Tribute: Sam Kinison (1953-1992)
By David Wild
Originally printed in Rolling Stone, Issue 631
May 28th, 1992
“SAM KINISON was absolutely fearless,” says Robin Williams. “He was like a comedy combination of Chuck Yeager and Evel Kneivel. Most people go to the edge and then stop. Not Sam. He’d see the edge and then just keep going. And I think that scream he was famous for was just the sound he made on the way down.”
That love of the edge was the key to Kinison’s appeal. And his anguished primal scream was mote than a successful comic trademark; it was a rebel yell that shook both the sensitivities of the politically correct and the “just say no” proprieties of the Reaganites. At his best, the Pentecostal preacher turned slash-and-burn comedian managed to make bad taste somehow taste good. He may very well have paved the way for less gifted loudmouth comedians. But he was also, in the words of gonzo talk show host Howard Stern – a close friend and bad-boy conspirator – “the closest thing we has to our Lenny Bruce.” That voice was silenced on April 10th, when Kinison was killed at the age of thirty-eight in a car accident near Needles, California.
The son of a preacher man, Kinison was raised in East Peoria, Illinois, and while still a teenager found himself in the family business, spending a few years as a traveling preacher. But as an associate told ROLLING STONE in 1989, “God wasn’t big enough for Sam to hang out with.” Soon enough, Kinison found his true calling. By the early Eighties, his hyper-insensitive stand-up was drawing crowds at L.A.’s Comedy Store. His material included darkly comic observations on such topics as religion, starvation in Ethiopia and marriage (he was twice divorced). “I guess they’re tough jokes,” Kinison said in 1986. “But there’s lots of things you either laugh or cry at. And you just can’t cry.”
“There was no censor with Sam,” says Robin Williams, one of Kinison’s earliest supporters. “It was almost like he had nonstop Tourette’s syndrome. He couldn’t stop saying the things that everyone else might think but was afraid to say. I’ll never forget the time I saw him do five incredible minutes on the subject of sodomy and then a few minutes later had him introduce me to his mother. People sometimes forget how good he was and lump him in with Dice Clay, but Sam really had the stuff.”
“He’ll definitely be remembered,” says Rodney Dangerfield, another early booster, “because someone that funny and that wild you don’t forget.”
With his oversized Outlaws of Comedy entourage and his babushkaed Steven Tyler-meets-the-Muppets look, Kinison often seemed more like a rock star than a comedian. He packed large concert halls, sold hundreds of thousands of records, had a hit single with his version of “Wild Thing” and made the cover of ROLLING STONE in 1989. The video for “Wild Thing” showed Kinison cavorting with PTL scandal figure Jessica Hahn (with whom Kinison had a brief and stormy affair) and a cast of well-known hard rockers. Kinison embraced the hard-living, hard-rocking metal lifestyle and befriended many musicians. The members of Motley Crue released a statement that said, “If God didn’t have a sense of humor before, he does now.” Kinison was, according to many who knew him well, a warm, generous and at times childlike man with a spiritual streak. “He hated to even hear the word religion,” says Jessica Hahn, “but he was definitely a man who loved God. He had a cross inside the lining of that long coat he used to wear. It was no joke to him.”
Ironically, Kinison seemed to be cleaning up his act in the end. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous, apologized to gay groups for some of his controversial AIDS material and appeared on the Fox sitcom Charlie Hoover in an attempt to prove he could behave professionally. And just five days before his death, he had married his longtime girlfriend Malika Souiri.
“Some people seem almost disappointed that Sam didn’t die from his excesses,” says Howard Stern. “Anyone who writes that guy off as the Fatty Arbuckle of the Eighties – some wild, partying maniac with zero talent – is just completely missing the point. He was a major talent with a brilliant comic mind. Sam’s bad night was a lot more interesting than just about anyone else’s best night.”
“I usually don’t like having comedians on my show,” says Stern, “because they’re for the most part just personas, one shtick line after another. Sam was totally different – he was utterly real. I think if Sam had fucked his own sister, he would have called me on the ait the very next day to talk about it. And he would have made it funny, too. That sort of honesty got Sam in trouble, but it was also what made him incredible to listen to.”
“Sam could always surprise you.” says Stern. “I remember one time he was on our show, and I’d gotten an earring, and he seemed to want one, too. I told him I’d go with him. And he said: ‘Oh, no, I can’t do that. My mother will kill me.’ I said, ‘You’re overweight, you’re and admitted alcoholic, you do all this cocaine, and you’re worried about what your mother will think of an earring?’ But he was dead serious.”
“I’ve never seen a stronger human being,” Stern says. “Anyone else would have been dead from the way Sam carried on. I remember when he called right after an AA meeting to tell me how cool it was. He was so proud of the one-month chip they’d given him. Then a month later he’d show up with a one-day chip. But he was real proud of that chip. That’s why this is all such an irony. I always thought Sam would come to his senses and say enough is enough. And according to him brother Bill, he’d come to that conclusion in the end. It’s hard to know what direction Sam would have gone in, but whatever happened to him, he would have gotten a few more great hours of stand-up out of it. And now we’ll never know.”