sam kinison photo

Kinison’s Friends Recall His More Compassionate Acts

By Dennis McLellan
Originally printed in The Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, September 2, 1992

Colleagues remember shock comic’s off-stage kindness. But the tribute they’ll tape in Anaheim won’t be syrupy

Pacing the stage like the Pentecostal preacher he once was, Sam Kinison would work himself into a primal heat as he railed against homosexuals, AIDS victims, organized religion and one of the topics closest to his heart: Marriage.

“Oh, Oh-h-h -h-h! Marriage is hell-l-l-l-l!” the twice-divorced comic would scream.

With an infectious giggle and his signature banshee wail, Kinison soared into the public consciousness in the mid-’80s as the King of Shock Comedy. His detractors–and there were many–called him obscene, vitriolic and annoyingly loud. His fans–and they were legion–called him an innovator, a biting social commentator for whom no topic was taboo. Not the Crucifixion. Not sex. Not even necrophilia.

When the 38-year-old comedian was killed in a head-on collision on his way to a show in Laughlin, Nev., in April, media reports referred to the wild stage persona and the equally wild personal life of the man who joked that his cocaine use was once so heavy he used a garden hose to inhale.

But his friends, many of whom will be honoring the outlaw comic at a comedy tribute Thursday at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, remember another Sam Kinison.

“The partying is legendary, but there also is a side of him that was very sweet and loving, and he was very good to a lot of people,” said Richard Belzer, who first met Kinison in 1980.

Scheduled to join Belzer on stage are Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, Judy Tenuta, Carl LaBove, James Carrey and Pauly Shore. The show, which will include video clips of Kinison’s career, will be taped for a later TV broadcast on the Fox network.

Tenuta, the accordion-playing, self-anointed Love Goddess who met Kinison in a Denver comedy club in 1985, joked that “we used to hang out cruising for chicks together, Sam and I.”

“He was the most compassionate person I ever met in my life,” said LaBove, Kinison’s best friend and longtime opening act. “He was always there for me.”

But don’t expect a stream of sugary testimonials Thursday night. According to Belzer, “The tribute is going to be a life-affirming thing rather than maudlin.”

“There won’t be a lot of reminiscing,” said Bill Kinison, Sam’s brother and manager who is serving as executive producer of the show. “It will be kind of a ‘Heaven Can Wait’ type set with a lot of smoke and things like that. The story line is basically whether or not Sam makes it (to heaven).”

That seems an altogether fitting premise for a tribute to the outlaw comic with the hell-bound persona. Yet despite Sam’s penchant for the sacrilegious on stage, Kinison said, his brother never lost his own faith.

“He was a strong believer,” he said. “His unhappiness was with religion and never his commitment to God.” With a laugh, Kinison added, “I don’t know if you’re going to have a lot of Christians who are going to believe that.”

Proceeds from the tribute, according to Kinison, will go to his brother’s estate. At the time of Sam’s death, Kinison said, he was nearly $1 million in debt. “After he died and I looked at the estate I thought, ‘Well, if you can die a million in debt, you can say you enjoyed life.’ “

Kinison feels a comedy tribute is the kind his brother would have wanted. “And I think just about all the entertainers who are involved are involved because of the contribution he made. When I watched ‘Comic Relief’ this year, there was not only the (raw) language but the (controversial) viewpoints that you probably wouldn’t have seen on HBO or on television if it hadn’t been for Sam breaking down all the walls.”

Bill Kinison believes his brother belongs in the same camp as such boundary-stretching predecessors as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. “What he brought–and they also brought–is being totally honest on stage. Even to a fault. There’s a lot of people who would not have agreed with Sam’s views on things, but he was honest on stage about it.”

Tenuta agreed.

“He was dealing with his demons on stage,” she said. “It was really refreshing to see someone just sort of take issues by the horns and really go to the root of it. He was just very funny. And you never felt that there’s this structure of ‘joke,’ like it’s a newscast.”

Says LaBove: “Sam was the first guy to bring that kind of everyday anger, that stress you have in a car, in a marriage–all that stuff–and just blowing it out.”

LaBove remembers first meeting Kinison in Texas in 1979 when they both were starting out in stand-up at a legendary Houston club called the Comedy Workshop.

From the start, LaBove said, “Sam always had the stage presence because he had come from the ministry. Even when he didn’t have great ideas, he was always interesting.”

As for Kinison’s legendary use of drugs, LaBove said “he was repressed as a preacher’s kid and as a preacher he was someone people looked up to for spiritual guidance. He didn’t have a lot of opportunities to experiment. He started late in everything, so actually he was going through his teen-age years when he passed away.”

LaBove was riding in a van with Bill Kinison behind Sam’s car when the pickup driven by a teen-ager who had been drinking slammed into the comedian’s Pontiac Trans-Am. Malika, Sam’s longtime girlfriend and wife of less than a week, was knocked unconscious.

It was LaBove who held Kinison just before he died. At first, the comedian protested that he didn’t want to die. But as LaBove told The Times after the accident, Kinison paused as if listening to a voice from above. Then he said, “OK, OK, OK.” And then, softly and sweetly, he uttered a final “OK.”

“At the time I knew in my soul it was the moment of death,” said LaBove, adding that he has since found a sense of peace from hearing Kinison’s final words. “I’ve watched my father pass away and other people pass away, and there is a moment where it seems someone comes to get you or you see something and it really relaxes you. When Sam’s moment came, it seemed like Sam listened.”

LaBove said that preparing his six-minute portion of the tribute has been an emotional ordeal.

“As far as I’m concerned, everybody else is the stars of the show; I’m his best friend.’ I’m actually going to use this spot as my last public goodby to Sam.”

Speaking late last week, LaBove said that “at this point, I’ll either tell stories about a friendship the public didn’t see and tell those funny stories of things he did off stage–and actually just talking to him, just staring up. I want a powerful moment. He was a powerful friend.”