06:34:26 pm on
Monday 15 Jul 2024

Hicks Censorsed
dr george pollard

The 1 October 1993 taping, of the "Late Show with David Letterman," on CBS, scheduled a comedy set by Bill Hicks. It was the twelfth appearance, by Hicks, on a Letterman show. Someone cut the Hicks segment from the final version, of the show, the version that aired.

Cleaned up, from his comedy club act, for Letterman, that night, Hicks remained edgy and satirical. Show producers cleared the material, earlier in the day. It wasn't as if Letterman didn't know what he was getting or how to deal with it. Still, someone cut Hicks from the show.

David Letterman hinted at a possible problem when he signed off the show. Thanking the guests, Dave added, "Bill, enjoy answering your mail the next few weeks." No one took much notice, of the comment, until the Bill Hicks set vanished.

After the taping, Robert Morton, producer of the "Late Show," called Hicks at the Mayflower Hotel. "Bill," he said, "I've got some bad news. We have to edit your set from tonight's show."

Morton claims Hicks "was the best. Bar none. Bill was as good as it gets," said Morton. All those years he blew us away. "We used Hicks, as much as we could," said Morton. "We didn't want him doing other shows. And he [became] ... associated with [Letterman]."

At first, CBS Standards and Practices caught blame for the cut: "some of the material was unsuitable for broadcast," said Morton. "I can't tell you the arguments I had with the Standards and Practices people over the years." Standards and Practices claimed to know nothing about cutting Hicks from the show.

Morton says, "It's about commerce .... we are advertising supported television. You have to be sensitive to [who pays] the bills." Tobacco is about commerce, but censured because it's a form of social murder. I wonder if Morton is suggesting dead minds are not as important as dead bodies. Are zombies less of a problem than are cadavers?

"Yes," says Morton, they're ... jokes and "we bought them as jokes," but advertisers are sensitive and "networks [are] sensitive about offending not ... viewers, but people who are spending money." Hicks knew Morton had no concern about offending the viewers. Viewers were his comedy club audiences, and knew what to expect. Advertisers wielded the influence, and found a lackey, to do their bidding.

The "Late Show" censored Hicks, plain and simple. Someone cut what wasn't believed to the liking of advertisers. Standards and Practices, often a scapegoat, rarely offers outright denials of no involvement. The Bill Hicks set was cut, it seems, because someone -- talent, producers, network -- believed the action served long run interests, best.

If you watch "Late Show," you know Letterman likes to shoot from the hip. He often calls people, network executives, in particular, weasels. There's a proverb about the pot calling the kettle black, which fits here.

The last taped set of a satirist, who waged war against suppression of free thought and expression, fell victim to those who lackeyed for advertisers. Truth, legitimacy and importance fell silent to what careerists thought did not mesh with commerce. All was well in, as Hicks called it, the "United Stares of Advertising."

The question is how would you or I act, in the same circumstances. Edward R Murrow stood tall, as did Fred Friendly. Yet, the urge to yield to greed, in its many forms, to protect earnings and job security, not integrity or right, is a seductive song.

The "Late Show" staff and the audience for the taping saw the Bill Hicks set. The studio audience responded well to Hicks. Colleen McGarr, who managed Hicks, in 1993, made sure his mother got a copy of the censored show. Otherwise, the set is gone, as if it never existed, though a few snippets exist.

Censoring Bill Hicks was prior restraint. The incident underscores why we should be wary of those who decide what we know and what we don't. We should pay attention when warned of impending threat. Why we need to heed, with much care, what Bill Hicks says.

The moronics Hicks battled denied our right. In denying free speech and our right to know, they bludgeoned us, yet again. Our only recourse is to act: enjoy Letterman, his guests, Paul and the band, but don't buy products advertised on the "Late Show." Tell the rating company you watch DVDs, at 11:30 pm, weeknights. If the show tanks, so be it.

The "Late Show" incident "took an emotional toll on Bill," says McGarr. "[They] spooked and made a bad decision, but it got Bill [the needed] attention," he'd missed in the USA. To everything, there's an unexpected and often unrecognized results.

Will Kaufman wrote banning Hicks from American television reveals, "Why, in the long run, [he] is more worthy of notice." Banning is a curiosity, in the land of the free, that begs satisfaction. Along the way to satisfaction in this case, at least, an interesting trend appears.

CBS, the home of Murrow, Friendly, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, the live free or die network, has done more than its share of significant banning. The network censored Elvis Presley, from the waste down, and the mind of Bill Hicks. CBS banned "The Rolling Stones" for singing the line "Let's spend the night together," after directing them to change "the night" to "some time." All three performances involved the same CBS venue, the Ed Sullivan Theatre, off Times Square, in New York City.

CBS also censored debate on the Vietnam War. In February 1966, CBS and NBC televised the Fulbright Hearings on the War. The morning of 10 February, George F. Kennan testified; he appeared on NBC, but not CBS. CBS decided to air moth-eaten reruns of "I Love Lucy," "The Real McCoys," and "The Dick Van Dyke Daytime Show," instead.

Kennan was an effective antiwar critic. He was "the diplomat who ... shaped United States policy during the cold war." The gravitas of [his] credentials were beyond question. His measured words were sure to influence public opinion against the war. CBS blundered or maybe not.

The consensus, today, is CBS, with foreknowledge, censored the hearings. The chain of command went from Dr. Frank Stanton, the ultraconservative President of CBS, through John Schneider, who, at the time, was president of CBS Television. Stanton made the call; Schneider took the fall.

Schneider defended the action. Few decision makers were at home during the day, he said, the hearings were confusing viewers and he saved CBS money, although that didn't influence his decision. NBC replaced spots missed, while it aired the hearings, with "make goods." At least Robert Morton was up-front about censoring Hicks for commercial reasons.

After a few days of back and forth over the War hearings issue, Fred Friendly, President of CBS News, colleague, friend and heir to Edward R. Murrow, resigned. "CBS News," said Friendly, "did not carry the Senate foreign relations hearings last Thursday, when ... Kennan testified .... It was the considered news judgment of every executive in [the CBS News Division] that we carry [Kennan] as we had ... other witnesses. I am convinced ... the decision not to carry [Kennan] was a business, not news, judgment.

"I am resigning," said Friendly, "because the [business] decision ... makes a mockery of the ... [CBS News Division] crusade ... that demands broadest access to congressional debate.... We can not, in our public utterances, demand ... access and ..., in one of the crucial debates of our time, abdicate that responsibility." "Variety" magazine called the resignation, "cataclysmic," adding it was the end of the Murrow Era at CBS.

The situation wasn't much different when someone, at "Late Night," censored Hicks. The gravity varies, but the point remains the same. Censorship is no stranger at CBS. Bill Hicks was one instance. How many more go unknown?

Time wasn't on the side of Bill Hicks. He passed, on 26 February 1994, before benefiting from the "Late Show" misplay. Imagine what could have been.

Between the lines of a letter, from Hicks to John Lahr, about the "Late Show" fiasco is evidence of the indefatigability of Hicks. In a calm manner, and collected, Bill Hicks wondered how much the public would never know. He wondered how, for the sake of advertising and marketing - exploitive profiteering - a few producers decide what you know, and what you don't.

"The delusion of total free will is the worst cage of all," writes John D. McDonald. Bill Hicks would agree. He wasn't the last to suffer for it.

"Late Night" might redeem itself by running the censored Hicks set. The set fits a rerun. World Wide Pants, which produces "Late Show," could release the set on a DVD compilation. Try to imagine network television doing right, and your head hurts.


On 30 January 2009, unlike those who died in Vietnam, Bill Hicks got satisfaction. When going over the lineup, for the "Late Show," Letterman tells the audience his guest is Mary Hicks. He says few recognize her name. She's the mother of Bill Hicks, a great comedian, he says.

David Letterman talks about the censorship, of Bill Hicks, all those years ago. He apologizes, saying he made a serious mistake. He blames a lack of maturity and confidence. Dave was serious, on Friday, 30 January 2009. A serious Dave is a sincere Dave.

Mary Hicks joins Letterman. He leaves the riser to present Mary to the audience and escort her to a seat. He repeats his apology, about censoring Bill. He also apologizes, to her and her family for the anxiety his error caused.

Somewhere, up above, Bill is thinking, "Yeah, and all the money those who exploit me and my work, without mercy, have made because of what you did, Dave."

The apology is momentous. Public figures seldom express regret. Admitting wrong, for an event, sixteen years ago, does nothing for ratings; few viewers, today, know Bill Hicks. Sporadic laughter comes from audience, as Letterman apologizes and explains: some thought it a skit.

David Letterman accepted personal responsibility to cut Hicks. For sixteen years, Robert Morton took the blame. Given the sign off, on the night Hicks was censored, "Bill, enjoy answering your mail the next few weeks," it seems Letterman made the decision. Perhaps Letterman, in innocence, referred only to the edginess of the set, and Morton made the decision. Morton, as all employees, thought he knew what the boss wanted or needed. Few will ever know the truth.

David Letterman displayed much dignity and integrity. It's cynical and fair to wonder why: it did take 16 years. Is Letterman on the way out, making amends before leaving, conscious clear? If true, a guest shot by Cher is at hand.

There seem good reasons, too, for the recantation. David Letterman said, now he has a son, Harry, he sees much of life in a different way. If true, it's a great reason to have Mary Hicks on the show and apologize. Harry, someday, will see dad doing right, not only talking the talk but also walking the walk. "Way to go pops!"

Johnny Carson hosted the "Tonight Show," for thirty years. He was reticent, off air, and steeped in Midwestern dignity and integrity. It's easy to imagine Carson admitting a wrong, to his audience, but not to network executives.

David Letterman is the Carson protégé. This is the second best explanation, for the Letterman recant. The best reason is Dave is much more a man than he's presented, over the years.

There are many days that live in infamy. Friday, 30 January 2009 lives in dignity. Can CBS find the gumption to do the same for Murrow, Friendly and Elvis? "Ed," says the spirit of Dr. Stanton, dead these 2 years, "you were right to bring down McCarthy; it was a good deed. Fred, you were right, the Vietnam War hearings should've aired, on CBS, not reruns. Elvis, son of a gun, your hips weren't evil; I wish I hadn't listened to the 'Colonel.'"

Click here and then click play to view the Bill Hicks relevant segments of the "Late Show with David Letterman," which aired on Friday 30 January 2009.


Barnouw, E. (1970), "The Image Empire," published by Oxford.

Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin (2005),"Bill Hicks," published by HarperCollins.

Jack Boulware (1992), "Bill Hicks: high plains jester," in The Nose: 11.

Fred W. Friendly (1967), "Due to Circumstances beyond Our Control," published by Vintage Books.

Bill Hicks (2004), "Love All the People: letters, lyrics, routines," published by Constable.

William Kaufman (1990), "The Comedian as Confidence Man: studies in irony fatigue," published by Wayne State University Press.

John Lahr (2004), "Forward," to "Love All the People." See also John Lahr (1993), "The Goat Boy Rises," in the "New Yorker," for 1 November.

Paul Outhwaite (2005) "One Consciousness: an analysis of Bill Hick's Comedy," from DM Production.

Cynthia True (2002), "American Scream: the Bill Hicks story," published by HarperEntertainment.

Tim Weiner & Barbara Crossette (2005) "George F. Kennan Dies at 101; Leading Strategist of Cold War," in the New York "Times," for 18 March.

Click here for a list of all Brief Bios.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

More by dr george pollard:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.