Better Late Than Never

Bill Hicks on David Letterman

In 1993, Bill Hicks — one of the truly great American comic geniuses — made his twelfth appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and delivered a monologue that the Letterman staff considered so controversial that, after taping was complete, they cut Hicks’ entire appearance out of the show.

This was a Big Deal. Letterman had never censored a comic before, and had earned a reputation by doing years of boundary-pushing comedy himself as someone who was friendly to edgy acts. So to completely excise Hicks’ set from the show after the comic had finished taping and left the studio, rather than, say, flagging the problems with it and working with Hicks to work them out, struck a lot of people (including Hicks) as being a pretty severe kind of sell-out.

Here’s a cable access TV interview Hicks gave shortly afterwards, in which he discussed the incident:

Hicks’ set from that show was never aired, that night or ever again. And when Hicks died of cancer just months later at the too-young age of 32, the Letterman set became a part of his legend — a Lost Performance that would never see the light of day.

Until now. Fifteen years after turning the lights out on Hicks, The Late Show has announced that they will be airing the infamous set this Friday:

As is the case with many trailblazers, Hicks’ material was also controversial. In 1993, the Southern satirist became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’ Ed Sullivan Theatre. Hours after delivering a routine for The Late Show with David Letterman, the show’s executive producer called to tell him it wouldn’t air. Tragically, Hicks died of cancer less than five months after the incident. He was 32.

On Friday, Bill Hicks’ mother will appear on The Late Show to discuss her son’s legacy. Letterman will also air the censored performance, which includes riffs on pop culture and social issues. (For an early peek, read a transcript of the routine.)

So if you want to see a bit of comedy history fifteen years too late, tune in to CBS this Friday night at 11:30 Eastern/Pacific.

UPDATE (Jan. 29): I just realized that I have now lived a longer life than Bill Hicks did. So if you think there’s any kind of justice in the universe, forget it.