By Rick Vanderknyff
Originally printed in The Los Angeles Times
Saturday, September 5, 1992
Tears aren’t on the lineup at Sam Kinison tribute taped in Anaheim, where comics irreverently honor their outrageous colleague
ANAHEIM — In the ’80s, Sam Kinison served as comedy’s raw nerve, dipping below the surface of civility to become the screaming embodiment of blind, bewildered rage. If it was Morning in America, Kinison was our national hangover.
Like most stand-up comedians, Kinison traded heavily in the commonality of everyday experience. But while most of the herd grazes contentedly among the banalities of air travel humor and glossed-up memories of bad ’60s TV, Kinison strayed off into the next field, where the grass was definitely not greener.
Thursday in Anaheim’s Celebrity Theatre, friends and peers including Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, Judy Tenuta, Pauly Shore, Jim Carrey and others gathered in what was billed as a tribute to Kinison, who was killed last April in a head-on collision on a California desert highway. The program was taped for later broadcast on Fox.
While show-biz tributes to even the living can be treacly affairs, this nearly two-hour toast to Kinison’s memory was no place for maudlin sentiment. Said Williams: “He’s one of the few people who’d make you want to say, ‘Cremate him, and we’ll snort the ashes.’ “
Comics did routines of five to 10 minutes, separated by film clips of Kinison projected onto screens that rose niftily from the stage. Most of the performers in a very strong lineup offered pared-down, TV-ready versions of their stage acts, with Kinison’s name evoked to varying degrees.
It was the ever-mercurial Williams who offered the night’s most memorable set, using the occasion to launch into a manic rumination on matters of life and death, complete with a hilarious impersonation of Kinison trying to hustle his way through heaven’s gate.
“I’m on the list! I got backstage access. Let me in!” Williams screamed in an accurate take on Kinison’s trademark howl. “Stevie Ray Vaughan–I know him!”
Tenuta, chauffeured onstage on a Harley, offered only tangential references to Kinison (“We used to go cruising for chicks together”) but provided the evening’s most striking visual image: about 30 volunteer female “virgins” from the audience, on their backs and shaking their legs in the air while Tenuta screamed, “Release your eggs!” Jim Carrey, from the cast of “In Living Color,” offered a mock testimonial to how the real Kinison differed from the stage Kinison: “Shy, retiring, never quick to judge–that’s the Sam I knew, and I’m sorry if I’m bursting your bubble.”
Dangerfield opened the show with a rapid-fire set of his signature one-liners (“I looked up my family tree and found out I’m the sap”) before introducing a clip of Kinison’s first TV appearance, on a Dangerfield HBO special in 1984. The bit, a crude-but-deadly take on TV coverage of the Ethiopian famine, was an audacious and entirely appropriate introduction of Kinison to the world at large.
“You know the film crew could give him a sandwich,” Kinison said in the clip, describing a television image of a starving child. Then, taking on the role of the director: “Don’t feed him yet! He’s gotta look hungry.”
Kinison made it his goal to be funny and discomfiting at the same time. His public struggle with personal demons and onstage airing of his uncensored thoughts made him the target of charges of everything from blasphemy to misogyny to homophobia–charges that cannot always be easily dismissed.
“Sam loved doing everything he could to shock you, because he knew it would make you think,” said comic and close friend Carl LaBove. The argument that Kinison was merely being honest is true enough to be unsettling–Kinison usually struck closer to the bone than the more cynical shock-meisters who have found notoriety in his wake.
But the argument that it’s healthy to freely vent our baser impulses has a dark side: the creeping implication that it is somehow dishonest to apply the test of reason and compassion to those impulses. While Kinison’s bracing presence in a too-often-staid comedy field will be missed, the demons he unleashed are likely to stick around for some time.