Letterman Takes Licks Over Hicks Tricks - Macleans.ca

Letterman Takes Licks Over Hicks Tricks


As you probably know, David Letterman made a nice gesture on Friday night, apologizing for the famous incident (early in his CBS run) when he pulled a Bill Hicks routine from the show. He ran the routine in its entirety and had the late comedian’s mother on as a guest. I found the routine itself a little underwhelming — starting your routine with a list of annoying celebrities you want to kill is somewhere on the level of a throwaway joke on any episode of Married: With Children from the same era — and I kind of have a sneaking sympathy with the guy who wrote in to Mark Evanier’s site:

What respect I did have for Hicks (as an okay comedian) was lost after the Letterman incident…not because of what he said on the show, but because of his obnoxious behavior afterward. He seemed to think that being on TV was some sort of birthright. How dare the country be shielded from his speaking truth to power about what a buffoon Billy Ray Cyrus is!

But as Evanier notes, a network TV monologue, even one that gets cut, is not the best way to judge a comedian. And Hicks’ self-importance and belief that his jokes were going to wake up America to the revolution aren’t really a problem; self-importance is pretty much built in to the whole practice of stand-up comedy. I just get a little leery of the idea that a comedian who dies tragically young (even a genuinely great comic like Lenny Bruce) is not just an entertainer but a symbol of the truth that we couldn’t accept, if not a Christ figure; as Mordecai Richler said of Lenny Bruce, “he didn’t die for my sins.”

Evanier’s post is worth reading, and touches on several issues, including what they replaced Hicks with on the original show, and the question of whether Letterman’s apology was driven by the rumours that Ron Howard and Russell Crowe may be planning a Hicks biopic. Given the way Hollywood biopics are usually made, especially by filmmakers as relentlessly predictable as Ron Howard, I’d figure that the Letterman debacle will be a climactic moment in the movie. Every biopic needs one of those Doors-on-Ed-Sullivan bits to show how evil and run by The Man network television really is.

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Letterman Takes Licks Over Hicks Tricks

  1. I love Letterman but I haven’t watched him in a few months now (with all the political things going on south of the border watching The Daily Show and Colbert on the Comedy Network was more . Caught Friday’s show and was gald I did. I had no knowledge of the “Hicks Incident” and thought it was a nice gesture and a fairly touching time with Mrs. Hicks.

    I didn’t even know Bill Hicks as a comedian (what was I doing in 1993?). I found his set not bad, mostly funny and not particularly dated. I did think that the first stuff about killing a bunch of obnoxious celebs (Marky Mark has at least remade himself) was a bit too much but perhaps I would have laughed at that in 1993. Don’t know.

    All in all I think Friday’s show once again demonstrated why Letterman is still the best.

  2. I understand Letterman’s need to make things right again , but that set from Hicks is just godawful. Maybe his delivery and timing were gangbusters, who knows, but on paper that reads incredibly dated and, worse, not even that funny to begin with.

    I can see your point about the martyred comic – Andy Kaufman is not particularly funny, in my opinion. His one famous character is a crude ethnic caricature, and most of the rest of his bits were things designed to amuse *him* not the audience. I guess you can appreciate that in a kind of cerebral way, but it’s not funny in any conventional sense.

    On another note Jaime, I really love your posts, but I can’t help thinking you belong at the AV Club. You hardly even get comments here, I hope that picks up!

  3. Well, this is the problem with subjective bits of a subjective medium. As someone who sat there the first time, as a young pre-teen, and try to process the madness that was Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” bit — I can honestly say that anyone who can cavalierly dismiss Kaufman like that is not someone who I’d be likely to turn to as an authority on comedy to begin with.

    First, dismissing Latka and all those TAXI bits — lazy; second, if you’ve ever seen footage of the Kaufman Radio City Show, to be dismissive of that, of the power of that event is just pure bloody minded churlishness.

    The lesson of the Hicks bit, of course, is not just the poignancy that surrounded it…it’s the fact that it could sustain a routine on network tv that was true to the spirit of his much darker club bits. Letterman put it best himself when he said after viewing it that he can’t even imagine why he banned it.

    The great thing about funny is that nobody has to agree. But in a world where Dane Cook struts around and 19 year olds go mental, dissing Kaufman and HIcks just strikes me as…bizarre.

    Which of course, is the point.

    • Off-topic, but personally/subjectively, I like Kaufman — and on a side note it’s weird that his “stretch something out until the stretching-out becomes the joke” technique is now so totally mainstream that everybody uses it — but I used to be very down on him, mostly because of Man On the Moon, which portrayed him as the ultimate martyr-comic who was trying to entertain himself rather than the audience (the Danny DeVito character even says that in the film). I have a feeling his reputation has been hurt rather than helped by that film; now that the early SNLs are out on DVD with his bits in them, it’s easier to see that he was an entertainer, just in a way that made you squirm. But the movie creates a sense of resistance by telling us that Kaufman is “good for you.”

      He wouldn’t be the first or last artist whose biopic unintentionally made him look bad. Part of the reason why the idea of a Ron Howard Hicks biopic terrifies me.

    • Right, nobody has to agree, yet apparently my dislike of Kaufman is churlish? Do you even know what that word means?

      I fail to understand how pointing out that Latka is a crude ethnic stereotype is lazy; however, that’s exactly what it is. Whether you find that funny is a different question – I’ll leave that for you to decide. To me, it has all the humor and subtlety of Krusty the Klown’s “Me so solly” bit.

      I also don’t see how you interpreted my dislike of Kaufman and Hicks as an endorsement of Dane Cook. Apparently you think that Cook epitomizes the current generation of comics. That probably says more about you than about modern comedy but whatever.

      • Actually, I’d stand by any of the many meanings of “churlish” in reference to your summation. You base your opinion on a transcript of a live performance, when the clip is readily available in the post you’re commenting on. That’s ungracious and unnecessarily brusque. The haste of your dismissal of the Latka characer shows a shallow analysis dressed up as “taste,” especially when piled upon a dismissal of a routine that you didn’t even bother to watch. That’s boorish, one of the other elements of churlishness.

        You might well believe that there’s no difference between the character that Kaufman played for several seasons, delighting millions with a fanciful, non-specific childlike made-up language and innocent demeanor, and a one-joke, one level, throwaway Krusty joke on The Simpsons, but I think most who understand the context of both would find your analogy extremely wanting. In fact, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that any Simpsons writer you pitched that comparison to would think you were off your nut. They do appreciate their history of comedy on that show.

        Finally, the icing on the cake is to misunderstand the comparison to Dane Cook. Nowhere did I suggest you were a fan. The implied comparison — which is so accepted as to be virtually conventional wisdom, is that Cook’s act lacks any sort of subtlety or commentary; it is surface, and it is what it is. In other words, it’s an actual example of the phenomenon you ascribe to Kaufman.

        Jaime’s beat is the history and development of the medium, and he makes an excellent point about the context of Kaufman’s bits. You can be dismissive because Kaufman, in fact, pushed the boundaries of funny the way that he did. To not know, or to ignore all that context, and to react with belligerence when it’s pointed out is churlish.

  4. I caught a glimpse of Goatboy in that routine… Poor Letterman, his audience has no idea when he is being sincere.

  5. A little late for this string, but hey, I just got back from ice fishing so I’m just tuning in now:

    Having grown up in Reagan-era America, I must say that Bill Hicks’ comedy was exceptionally novel at the time and, if not revolutionary, certainly irreverent. Speaking truth to power was quite an effort, and usually took place far from network TV. I believe that TV was much more daring in the late sixties and seventies. In the eighties, we were all on notice: wholesome America is back and you better fall in line (cue the theme music to the Cosby Show and the “It’s Morning in America” commercial).

    Please remember, in Canada, you didn’t have your local and national network newscasts scrutinized by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority — we did. Our school health programs were being dictated by school boards stacked by local parishes. And while Billy Ray Cyrus might not seem such a high value target today, back then his patriotic all-American pablum was precisely the kind of content you got on three networks and most radio… right after the Dukes of Hazard.

    Like Carlin before him, Hicks made his main challenge to his audience — not the media: You are the problem. You consent to the stifling of dissent, to turning your faith and beliefs into commodities to be auctioned. You have ceased to think for yourself and deserve to occupy the veal pens of society. If you have free will and do not use it, you’re the enemy of humanity. if you believe in the promise of life, join together and ignore the ad men, charlatan preachers and tin-pot politicians.

    As a marketing hack today, I look back on this routine with an equal measure of irony and guilt: