This week I’ll be sharing a story about Bill Hicks. As he is my favorite comic of all time, I could write volumes about him and what he means to me. However, I just bought myself a PS5 as an early Xmas present and that Demon Souls remake isn’t going to play itself, so I’ll keep it short.

Even before making his debut in a comedy club as a teenager, Hicks dreamed of being on The Tonight Show. When he became friends with Jay Leno – who was a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show at the time – that dream seemed a few short steps away from reality. Leno didn’t think Hicks was a good fit for the show, though, and recommended him to Letterman. Letterman had The Late Show on the same network and it was true that Hicks was much better suited to that program. The two hit it off and Hicks would appear on The Late Show eleven times.

In preparation for his twelfth appearance, Hicks submitted his set to the network in advance for approval. This was standard practice as the network was terrified of offending the FTC and incurring fines. By this point, Leno had taken over The Tonight Show, Letterman had moved to a different network, and the Late Night War was in full swing. The set was approved, Hicks taped a very successful appearance, only to receive a phone call several hours later that the show was cutting his entire segment.

The exact reason this happened is a bit unclear. The show’s producer would claim that the network said it was unsuitable for broadcast, despite the fact that the network that had pre-approved the material in advance. The producer also claimed he had fought tooth and nail to keep the segment included, but would later say it was actually his decision to cut it. For his part, Letterman would blame the network at the time, but later say it was his call and he’d made it out of jealousy.

The prevailing theory – the one Hicks believed – was that, as his set included a lengthy attack on the Pro-Life Movement, the show and the network were both afraid of losing advertisers. Hicks was furious. He vented to everyone and anyone about what he felt was censorship and an absolute betrayal. This caught the eye of several newspapers, who began to run articles about the whole thing.

A sad bit of irony here is that this gave Hicks more heat in the US than he’d ever experienced before. He’d managed to make a great name for himself in the UK, where he’d found a much more willing audience, but didn’t have a tenth of Denis Leary’s popularity in the US, despite Leary having stolen from Hicks left and right. Finally, people were starting to pay attention.

People like Jay Leno, in fact. Leno had recently scored a massive win in the Late Night War, having Hugh Grant on just after Grant had been busted with a prostitute. That appearance led to Leno beating Letterman in the ratings for the first time and, from that point onwards, Leno’s Tonight Show would always be Number One. When Leno heard about the Hicks debacle, he smelled blood in the water, and he invited Hicks to perform his cut set on The Tonight Show.

Hicks was thrilled by the offer, of course. He’d finally be able to realize a childhood dream. There was a catch however: Hicks would need to submit the set to Leno’s network for pre-approval. Standards and practice, you know.

Hicks politely told them to go fuck themselves. He’d successfully completed the pre-approval process for Letterman, only for the set to be cut anyway, and he wasn’t going to go through that again. He would appear on The Tonight Show with set unseen or not at all. The network chose not at all. Hicks would be dead from pancreatic cancer a few months later, a condition he’d managed to keep secret from all but a select few.

That level of integrity astounds me and I must admit I’m quite torn about his position. As an artist, naturally it was the best possible decision. Never compromise, never surrender. As a career comic, what a miss. Leno was so competitive, it’s hard to imagine he would allow the network to say no or even censor the material in any way, but Hicks was unwilling to play along. That stubbornness kept him from not only a massive mainstream audience but also from standing on a stage he’d dreamed about most of his life. In any case, it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever making the same take it or leave it ultimatum. Certainly not Leary.

To his credit, albeit far too late, Letterman would invite Hicks’s parents to the show and interview them about the whole thing. While they were on, he aired Hicks’s final set in its entirety, and apologized for his part in the debacle. This was fifteen years later, but it wasn’t something Letterman had to do. The whole thing was long forgotten by the general public, if they’d ever heard about it.