by Steve Korn
This past Friday night, David Letterman devoted a chunk of his show to a bit of insider baseball, a piece of late-night talk show history that probably meant nothing to 99 percent of his audience, but enough to him to give about half his show over to it. The segment centered around a legendary ''lost'' routine by the comedian Bill Hicks from the early days of the Late Show in 1993. Its legend comes not from viewers' memories of it, but because no one got to see it (this was a time before all video made its way onto the Internet within hours). As Letterman explained on Friday, he deemed the routine not suitable to air, for reasons he seems at a loss to explain. In a sad coda, Hicks, a frequent guest on Letterman's 12:30 a.m. show on NBC who was visiting the then-new CBS 11:30 p.m. Late Show for the first time, would be dead from cancer months later.
See David Letterman's introduction of the segment here:
With Hicks' mother as his guest on Friday, Letterman revisited this long-ago episode, finally airing the 1993 routine in its entirety. It's a fascinating segment, watching him tread on this uncomfortable ground, coming face-to-face with the idea you can't put your arms around a memory; whatever he'd want to say to Hicks now, he can't. In the second part of the segment, here he is trying to say it to Hicks' mom:
It's compelling to watch Letterman seeming to struggle from the perspective of 2009 to understand –- or make us understand -- a decision made in the far-different television universe of 1993. Hicks' brand of social commentary -– his routine, embedded below, includes barbs on aggressively mindless pop culture figures of the day, cultural attitudes about homosexuality, pro-lifers, and religious symbolism -- must have seemed discomfiting so soon after Letterman lost The Tonight Show gig to Jay Leno, and an endless stream of commentary questioned if Letterman's ''edgier''-by-comparison approach had a chance to succeed on CBS at the earlier hour.
Flash ahead a decade and a half, and time has changed everything: The 11:30 Letterman show is a fixed spot on the national pop culture landscape, and Bill Hicks' work still has resonance. After the Hicks routine, Letterman notes that the piece really doesn't seem dated, and other than a reference to Billy Ray Cyrus here and ''Marky Mark'' there, that's true (the names may change, but a mind-set remains the same). But here's what I'm wondering: Even with all the proliferation of late-night talk, would someone with something to say on issues that Bill Hicks tackles here even get booked in 2009? If there's a Bill Hicks out there working now, will he or she get on Late Show, The Tonight Show, or Jimmy Kimmel Live? In the age of the Internet and cable, does it even matter?
Still, it's interesting to see Letterman's perspective shift from one of a younger, competitive host wanting to win a ratings war, to a more human attempt to tell a mom who seems still to feel stung by how the rejection affected her critically ill son (a fact Letterman makes clear was not known by the show at the time) that his work deserved better and to at least publicly acknowledge a lingering regret that a decision made in the heat of one moment looks unnecessarily harsh with the passage of time. What happened then can't be undone, but give Letterman points for trying to wrestle with it all these years on, and letting us watch.
Anyone else moved by this last Friday? Do you think late-night TV -- or TV in general -- is still willing to address issues Hicks deals with in 2009, or has the ratings war destroyed that aspect?