With David Letterman you really do get all the great late night TV talk show hosts rolled into one. In the early '80s he started out all Steve Allen, smart and smart ass; somewhere around the time of Johnny Carson's death he assumed the stature and gravitas of Carson, and, as he did on Friday's extraordinary show, he demonstrated that, despite his intensely private nature, he is capable of giving himself up as intimately, fearlessly and completely as Jack Paar.
Friday's show, which I PVR'd (thanks to Denis McGrath's heads up) and finally had a chance to view today, was sweet, sad, gutsy and refreshingly unconventional. Letterman's guest was Mary Hicks, the mother of stand up comedian Bill Hicks, who died in 1994 at 32.
Letterman invited Mrs. Hicks--who reminded me a little of Letterman's own mom, Dorothy--on to apologise for cutting her son's Oct. 1, 1993 stand up routine. He then showed the never before seen comedy act in its entirety.
Without going into any detail, Letterman explained that he had some problem with the routine back in 1993. It is pretty edgy, but Letterman should have expected that—he’d had Hicks on 11 times before. Hicks’ casual, laid-back looks hid a secret storm. His routine took aim at the church, goofed on Jesus, joked about killing Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton, teased gays and lesbians and mocked pro-lifers. It is all stuff Bill Maher could get away with today on Real Time , but had to have been pretty out there in those very politically correct days of 1993.
The big surprise Friday night was how seamlessly the routine dropped 15 years into the future. It was remarkably contemporary, like something Lewis Black might perform today, only funny. See for yourselves:
It is important to remember that back in late 1993 Letterman was actually beating Jay Leno in the intense, early year of the great late night comedy war. He probably was never more conscious of aiming his show at what CBS saw as the widest possible audience. Letterman erred on the side of caution that night and canned Hicks' routine.
What he didn't know that night--what very few knew at the time, as Mary Hicks acknowledged Friday night--was that the comedian was dying. Hicks had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He only lived a few more months.
Finding out that her son's last Letterman shot had been taken away that sad, horrible year was pretty hard on Hicks and her family, as she made Letterman feel on Friday's show. The host acknowledged his mistake and showed great remorse. Letterman was asking forgiveness from Hicks mother, on national television, fifteen years after the fact.
He got it, although Hicks made him earn it. She was a remarkable guest. Letterman made the point that, as a parent himself, he has more insight now than he did then as to how she must have felt.
Forgiveness, redemption, benediction, all in one unlikely late night bundle. It would have made Hicks laugh, no doubt. Letterman always has had great affection for his fellow comedians, but Friday night went to a place he has never shown us before.