Brow Beat

Happy Belated and Posthumous 50th Birthday, Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks doing a stand-up routine which was taped for The Late Show with David Letterman in 1993 but did not air until 2009.

Today, Kristen Gwynne published a piece on AlterNet about Bill Hicks, who would have turned 50 years old last Friday had his life not been cut short by pancreatic cancer in 1994. As a celebration of his birthday, she selects some of her favorite Hicks quotes—one of which is particularly notorious:

A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think if Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It’s kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a sniper-rifle pendant. “Hey Jackie, just thinking of John. We loved him.”

The reason that this quote is notorious is not because it’s offensive. It probably is, of course, to some people—but so are many things that Hicks said. What distinguishes that joke is it’s one of a handful that supposedly got an entire six-minute stand-up set that Hicks taped in 1993 cut from The Late Show with David Letterman. John Lahr used that incident as the opener for a much-loved profile of Hicks that ran in The New Yorker a month later:

On October 1st, the comedian Bill Hicks, after doing his twelfth gig on the David Letterman show, became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Letterman is now in residence, and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down. Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all. It’s not what’s in Hicks’ pants but what’s in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums.

As often happens with such things, the decision to cut Hicks’s bit got him more publicity than airing it ever would have: He told Lahr it brought “more attention than my other eleven appearances on Letterman times one hundred.” He got even more when Lahr’s profile ran soon afterward, as he told the writer in a letter which was reproduced on the wonderful blog Letters of Note last month. “The phones are ringing off the hook, the offers keep pouring in, and all because of you,” Hicks said. He told Lahr he had read another piece of his, one in which Lahr referred to the “calm that gives rise to greatness in Art.”

John, regardless of any hoopla, I feel that calm. And I’m very thankful for it. It is a greater reward than any fame or notoriety I’ve experienced, and it is my full intention to retain it, explore it, and, hopefully, share it with whomever is interested — via comedy, writing, or music. But the calm comes first.

Hicks died three months later. In 2009, David Letterman had Hicks’s mother on his show, and dedicated that episode to her son. On that episode, Letterman finally aired the censored and now-famous stand-up routine from 1993, which you can watch below. Hicks told Lahr that CBS was upset about the jokes at the expense of Christians, but religious believers are hardly the only people who get mocked by Hicks in the set. It opens with a fantasy of hunting down Billy Ray Cyrus, then takes a swipe at books that teach children about gay parents, before closing with some of his classic material about Christianity. Whether or not Hicks was right about which jokes upset the producers, he was, if the audio on this recording can be trusted, right about the audience’s reaction: He killed.