there’d be nothing left of the set, so we just think it’s best to cut you entirely from the show. Bill, we fought tooth and nail to keep the set as it is, but Standards and Practices won’t back down and David is furious. We’re all upset here. What can I say? It’s out of my hands now. We’ve never experienced this before with Standards and Practices, and they’re just not going to back down. I’m really sorry.”
“But, Bob, they’re so obviously jokes…”
“Bill, I know, I know. But Standards and Practices just doesn’t find them suitable.”
“But which ones? I mean, I ran this set by my 63-year-old Mom on her porch in Little Rock, Arkansas. Youíre not going to find anyone more mainstream, nor any place more Middle America, than my Mom in Little Rock, Arkansas, and she had no problem with the material.”
“Bill, what can I say? It’s out of our hands, Bill. We’ll just try and schedule a different set in a couple of weeks and have you back on.”
Then Morton said, “Bill, we take full responsibility for this. It’s our fault. We should have spent more time before working on the set, so Mary and I could have edited out the “hot points”, and we wouldn’t be having to do this now.”
Finally, I came to my senses. I said, “Bob, they’re just jokes. I don’t want them to be edited by you. Why are people so afraid of jokes?”
To this, Morty replied, “Bill, you have to understand our audiences.” This is a line I’ve 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. And when I’m not performing on your show, I’m a member of the audience for your show. Are you saying that my material is not suitable for me? This doesn’t make sense. Why do you underestimate the intelligence of the audience? I think that shows a great deal of contempt on your part …”
Morty bursts in with, “Bill, it’s not our decision. We have to answer to the networks, and this is the way they want to handle it. Again, I’m sorry – you’re not at fault here. Now let me get to work on editing you from the show and we’ll set another date as soon as possible with some different material, OK?”
“What kind of material? How bad airline food is? Boy, 7-11s sure are expensive? Golly, Ross Perot has big ears? Bob, you keep saying that you want me on the show, then you don’t let me be myself, and now you’re cutting me out completely. I feel like a beaten wife who keeps coming back for more. I try and write the best material I can for you guys. Yours is the only show I do because I’m a big fan, and I think you’re the best talk show on television. And this is how you treat me?”
“Bill, thatís just the way it is sometimes. I’m sorry, OK.”
“Well, I’m sorry, too, Bob. Now I’ve got to call my folks back and tell them not to wait up. I’ve got to call all my friends …”
“Bill, I know. This is tough on all of us.”
“Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do … OK.” Then we hang up.
So there you have it. Not since Elvis was censored from the waist down has a performer, a comic, performing on the very same stage, been so censored – now from the neck up – in America. For telling jokes.
“What are they so afraid of?” I yelled. “Goddamnit! I’m a fan of the show. I’m an audience member. I do my best shit for them … they’re just jokes.” Here’s this show I loved, that touted itself as this hip late-night talk show, trying to silence one man’s voice, a comic, no less.
Apparently, many of my media friends, fans and supporters are also Letterman fans. They felt that this was a story that was newsworthy and expressed to me their own sympathy and outrage over what had occurred. Thursday came and went and still no tape arrived, so I took it upon myself to call Robert Morton personally. I asked why the tape hadn’t arrived yet, and he said, “Um. I don’t know if we are legally allowed to send out a tape of an unaired segment of a show.”
I thought this had just come off the top of his head so I said, “Robert, I just want it for my archives, and my parents would love to see it,” to which Morty replied, “I understand. I’ll get you the tape. And let’s work on another set for a few weeks from now.”
“Great,” I said, and hung up. To this day, no tape has ever arrived.
Since there was so much interest from the media, we decided to go ahead and do some interviews. One radio talk show I did, the Alan Bennet Show in San Francisco, had a live studio audience the morning I called in to be interviewed. The studio audience laughed at the jokes as I told them, and applauded the points I made about television after hearing the jokes. One person who heard the broadcast took it upon himself to write a stinging letter to CBS, chastising them for their cowardice for not airing my set. He quickly received a letter in reply which was then forwarded to my office.
Its contents were most interesting and added a humorous twist to the already black comedy that was unfolding. I have CBS’s reply before me, and quote: “… it is true that Bill Hicks was taped that evening and that his performance did not air. What is inaccurate is that the deletion of his routine was required by CBS. In fact, although a CBS Programme Practices editor works on the show, the decision was solely that of the producers of the programme with that of another comedian.
Therefore, your criticism that CBS censored the programme is totally without foundation. Creative judgement must be made in the course of producing any programme, and, while we regret that you disagreed with this one, the producers thought it necessary, and this is a decision we would not override.”
I did what I’ve always done – performed material in a comedic way, which I thought was funny. The artist always plays to himself, and I believe the audience, seeing that one person can be free to express his thoughts, however strange they may seem, inspires the audience to feel that perhaps they too can freely express their innermost thoughts with impunity, joy and release, and perhaps discover our common bond – unique, yet so similar – with each other.
This philosophy may appear at first to some as selfish – “I play to me and do material that interests and cracks me up.” But, you see, I don’t feel I’m different from anyone else. The audience is me. I believe we all have the same voice of reason inside us, and that voice is the same in everyone.
This is what I think CBS, the producers of the Letterman show, the networks and governments fear the most – that one man free, expressing his own thoughts and point of view, might somehow inspire others to think for themselves and listen to that voice of reason inside them, and then perhaps, one by one we will awaken from this dream of lies and illusions that the world, the governments and their propaganda arm, the mainstream media, feeds us continuously over fifty-two channels, twenty-four hours a day.
What I realised was that they don’t want the people to be awake. The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems, that they, and only they, might somewhere, in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay asleep, America. Keep watching television. Keep paying attention to the infinite witnesses of illusion we provide you over “Luciferís Dream Box”.
The herd has been pacified by our charade of concern as we pose the two most idiotic questions imaginable – “Is television becoming too violent?” and “Is television becoming too promiscuous?” The answer, my friends, is this: television is too stupid. It treats us like morons. Case closed.
And now, the final irony. One of the “hot points” that was brought up as being “unsuitable for our audience” was my joke about pro-lifers. My brilliant friend Andy posited the theory that this was really what bothered and scared the network the most, seeing as how the “pro-life” movement has essentially become a terrorist group acting with impunity and God on their side, in a country where the reasonable majority overwhelmingly supports freedom of choice regarding abortion.
I felt there was something to this theory, but I was still surprised to be watching the Letterman Show (Iím still a fan) the Monday night following my censored Friday night performance and, lo and behold, they cut to a – are you ready for this? – pro-life commercial. This farce is now complete. “Follow the money!”
Then I’ll see you all in heaven, where we can really share a great laugh together Ö Forever and ever and ever.
With love, Bill Hicks.
John Lahr is a writer based in London and New York. He is the author of Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre (Bloomsbury) and Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (Penguin)