Bill Hicks and Letterman's Late Show – A Comedian Censored then Reprieved

by PaulGoodman67

I revisit the story of Bill Hicks and his final appearance on Letterman's Late Show, which was not broadcast until years later, due to overzealous censorship.

With a comedy act that included passionate, biting and hilarious attacks on consumerism, conservative christians and the banality of mainstream American culture, the controversial comedian Bill Hicks was never going to find it easy to fit in with the network T.V. establishment.

He believed in expressing uncomfortable truths and once described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes”. But did he really deserve to be have his entire routine cut from David Letterman’s Late show in 1993, allegedly in a covert bid to protect advertising revenue, at a time when Hicks was dying of cancer?

If the allegations that Letterman had Bill Hicks silenced were true, then it would make it one of the most misguided cases of t.v. censorship ever. And if Letterman really felt so bad about banning him, why did it take him 16 years to finally broadcast the withdrawn film segment and give a public apology on his show?

Bill Hicks was born in 1962 in Valdosta, Georgia to Jim and Mary, two very ordinary Americans who settled in Houston, Texas when Hicks was seven. He was raised as a Southern Baptist and it was at Sunday School that he first began performing as a stand-up comedian, entertaining the other children with routines that drew on the work of his comedy hero, Richard Prior. His parents were so concerned about his behavior, they took him to a shrink when he was seventeen (the shrink told Hicks that it was his parents who had the problem, not him!).

Then in the early 1980s the direction of Bill Hicks’s comedy altered. Tired of the rut that he felt his material had fallen into, he began experimenting with psychedellic drugs and other intoxicants and, influenced by the approach of innovative rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, began to push his act to new places. Now, rather than focusing on the mundane for his comedy, Hicks turned his attention to bigger philosphical questions and his humor became darker, running an increased risk of censorship.

Bill Hicks would subsequently quit drugs and alcohol, although his addiction to nicotine and his attempts to quit cigarettes would continue to provide him with a rich vein of humor for years to come.

First Appearance and The Incident.

Bill Hicks’ first appearance on a David Letterman show took place in 1984. Being invited onto Late Night with David Letterman should have been a highpoint for Hicks, but it was marred by a censorship issue that would foreshadow the 1993 scandal. At that time, Bill Hicks had a joke he told about accidentally causing an injury that put a classmate in a wheelchair. This breached the NBC policy which didn’t allow jokes about the disabled and Bill Hicks was forced to completely rework the joke in a way that he felt dissatisfied with. The whole thing left Bill Hicks feeling upset and disappointed.

Bill Hicks was to appear a further eleven times on shows hosted by Letterman, but it was his final appearance, or rather non-appearance, that proved to be the most controversial. The Bill Hicks routine that was censored was scheduled to air in October 1993 on David Letterman's Late Show. This was four months after Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease with a low survival rate. Bill Hicks performed his act as normal, but his entire routine was cut from the show before broadcast, allegedly because Letterman and his producer were worried about jokes made by Bill Hicks about religion. After this act of censorship, Bill Hicks was never invited to appear on the show again.


In an interview after the incident, Bill Hicks said that he blamed the censorship of his act on a joke he made about pro-lifers, where he quipped that if they were really serious about being pro-life, they should link hands and surround a graveyard and leave the abortion clinics alone. Bill Hicks noted that a pro-life commercial appeared during a break and believed that this was what made Letterman and his producer so nervous and why he'd been censored.

Hicks also wrote to John Lahr of The New Yorker about the Letterman ban and told of his sense of anger and dismay.  Lahr later wrote about the incident, informing the wider public of the full story.

The Letterman Apology

In 2009, Mary Hicks, Bill’s mother, was invited to appear on the Late Show. Letterman gave an apology for the 1993 incident, accepting full responsibility and describing the decision to cut Hicks’ routine as, “An error of judgement.” The censored routine was broadcast in full for the first time, with Letterman admitting that there was nothing wrong with it.


The impact of incident was compounded by the fact that it occurred when Bill Hicks was dying of pancreatic cancer. David Letterman was unaware of Hicks’ condition at the time, however, so can’t be blamed for insensitivity on that count.

Bill Hicks’ belief that it was anxiety about advertising revenue that got him taken off air has never been proved, although there are many Hicks supporters who believe that his allegation was correct.

David Letterman’s reputation would later be tarnished further by a separate scandal in 2009, when he revealed that he’d had sex with a number of his employees, despite being married, after extortion threats forced him to go public.

Bill Hicks died in February 1994, five months after the David Letterman's Late Show incident, aged only 32.

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Updated: 02/12/2013, PaulGoodman67
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frugalrvers on 01/22/2013

We are both huge Bill Hicks fans...wish he was still here to keep giving us more material that made us not only laugh but THINK.

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