A Tale of Two Comics

Comedy Contrast: Bill Hicks & David Letterman

illustration by Nathan Jensen

Too often people don't realize that stand-up comedy is a form of theatre and should be judged by the highest standards. As practiced by the late Bill Hicks it was an art; as performed by David Letterman a craft. Rykodisc has issued four CDs by Hicks, who often appeared on Letterman's show, with ultimately depressing results. They should be in the library of every student of contemporary comedy. Hicks was one of the few comedians to emerge in the past 10 years who could be compared to the outstanding, innovative comics of the 1950s and '60s.

Around 1950, a major revolution in American comedy began, initiated by and/or involving Bob and Ray (who still haven't gotten the praise they deserve), Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Second City (out of which came Nichols and May and Saturday Night Live), Lord Buckley, Norman Lear, and, of course, Lenny Bruce. Their styles and venues varied, but all were sharp social and/or political commentators and satirists, especially Bruce, who took on the major political problems of the day. They didn't just entertain; they provoked thought.

When the Vietnam War and the draft ended, however, the counterculture, which had supported Bruce, disappeared. Young, middle-class whites dropped their allegiance to the New Left and hippie movements, since they no longer had to be concerned with serving in the military. Some became yuppies. The U.S. turned right politically and continued in that direction until now we see Democratic President Clinton cooperating with Republicans to roll back portions of the New Deal. Obviously, in this climate, outspoken left-wing comedians do not flourish, and, indeed, Hicks had a more appreciative audience in the UK than in the USA.

It's sort of sad to look back on the evolution -- or devolution -- of comedy from the early 1970s to the present. The past two decades have seen a proliferation of comedians and the establishment of an increasingly large number of venues meant to feature them. Unfortunately, the overall level of comedy has not improved; instead, it largely reflects the widespread anti-intellectualism and mean-spiritedness in our society. Too many comedians want to be glib rather than profound; they avoid confronting the controversial issues of our day and aren't even concerned with dealing seriously with the human condition. Jerry Seinfeld's show, regarded as the Cadillac of sitcoms, deserves some of the praise bestowed on it. The scripts are clever and refreshingly irreverent. But the program conveys an irritating smugness; its creators reveal more contempt for people who pick their noses than for neo-Nazis. Letterman's treatment of Hicks illustrates the kinds of difficulties comedians with something to say face these days.

Hicks and Letterman both came from middle-class backgrounds, but traveled different roads to achieve different goals. At 15, Hicks was performing at Houston's Comedy Workshop while his parents thought he was asleep. He continued to do stand-up for the rest of his life, playing tons of funky clubs in small towns and medium-sized cities before appearing on Letterman's program and hitting it big in England. For a time, he was part of a group of Outlaw Comics that included Sam Kinison, employing routines that were angry, profane, and full of biting comments about contemporary issues that mattered. Letterman went to Indiana's Ball State University, took a shot at stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, but mainly pursued a career on television -- locally, then nationally, holding down a job as an Indianapolis weatherman in the process. A bright but politically and socially ignorant and unengaged guy, he didn't seem to have any goals of his own other than attaining fame and fortune, like other right-thinking Americans. And this he accomplished on NBC with his Late Night show, which followed Johnny Carson's program.

Now, I've been on Letterman's show eight times, from October 1986 to May 1994. As you might assume, we don't see eye-to-eye about some things, and it's unlikely that you'll ever view me on his program again.

When I showed up for my first pre-show interview in 1986, I knew nothing about David. I was told by then-segment producer Robert Morton to be funny, but not about any substantive issues, and to avoid staying on one topic too long. I thought it would be a one-shot thing during which I could publicize my comic book, so I went on and screwed around for a few minutes. Surprisingly, I went over so well that Letterman bumped the guy who came after me and held me over during his segment. He invited me back for a second appearance on the air, which I accepted because my wife and I got a free trip to New York, a couple of free nights in a hotel, and some bread -- $100 for my first appearance, $600 for the last -- heady wine for a guy who made (and still makes) a living as a file clerk. I gained some notoriety during those appearances by raising serious issues, like the conflict of interest involved in General Electric's owning NBC, which I figured I could make funny with or without Letterman's cooperation. He tried to stop me from dealing with the topic on the air, and an argument ensued which did amuse his audience, but that wasn't enough for David, who only wanted to get laughs his way.

Barry Crimmins, a friend of Hicks and an outstanding, Bruce-influenced comedian, recalls: "About 10 years ago I conveyed the same information [about Letterman's hostility toward meaningful political humor] in a Los Angeles Times interview. The Times writer asked me why I hadn't appeared on Letterman. I told them Morton had seen and praised me on several occasions, but he'd also said that I would never appear on the show, because of their flat-out `no politics' policy. Two days later, I received a short note from David Letterman who said they had no such policy, `flat-out' or otherwise. The kicker is, I found an interview with Morton in the tenth anniversary issue of Mother Jones which predated Dave's letter to me. In it, Norton corroborates that Late Night had no interest in relevant humor. I could have pursued it but what for -- to go through the same shit that Hicks did later?"

Let me relate some incidents that took place between me, Letterman, and Letterman's staff members to give readers an idea of where they were at. Prior to one show, Letterman came up to me and remarked that we were doing too much wrangling. He said, "You can attack me if you wanna, but the audience'll be on my side 'cause it's my show. See, it's like professional wrestling." On another, I mentioned to Morton that I wanted to talk about something that might not be funny but would be interesting. He replied, "We don't want interesting, we want funny. These are the Eighties; nobody cares." Morton eventually became head producer, and the segment producer's job went to former Richard Nixon speechwriter Frank Gannon. Before one show, I said to Gannon, "If Lenny Bruce were brought to life and you had a chance to get him on your show, you'd turn it down." He replied, "You're probably right." I repeated this conversation to Morton, who said Gannon's statement was ridiculous. However, he later gave credence to what Gannon said by his treatment of Hicks.

Letterman's weird. Partly because he has a smooth broadcast presence, people don't realize how little he knows. Once I used the word co-opt. He wasn't familiar with it and asked me for a definition.

Occasionally, I've seen David pull off some nice stuff, such as a satirical Christmas show, but he hasn't followed that up with similar efforts, maybe because he has no confidence in doing the things he does well or doesn't even realize they're worth doing. This is a guy who set up a scholarship at Ball State for "C" students who have good broadcast skills, not understanding that Babbitt-like people like them -- e.g., Ronald Reagan -- are why the world is so screwed up.

David concentrates on interviewing airhead celebrities that he often can't stand, sometimes insulting them in the process. He seeks recognition from fans he contemptuously likens to a professional wrestling audience. He's not too crazy about his "common people" guests, either. I remember helping one, an old podiatrist who collected autographed shoes, load duffel bags full of shoes on a cart meant to be rolled onto the set. Letterman had him on standby, and the guy had to schlep his collection back and forth for a week before he got on.

David has thrown away his chance to be creative. He has the money and publicity that he thought he wanted, but from what I see and hear and read is pretty depressed. No wonder.

Yet many viewers still regard him as a cutting-edge comedian. Why? Because he's irritable? Anyone who admires a jaded bore like Carson as much as Letterman does has to be culturally deprived. He doesn't see the big picture. Intelligence without knowledge can still add up to the same thing as stupidity.

David knew what I thought of him, but he kept asking me back, evidently because he thought I'd change my attitude and stop giving him a hard time. He couldn't believe that anyone would mess up a chance to be on national television. What a rube!

I did go back because of the money and perks, but even if I wanted to, there was no reason for me to stop insulting him. I had a decent day job, and being on his show wasn't helping me sell my books. I didn't need him. Finally he realized that, but it took him long enough.

Okay. So in 1991, Hicks appears on Letterman's show. David does want to foster the careers of young comedians. The mechanics of comedy interest him, and if he features good, fresh talent, it benefits him. Initially, Hicks didn't go too far for Letterman, as he appeared on Late Night 11 times from 1991-93. His friend and record producer Kevin Booth has noted, however, that Letterman's people constantly tried to make him tone down his act.

If you listen to the Rykodisc CDs -- Relentless, Dangerous, Arizona Bay, and Rant in E Minor --you realize immediately that Hicks would never be allowed to do his regular club act on network TV, as laced as it is with profanity and references to sex and drugs.

The most striking thing about Hicks may be his fearlessness and lack of patience with ignorance. He has no interest in being politically correct, savaging those who complained about his smoking. He also didn't have a problem discussing the pleasure he got from pornography. He did bits like "Chicks Dig Jerks" that feminists might not be crazy about. His attitude toward anti-abortionists and organized religion was hostile, e.g., he said, "I was over in Australia during Easter, which was quite interesting. Interesting to note they celebrate Easter the same way we do, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night. Now... I wonder why we're fucked-up as a race." And how do you think network censors would deal with this ironic Hicks statement: "Let's talk about abortion... let's talk about child-killing here and see if we can't get some chuckles rippling through the room. Let's talk about mass murder of young, unborn children and see if we can't coalesce into one healthy gut laugh."

Hicks was enraged by the Gulf War, particularly by the slaughter of Iraqi troops who had quit fighting and were killed running from battle. "[It] wasn't really a war," he noted, "A war is when two armies are fighting.... The Persian Gulf distraction is more like it.... But couldn't we feasibly use that same technology to shoot food at hungry people? Fly over Ethiopia -- there's a guy that needs a banana. Woosh! [noise like a missile being launched] a stealth banana. Smart fruit."

Here's Hicks on Bush: "Remember when he [Bush] was first president? He was the wimp president. Remember that? Cover o' Newsweek, cover o' fuckin' Newsweek -- `Wimp President.' Apparently this stuck in this guy's craw...."

Speaking of gun control and the NRA's denial that guns cause death, he noted the huge disparity between shooting deaths in the United States and England. "In England, no one has handguns, including the cops. Now in England last year, they had 14 deaths from handguns. In the United States... 23,000 deaths from handguns... but there's no connection, and you'd be a fool and a communist to make one. There's no connection between having a gun and shooting someone with it and not having a gun and not shooting someone."

When Letterman switched networks in fall, 1993, a lot was at stake for him. He wanted to prove that NBC had made a mistake by passing him over and giving Carson's spot to Jay Leno, to show that he could succeed in an earlier, closer-to-prime-time slot. To accomplish this, he'd have to pull in his horns even more, so as not to alienate his more mainstream audience. He'd have to be nicer to dumbass movie stars or Peoria would reject him. You better believe Letterman and his people were trying to be as careful as possible.

Initially, Letterman jumped to a big lead over Leno in the ratings, holding his old fans and enlarging his audience. Prior to Hicks' appearance in October, 1993, though, there had been an embarrassing incident involving a former Mafioso in the Federal Witness Protection Program who had wanted to appear on Late Night. Letterman's people led him to believe that he had a solid booking, then they hedged, which caused him to explode and begin threatening them. All of this got into the papers. David didn't want another slip like that.

Now it's October 1. Hicks had been scheduled to appear the week before but was bumped because the show ran long. However, in a New Yorker article by John Lahr, Hicks claimed that Letterman's people had approved and re-approved his routine. Hicks goes out and does his thing, attacking pro-lifers ("If you're so pro-life, do me a favor -- don't lock arms and block medical clinics") and showing disrespect for the Easter bunny. He gets laughs and leaves thinking, "The show went great." Two hours later, Morton calls to tell Hicks that his entire segment has been cut from the show by CBS censors.

Later, Hicks appears on a radio show and refers to what he thinks is the censors yanking him. An irate listener writes the CBS Standards and Practices office to complain about their treatment of Hicks. The office replies to the Hicks supporter, telling him that it had nothing to do with dropping Hicks, that the decision was made solely by the Letterman staff.

The listener faxes a copy of the censor's reply to the radio station, which sends it to Hicks, who takes it to Lahr, one of his fans. Lahr calls Morton to find out the truth. After they talk, Lahr claims that Morton initially said the decision to drop Hicks was made jointly by CBS and Letterman's staff, but then finally admitted that the Letterman people made the decision on their own, to protect their viewers, who apparently didn't need protection when they saw Hicks on NBC.

Lahr reports all of this in his New Yorker piece on Hicks, but it doesn't hurt Letterman, who maintains his big lead over Leno. Leno later passes Letterman, who responds by firing Morton, who'd lied for him. Reportedly, Morton was upset.

In February, 1994, Hicks dies.

The Rykodisc CDs have some arid stretches, particularly when Hicks talks about sex and pornography. That's no longer daring -- mainstream comics have been doing it since the Sixties -- but Hicks' audience wants him to say something out-ray-jus and curse a lot so they have an excuse to whoop and cheer like frat boys. At the same time, the CDs are loaded with brilliant routines in which Hicks pillories anti-intellectualism, political irrationality, and the pettiness and viciousness of the human race, which he calls "a virus with shoes."

I can't predict how he'll be evaluated in the future, but in my opinion he deserves a high place in comedy history on the basis of his recorded work and videotapes.

The work of Leno, Letterman, and Carson will remain interesting to future historians in shedding light on American values in the latter part of the 20th century. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, their achievements are negligible. These guys don't even know what it is to sell out, because they don't have a clue as to what good work is in the first place.

Harvey Pekar is the author of the acclaimed comic series American Splendor.

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