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.