The man paced back and forth, a rage building inside him. Ahead were dozens of strange faces, each one staring intently as the figure clenched a fist, attempting to hold back the anger that was consuming him. He looked out at the crowd and slowly raised the microphone to his lips. ‘Let me tell you what my life has been like in the last couple of hours,’ he declared defiantly, the spectators waiting in anticipation for the big reveal. It was shortly after 8:30pm on Friday, 1 October 1993 when Bill Hicks took to the stage at 1626 Broadway in New York City, a recently relocated entertainment venue known as Caroline’s. Barely two hours earlier he had been less than a mile away at the prestigious Ed Sullivan Theatre, where he had performed a seven-minute set for the Late Show with David Letterman, the highest-rated late night talk show in America. Now, here he was in a small, smoke-filled club, venomous hatred spewing forth as the intoxicated crowd watched on in fascination. By the time that he had taken his leave, he had prompted offended tourists to stage a walk-out and had left the remaining witnesses in a state of shock and awe.
Almost a decade earlier, on 5 December 1984, William Melvin Hicks, then just eleven days shy of his twenty-third birthday, made his mainstream television debut when he was invited to entertain the audience of Letterman’s popular show, stepping out in front of the cameras for the first time and introducing the dark poet to the world. ‘I’ve got the kind of face that people walk up to me out of the blue and go, ‘What’s wrong?” he confessed. ”Nothing.’ ‘Well, you know, it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile?’ ‘You know, it takes more energy to point that out than it does to leave me alone?!” At this moment, Hicks had revealed the persona that he would embody throughout his career, that of an angry young man frustrated with the mediocrity of every-day life. By the time that he walked into the Manhattan studio in the autumn of 1993, Hicks had already enjoyed eleven appearances on the show but with each one he felt that he had been forced to compromise his integrity to suit the delicate sensibilities of the network. ‘It wasn’t me,’ he insisted in an interview with Howard Stern. ‘I’d been de-clawed by the censors, that I went on as this perfunctory little joke blower and I wasn’t me.’
This time, however, he had remained true to himself and his message. Yet he knew the rules of television and despite his desire to finally show the Letterman crowd the real Bill Hicks, he had chosen his material carefully and had curtailed any offensive language. The producers had approved the set before the show, the audience had relished in his cynical world view and its host had praised his performance. Thirty-seven-years after Elvis Presley had been censored during his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, now a young comedian faced a similar wrath within the walls of the same studio. Having returned to his hotel room to enjoy a well-deserved soak in the bathtub, Hicks was rudely interrupted by the howl of the telephone. He picked up the receiver to hear the apologetic voice of the show’s producer, Robert Morton, who informed his guest that due to events beyond his control, Hicks would not be appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Despite only being thirty-one, Hicks had been touring the country for over a decade and had already made a name for himself in Houston, Texas long before David Letterman had ever heard his name. He had obsessed over the notion of performing and at the age of fifteen formed a comedy duo with childhood friend Dwight Slade. After several underwhelming appearances at such forgettable events as talent shows, Slade came across an advert in the Houston Chronicle for an open mic night at a new venue called the Comedy Workshop and on 10 April 1978, the two teenagers lied to their parents regarding their plans for the evening and made their way to the club. ‘Bill and Dwight did about seven or eight minutes,’ recalled Kevin Booth, another close friend, in Agent of Evolution. ‘They got laughs. Legitimate laughs. Some illegitimate or, more accurately, laughs that were a function of the novelty of it all. Here were kids who, legally, were too young even to be in the club (legal drinking age in Texas was eighteen at the time), yet there they were. That these boys even had the balls to get up there and do this, wow!’
While many would later draw comparisons to such controversial comics as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, in truth Hicks’ comedy hero was Woody Allen, whose trilogy of stand-up albums released during the late sixties had showcased his talent for biting satire and offbeat monologues. As his popularity began to grow through regular performances at the Comedy Workshop, Hicks gained a reputation for his own irreverent social commentary and alongside such contemporaries as Sam Kinison, became a member of the Texas Outlaw Comics. After years of touring small clubs across America and the occasional appearance on chat shows, Hicks signed a contract with an independent label, Invasion Records and released his debut album Dangerous in 1990 to modest acclaim. By this point he had already produced a home video entitled Sane Man and over the next three years would unleash a second album and three more videos upon the world. As he walked onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre he was already a familiar face to many regular viewers of Late Night with David Letterman and had begun to develop something of a cult following on America’s live circuit.
Letterman, too, had honed his comedic talents in clubs around the country, regularly appearing at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, but ever since the early days of his career he had demonstrated skills as a radio and television presenter, something that would finally come into practice in the summer of 1980 when NBC commissioned a morning programme called the David Letterman Show. As its host began to attract the attention of both viewers and critics he was approached by the network to develop a more adult-themed chat show and Late Night with David Letterman was born. An instant success, the show would run for ten prolific years before it was finally succeeded by the Late Show with David Letterman following his move to CBS. ‘Letterman continued to align himself with the average American even after his income and popularity put him squarely into the rich and famous category,’ explained biographer Frances Lefkowitz. ‘Just two years after its debut, Late Night with David Letterman had earned a steady viewing of about four million households per night, including many of the twenty-year-old to thirty-year-old men with the disposable income so attractive to advertisers.’
Hicks had idolised Letterman for many years and when fellow comic and future chat show host Jay Leno influenced the producers of Late Night with David Letterman to allow the promising young performer to appear on the show, Hicks and Letterman were first introduced to each other in April 1984. Yet while both Letterman and Leno used stand-up comedy as a springboard to a talk show career, Hicks has remained committed to a life on the road, drinking and performing his way through every state. Even as he indulged in both his passion for music and filmmaking, opening his audiences’ eyes to the hypocrisy of the world through a steady diet of cultural dissection and toilet humour – or as Hicks declared, ‘Noam Chomsky with dick jokes’ – remained his primary mission. While his earlier routines had mocked such mundane topics as nine-to-five work, as he found his voice his concerns turned to war, drugs and pornography. These hardly seemed like appropriate material for a guest on a much-revered chat show, but Hicks knew Letterman’s audience and what material he could get away with on mainstream television. Or so he thought.
It had been ten days since his latest special Revelations had premiered on HBO when the producers of the Late Show with David Letterman had reached out to Hicks with an invitation to join their line-up. Less than a month earlier, CBS had launched Letterman’s revamped show and now, on 24 September 1993, Hicks was brought to the Ed Sullivan Theatre at 1697 Broadway to join Hollywood star Glenn Close and musician James Taylor. Accompanied by his manager Colleen McGarr, Hicks had made his way from his home in West Palm Beach, Florida to the studio in New York and after showcasing his set for Morton and segment producer Mary Connelly for approval, Hicks patiently waited in his dressing room to be summed to the set. But mere minutes before he was due to step onto the stage his luck took a turn for the worse. ‘About halfway through the show, Connelly called the two into the hallway and apologetically informed them that the show was running short of time,’ detailed author Cynthia True in American Scream. ‘Bill was being bumped. They would reschedule him as soon as possible, Connelly promised. Bill was a bit disappointed but he and Colleen managed to bolster their spirits with lobster dinners at the Palm that night.’
This is the worst news I could give anybody
Although Hicks had been upset about being cut from the show, there was something far more serious that was eating away at his mind. That summer he had begun to suffer from severe pains and at the insistence of his manager he consulted a specialist. On 15 June, following a performance at the Comedy Sore in West Palm Beach, McGarr knew that there was something wrong with her close friend. ‘Suspecting a gall bladder problem, the physician, Dr William Donovan, had Bill sent for an ultrasound,’ said Booth. ”This is the worst news I could give anybody,’ he said. At the hospital he explained that Bill had pancreatic cancer and that he had about three months to live. They let Bill sleep for a little while longer. At 7:30 that morning, Colleen and Dr Donovan went to see Bill. Donovan told Bill that he had stage-four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis negative. Survival rates for pancreatic cancer are the lowest. Of all people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, only about twenty per cent are alive one year later. During the nineties, the five-year survival rate for men with pancreatic cancer was around two per cent and those diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease, as Bill had been, survival rates dipped to about one per cent.’
The diagnosis had torn Hicks’ world apart but despite the news that he was going to die, this revelation also gave the thirty-one-year-old a sense of purpose. He was determined to complete as many projects and spread his message to as many people as possible and so during the latter half of 1993 he completed work on two more stand-up albums, Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, while also filming another concert in London. The Late Show with David Letterman could have been his final television appearance but now he had been pulled from the line-up and forced to return to Florida, unaware if the producers would keep their word and invite him back once again. Just one week later Hicks was back in New York for his scheduled performance at Caroline’s when a reporter concluded an interview by congratulating him for his upcoming guest slot on Letterman’s show. Unaware of any such invitation, Hicks contacted McGarr, who frantically explained that the studio had been attempting to contact him. And so, just seven days after his failed attempt, Bill Hicks was once again ready to take on mainstream television.
Hicks had served as a last-minute replacement when the producers were forced to cancel their scheduled guest due to concerns over safety. Joseph Iannuzzi, known to some as Joe Dogs, had recently published The Mafia Cookbook, a tell-all account of his time working as a chef and associate for the notorious Gambino crime family. Following a particularly violent beating, Iannuzzi defected to the FBI to serve as an informant in exchange for witness protection, but upon the discovery that he had intended to appear on a chat show, the bureau withdrew their support. Soon the Gambinos also heard about Letterman and before long the studio began to receive ominous phone calls enquiring as to what time the programme was scheduled to start. Following the attention that formed around his book, Iannuzzi returned two years later with a second memoir, Joe Dogs: The Life and Crimes of a Mobster. With the security at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on high alert, Morton and Connelly cancelled this high profile appearance and instead turned to Hicks to fill the open slot.
Once again Hicks had run through his routine with the producers and had gained their enthusiastic approval. As both McGarr and her mother Elizabeth waited backstage, Hicks stood smoking a cigarette as he waited to be introduced by his host. Stepping out onto the stage, he offered Letterman a brief wave before taking the microphone and enthusiastically offering his audience some good news. ‘I finally got my own TV show, coming out as a replacement show this fall,’ he revealed. ‘It’s not a talk show, don’t worry. It’s a half-hour, weekly show that I will host entitled Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The crowd cheered, clearly sharing the comedian’s dislike for the Achy Breaky Heart singer and his particular brand of soft country rock. ‘It’s fairly self-explanatory: each week we let the Hounds of Hell loose, we chase that jarhead, no-talent, cracker idiot all over the globe, until I finally catch that fruity little ponytail of his, pull him to his knees, put a shotgun in his mouth…’ A shot echoes through the studio. ‘…Then we’ll be back in ’94 with Let’s Hunt and Kill Michael Bolton. Also, look out for our Vanilla Ice/MC Hammer/Marky Mark Christmas Special.’
Within the opening minute, Hicks had celebrated the executions of five celebrities all in the name of entertainment and the audience had cheered for these hypothetical deaths. So far, so good. His next target would be sexuality. ‘I went to a dance club the other day, dragged against my will,’ he continued. ‘And this girl asked me to dance, which I thought was hilarious. ‘Would you like to dance?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you read my mind. That’s why I’m leaning in the darkest corner, closest to the exit. I’m about to boogie! I’m about to cut a rug!’ But women have this weird myth: you can tell the way a guy is in bed by how he is on a dance floor. I think that’s ridiculous. What does it matter? If a guy is on a dance floor, really getting into it, enjoying himself, expressing himself, what does it matter how he is in bed…he’s gay! Real men don’t dance; they sit, sweat and curse.’ This had been the first test of his set. During the eighties, homosexuality had finally been acknowledged by the mainstream media and yet gay jokes were considered acceptable. But Hicks did not celebrate hate, he merely mocked stereotypes and those who believed in them.
‘Speaking of homosexuality,’ he persisted. ‘I consider myself fairly open-minded but something has come to my attention I find absolutely shocking. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, these new grade school books for children to teach them gay lifestyles. You know what I’m talking about? One of them is called Heather’s Two Mommies, the other is called Daddy’s New Roommate. I’m going to have to draw the line here folks and say this is absolutely disgusting, okay. It is grotesque and evil!’ Once again the crowd applauded, some clearly feeling a similar disgust towards this new element that had been introduced into their children’s education. But then came the punchline. ‘I’m talking about Daddy’s New Roommate,’ he mocked. ‘Heather’s Two Mommies is pretty cool! I don’t know if you’ve ever checked that out. ‘They’re hugging on page seven, oooh. Go mommies, go! Go!” While the audience would cheer there was a point to what Hicks was trying to say, highlighting the double standard in society in which lesbians are viewed as sexual fantasies, while gay men are vilified.
The next target would be pro-life. Following the decision of the Supreme Court in the 1973 case Roe vs. Wade, abortion became legal in the United States, finally giving women the right to choose whether or not they wanted to carry a baby full-term. As a result of this, during the eighties the pro-life movement, which opposed abortion under any circumstances, became a prominent force across the country that in some cases resulted in violence against and even the murders of gynaecologists, secretaries and other staff that worked in abortion clinics. The irony that those who celebrated life but were willing to kill was not lost on Hicks. A little over six months before his appearance on the show, a doctor called David Gunn was murdered in Florida by thirty-one-year-old Michael Frederick Griffin, who as a result would receive a life sentence for the crime. Six weeks before Hicks stood before the cameras at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, George Tiller, a physician based in Kansas was shot several times by anti-abortion extremist Shelley Shannon, surviving the attack but dying from another attempt sixteen years later. The hypocrisy of such people would become an ideas subject matter for someone as opinionated and outspoken as Bill Hicks.
‘You know what’s really annoying me? These pro-life people. You ever look at their faces? ‘I’m pro-life!” he sneers, pulling a bitter face to represent the hostility that he saw within anti-abortion demonstrators. ‘Don’t they look it? They just exude joie de vivre. You see them trying to go to an orphanage and adopt a kid. ‘We’re pro-life, we’re here to adopt!’ The kids are just, ‘Don’t pick me. Oh no, I’ll eat gruel, fifteen-to-a-bed, no problem. Just keep Heather’s Two Mommies coming and we’re fine in here!’ You know, if you’re really pro-life do me a favour; don’t lock arms and block med clinics, lock arms and block cemeteries. Let’s see how committed you are to this idea… ‘We’re pro-life!’ That’s the same look non-smokers give you. ‘I’m a non-smoker. I’m a pro-life non-smoker!” Having survived the anti-abortion debate, Hicks then launched into his thoughts on the right to smoke, a staple of his set for many years, this time comparing pro-lifers to those that protest against smoking in public. Of all of Hicks’ material, his pro-smoking stance is the one aspect that has aged poorly now that smoking is illegal in many public areas around the world, although the purpose behind this routine had never been to promote smoking but merely his right to choose.
They totally missed the point
With celebrity murders, homosexuality and abortion having all been covered in just five minutes, Hicks’ final target would be Christianity. ‘I was in Australia over Easter, which was interesting to note. They celebrate Easter the same way we do; commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night,’ he scoffs. ‘I wonder why we’re messed up as a race. Anybody got any clues? I’ve read the Bible and I can’t find the word bunny or chocolate anywhere in the book. Why those two things? Why not goldfish left Lincoln Logs in your sock drawer? Just making stuff up, go hog wild! But I think it’s interesting to note how people act on religious beliefs, you know what I mean? Like a lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Nice sentiment, but you think when Jesus comes back he’s really going to want to look at a cross? That may be why he hasn’t shown up yet. He’s going, ‘Man, they’re still wearing crosses, dad. I’m not going. They totally missed the point. I’m not going, forget it. I’ll go back as a bunny!” With his set having come to an end, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause as Hicks bid them farewell and made his way over to Letterman, who clearly shared the enthusiasm of the crowd.
More than any other appearance Hicks had made on Letterman’s show over the years, this would be the one that he felt the most proud of. ‘They cut to a commercial and Dave asked Bill how things were going. Bill said fine, that he had been working on a couple of albums. Letterman then asked if Bill had lost some weight,’ claimed True in her biography of Hicks. ‘Then something odd happened. Letterman leaned over and asked Bill if he’d quit drinking. Bill couldn’t figure out why Dave would ask that, considering he hadn’t touched liquor in over five years. And he could have sworn he had talked to Dave about that before. ‘No drinking,’ Bill said. ‘But I have started smoking cigars. Hey, what kind do you smoke?’ Letterman named a brand that Bill didn’t recognise and handed him one as they came back from the commercial. With fifteen seconds left, Letterman closed the show with a customary thank you to his guests, Andie MacDowell, Graham Parker and Bill Hicks…’Bill, enjoy answering your mail the next few weeks. Goodnight, everybody!’ As soon as they were off the air, Connelly again remarked to Bill that the show had gone great and Bill headed for the green room. He was greeted with a wave of applause.’
Bill Hicks stepped out of the Ed Sullivan Theatre feeling like a superstar and returned to his hotel room to enjoy a cigar while he relaxed in the bath. But this moment of tranquillity would be ruined by a phone call, one conversation that brought Hicks down from his cloud and violently crashing back to earth. He had been removed from the show. It would be Morton that was given the task of breaking the bad news, informing the comic that the Standards and Practices department at CBS had objected to certain elements of his performance and instead of censoring the offensive material, they had decided to cut him out completely. Hicks was devastated. He had already performed the routine for his God-fearing conservative mother Mary and then the audience had reacted just as Hicks had hoped, but in the hour since his appearance, the footage had been re-evaluated. What would anger Hicks even further was the later revelation that it had not been the network that had removed him from the show but Letterman and his producers. Feeling betrayed and despite a warning from Morton, Hicks finally decided to talk to the press about his disappointing experience.
One week after the incident, the Los Angeles Times published an article that detailed the censorship. ‘It’s absolutely stunning to me, the contempt in which the network holds the audience. The idea that these people have standards is laughable,’ Hicks told the newspaper. ‘We live in a time of, ‘I’m offended.’ Well, guess what? I’m offended too. It’s just that the list is so long I don’t know where to send it.’ But perhaps the most significant support would come from the New Yorker, a publication that had withheld an article on Hicks for several months, but in the wake of this new controversy, they were eager for it to make its way to print. Its author, John Lahr, had interviewed Hicks backstage at the Dominion Theatre in London prior to the recording of Revelations in November 1992 and during their discussion he had expressed his frustration with the mainstream media. ‘Comedy in the States has been totally gutted,’ he insisted. ‘It’s commercialised. They don’t have people on TV who have points of view, because that defies the status quo and we can’t have that in the totalitarian mind control government that runs the fucking airwaves. I get David Letterman a lot. I love Letterman but every time I go on, we have tiffs over material. They love me, but his people have this fictitious mainstream audience they think they play to. It’s untrue. It doesn’t exist.’
Once Hicks had broken his silence over what had happened he was only too eager to tell anyone that would listen. ‘This set was approved the week before,’ he explained to Stern. ‘It was so harmless. Even people in church would laugh at that little comment. I ran this set by my mom on her porch in Little Rock, Arkansas. You’re not going to find more mainstream, nor Middle America, than my sixty-five-year-old mom. And she hooted and fell out of her rocker.’ But his most honest account came via public access. ‘What happened was I did some material about the pro-life people and the joke I did was very simple,’ he recalled. ‘They counted that as one of the ‘hot points’ that I touched on. Here’s the punchline: Monday night during the Letterman show, a commercial airs for pro-life. So we just had a misunderstanding; I thought I lived in the US of A, the United States of America and actually we live in the US of A, the United States of Advertising. Freedom of expression is guaranteed, if you’ve got the money!’
The following January, Hicks penned a thirty-nine-page, handwritten letter to Lahr that had described his entire routine, along with the events before and after his performance, in an attempt to bring to light the unfair censorship that he had endured at the hands of David Letterman. ‘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 1993. In America. For telling jokes,’ he denounced. ‘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. A show that pretends to be so irreverent, yet buckles at the first hint of anything resembling, in their frightened eyes, edginess. Colleen came back into the room after talking to Mary Connelly of the Letterman show. Mary told Colleen exactly what Robert Morton told me. Colleen asked her if we could get a copy of the tape of my performance. Mary told her, ‘No problem. We’ll get it to you on Monday.’ Shell-shocked, Colleen, Colleen’s mom and I headed off to Caroline’s Comedy Club, where I was to do two shows that night.’
Despite the promise to deliver a copy of the tape so Hicks would at least have some record of his performance, the producers would withhold the footage until Morton finally refused, insisting that providing unaired footage could potentially be illegal. He would never get to view the routine as shortly before midnight on Saturday, 26 February 1994, thirty-two-year-old William Melvin Hicks lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. The final appearance of Hicks on Letterman would remain unseen by the world for sixteen years until, on 30 January 2009, David Letterman surprised audiences when he invited Mary Hicks onto his show to publicly apologise for the treatment of her son more than a decade earlier. ‘I’ve not seen that tape or any part of it since that night and seeing it now raises the question, ‘What was the matter with me? What was I thinking?’ It was just tremendous,’ he admitted after the footage was finally broadcast. ‘If anything, it says a great deal about me. It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It was just perfect! And the fact that I expected it to be somewhat dated, being that old and it’s not. It’s just great! In fact, I guess this speaks to the suggestion that he was way ahead of his time!’
Bill Hicks left behind a wealth of material that would posthumously cement his legacy as the most important voice of his generation and one of the most celebrated stand-up comics of all time. With the support of his mother, an array of recordings and bootlegs would be issued over the following decades, from the double album Salvation to a collection of outtakes entitled Love, Laughter and Truth. Throughout the years the message of Hicks has become more relevant than ever and his quest for a greater understanding of the human mind and soul truly embodied the philosophies of his work. ‘On 26 December 1961, the world turned upside down, then inside out and I was born screaming in America,’ he had once declared. ‘It was the tail-end of the American dream, just before we lost our innocence irrevocably, when the TV eye brought the horror of our lives to our homes for all to see. I was told when I grew up I could be anything I wanted; a fireman, a policeman, a doctor, even President, it seemed. And for the first time in the history of mankind, something new called an astronaut. But like many kids growing up on a steady diet of westerns, I always wanted to be the cowboy hero; that lone voice in the wilderness, fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it and standing for freedom, truth and justice. And in my heart of hearts, I still track the remnants of that dream, wherever I go, in my never-ending ride into the setting sun.’