"But [...] always behind the shock is thought. And that's what makes him important.”
Liverpool University Gazette
ONE of the many psychological wounds which afflicted the legendary comedian Bill Hicks in the final months of his life in 1993/94 was the decision of the Letterman Show producers to axe his 12th and final appearance on America’s premier chat show.
This wrong, which deeply hurt Hicks, is to be righted tonight (Friday, January 30) as Letterman premiers the axed routine, heavy in criticisms of Christian fundamentalism. Letterman will also interview Hicks' mum Mary in the run-up to the 15th anniversary of Bill’s death in February.
Hicks’ set, recorded on October 1, 1993, took aim at America’s Christian right and in particular Pro-Lifers, saying they should take their argument to its logical conclusion: “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.”
Letterman and the show’s producer Robert Morton took the decision to censor the set (due to fears of alienating key advertisers) without consulting Hicks, who was understandably incensed – a grievance which manifested itself in a legendary 39 page hand written protest letter to the New Yorker’s London correspondent John Lahr.
Hicks died of pancreatic cancer nearly five months later at the age of 32 on February 24, 1994.
Letterman has since admitted his deep regret at the incident and how he and Morton handled it, most revealingly on the superb 1994 documentary Totally Bill Hicks.
Always lionised more in Britain and Ireland during the final years of his life, Hicks' legend has grown since his death and his satiric attacks on the George Bush Snr invasion of Iraq in 1991 took on an eerily prescient echo when Dubya Jnr repeated the feat in 2003. Many a journalist with a copy of the live video Revelations rehashed some of Hicks’ key set pieces – ‘How do we know Iraq has weapons? We saw the receipts’ was a favourite plagiarism by the hacks.
Much of the anger which drove Hicks in his final six months of life can be heard on the posthumously issued album Rant in E Minor in which he lambasts the full spectrum of fundamentalists, brain dead celebrities and deficiencies in US foreign policy. Left behind by the mainstream American comedy industry yet feted in the UK, Hicks’ sense of disillusionment with the US is manifest. His attack on the TV shows American Gladiators, Cops and his former friend Jay Leno are works of deep, dark genius.
Rant... also contains some wonderful attacks on hecklers, the savage like of which many a stand-up can only dream of getting away with in Jongleurs of a drunken Saturday late show.
Knowing he was dying, Hicks set out to settle all the scores that he had borne stoically until then. Rant... is an album of rare comic brutality and political clarity. It also epitomises his description of himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.”
In its bleakest section (and that’s saying something), he says: “What do you say we, uh, lighten things up and talk about abortion? You know, I feel like I'm losing some of you here and I wanna win all of you back with this one. Let's talk about abortion. Let's talk about child-killing, and see if we can't get some chuckles rippling through the room here. Let's talk about mass murder of young, unborn children, see if we can't coalesce into one big healthy gut-laugh. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
* Get the Letterman Show on Youtube.com from tomorrow, no doubt
* A transcript of the show is available from http://www.sacredcow.com/articles/newyorker.html
What are your favourite Hickisms?
‘We are a virus with shoes...’
"Oh, childbirth is such a miracle. It's such a miracle." Wrong! No more a miracle than eating food and a turd coming out of your ass. You know what a miracle is? A miracle's raising a kid who doesn't talk in a movie theatre.”
"America is the bully of the world, we're like Jack Palance in the movie Shane..."