sam kinison photo

Second-Chance Sam

By Joe Rhodes
Frequent Contributor To TV Times
Originally printed in The Los Angeles Times
Sunday, November 17, 1991

Sam Kinison has been sent to his corner, away from the main set of the new Fox network sitcom “Charlie Hoover,” isolated from the rest of the cast and most of the crew.

Tim Matheson, Kinison’s co-star, is in the midst of an elaborate set, surrounded by extras and scenery: slot machines, miniskirted waitresses, crap tables, all the details necessary to evoke the ambience of an Atlantic City casino.

Kinison, in his trademark beret and long coat, is standing barely 30 feet away, but he might as well be in another world. His area, brightly lighted and painted entirely in blue, is roped off from the casino set and his only clear view of the other actors is via a monitor. Kinison looks strangely disembodied surrounded by all that blue, the lone resident of a monochromatic universe.

“Every time they say, ‘OK, time to change sets,’ I always start to move along with everybody else,” Kinison says, waiting patiently for his cue. “And then I realize, hey, I’m not going anywhere. They may be changing sets but I’m stuck right here in Blue World.”

Which, all in all, is not a bad metaphor for Kinison’s career. It’s been 10 years since he first roared into Los Angeles, the howling stand-up from hell. He has, for the last decade, been the comedy equivalent of a Scud missile, loud, messy and you could never be sure just exactly when he’d explode.

Kinison, a former road-show evangelist, and his act embodied his conversion to the wild side of life. Designed to provoke, it served him well. He was criticized for bashing women, bashing gays, bashing Christianity. And every criticism brought in more paying customers.

His personal life did nothing to soften his on-stage image. There were drugs, alcohol abuse, danger and debauchery on a grand scale. He hung out with the heavy-metal crowd, acting more like a rock star than a comedian.

“It was fun to be at the China Club and be up there jamming with Slash or Joe Walsh and John Entwistle (of The Who), and I’d be a liar to say I didn’t love it, that it wasn’t my high school dream, ’cause it was,” Kinison says. “But there comes a point where you say, I’ve done enough of this. I want to move on to something else.

“I mean it was great to be the rock comic, the shock comic. But after you’ve played Giants Stadium with Bon Jovi in front of 82,000 people, after you’ve done the “Wild Thing” video with Jessica Hahn and every rock band from hell, you’re not gonna top that. And I’m on the other side of 35 now, so it’s time.”

Which is why Kinison, who’s 37 to be exact, is standing on this blue stage, pursuing that most mainstream of comedy goals, a network sitcom. “I want to show people that there’s a side of myself other than just the outrageous comedian,” Kinison says. “I hope this shows that I can do family entertainment, that my comedy doesn’t just depend on vulgarity.”

In “Charlie Hoover,” Kinison plays Matheson’s 12-inch-tall alter ego, the inner voice who’s always urging him, as Kinison explains “to not go to work, to call that girl, to run away. I’m his pleasure center.”

Kinison’s scenes are shot with a special-effects camera that allows his 12-inch image, shot against the blue background, to be inserted, live, into the master shots. Kinison and Matheson rehearse face to face and then, when its time to shoot, return to their respective sets, able to see each other only through occasional glances at the monitors.

“It really doesn’t feel that difficult to me because I’m used to performing by myself when I do stand-up,” Kinison says. “But (the producers) seem to think it’s really hard. Don’t tell ’em. Let ’em think I’m bustin’ my ass.”

Kinison seems genuinely grateful that Fox took a chance on him, considering his longstanding reputation as a less than reliable performer. “I think a lot of ’em were wondering if I was up to it and I was kind of wondering myself. It was like, ‘Gee, I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew here.’”

But instead of hating the long hours and the morning calls, Kinison has found himself invigorated by having a steady job. “I kind of needed this, I think,” he says. “I needed something to turn the nights back into the days.”

Image considerations aside, Kinison was getting plenty of clues that he needed to slow down. He was forced into rehab programs to deal with his substance abuse problems. His younger brother, Kevin, committed suicide in 1988; last summer his girlfriend was raped by his bodyguard while Kinison, allegedly passed out drunk, slept in the other room.

“Yeah, those were pretty sobering experiences,” Kinison said, quietly, his demeanor as far from his raging stage persona as it could be. “Those are things that can either destroy you or, if you survive them, make you stronger. Those are hard things for anyone to get through, especially people with the title of comedian.

“I’m just glad I made the transition from when I could have overdosed or when I could have fallen asleep at the wheel and run off a cliff or something. It’s good to have survived those years.

“I don’t hear anything screaming in here any more,” Kinison says, pointing to his heart. “I’m just happy to be here. I’m just happy to have the chance.”

“Charlie Hoover” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.