sam kinison photo

Why I Wear What I Wear: Sam Kinison, Tastefully

Originally printed in GQ
June 1989

Luckily, his wardrobe is more lighthearted than his humor

HEY, KIDS! TRY THIS ONE AT HOME: Open all your doors and windows. Turn the volume on your stereo way up. Snap in a Sam Kinison comedy album, hit the “play” button and…


… get to meet many of your neighbors right away. Yessiree. Sam Kinison, that weird-looking, long-haired, overcoat-clad Prince of Public Obscenity, that Round Mound of Vituperation, tends to bring people together. Angry people. People who, for … some reason, take offense at his mega-decibel attacks on just about everybody. Last year, Warner Bros. Records took the unprecedented step of printing a public disclaimer – “THE MATERIAL ON THIS ALBUM DOES NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF WARNER RECORDS” – on the cover of Kinison’s live-concert album, Have You Seen Me Lately?

What Warners just might have been worried about was Kinison’s onstage endorsement of misogyny (“I don’t worry about terrorism. I was married for TWO YEARS!!!!) and take on rock stars speaking out against drugs (“‘Rock Against Drugs’? Somebody must have been high when they came up with that title. It’s like ‘Christians Against Christ.’ Rock CREATED DRUGS!!!) and on drunk driving (“We don’t want to. You don’t get *&%$!!-ed up to see how well you do on the test later. But there’s not other way to get our *&%*!!! CAR BACK TO THE HOUSE!!!!”)

There’s no doubt, however, that Warners is disclaiming Kinison’s remarks about gays and AIDS. “Heterosexuals die of it, too?” he asks rhetorically on the album. Then: “NAME ONE!!!!!!”

To counterbalance this screed, the record company will be including information sheets about AIDS in future pressings of Kinison’s records. But it is too later to deflect the outrage that numerous gay and women’s groups have expressed over Kinison’s sense of humor.

On the other hand, thousand of rabid fans – and a few critics, too – have shown admiration for Kinison. To them, his ear-splitting jokes are a sort of much-needed psychic Drano – and Kinison is a talented combination of Lenny Bruce, Ralph Kramden and Morton Downy Jr.

And notably, nobody has accused Kinison of putting us on – of coming by his anger and alienation dishonestly. His own life story is too authentically bizarre for that: Born thirty-five years ago in Peoria, Illinois, Kinison was the rock-and-roll-loving son of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher. When he was 15, he was sent away to a Pentecostal seminary in upstate New York. After a year and a half, he managed to escape and spent the next couple of years on the road, a Seventies hippie drifter. That’s where he rediscovered God: During the next five years and one marriage, he resumed his former life and preached the Gospel on his travels throughout the Midwest.

God canceled his management agreement in 1978, and Kinison moved to Los Angeles to break into comedy. For a while he was the doorman at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard; late at night, when only the drunks were left, he’d refine his raging, primal-scream approach to comedy. Nothing much – except poverty – happened until 1985, when Rodney Dangerfield, an admirer, got him onto his HBO special. Then came the part of the deranged prof in Dangerfield’s Back To School. The the Letterman spots, the censored drug jokes on Saturday Night Live, the albums, the MTV guest-hosting, the nationwide tours, the house in Malibu, the lead role in the United Artists film Atuk – and the $5-million lawsuit UA filed against Kinison when it didn’t like either his rewrites of his attitude and shut down the production.

Kinison was taking a much-needed break from arduous touring when freelance writer Andy Meisler visited him at a rented house overlooking the Chateau Marmont, famous site of John Belushi’s final check-out. There were a couple of surprises: The offstage Kinison, a good-humored host who gladly led an impressive tour through his overflowing closets, breaks into asterisks, ampersands and exclamation points only every few minutes or so; and those trademark overcoats, far from being thrift-shop castoffs, are actually $1,400 European-designer originals.

“In the last couple of years, I guess I’ve spent six figures on clothes,” says the gnomish Kinison, not at all surprised that GQ has come to call. “I figure I spend a lot of time shopping. Eight to ten days a month, I go out and buy.”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that I’s a real clothes whore.”

I suppose the obvious question is: Do you have good taste in clothes? I think so. Especially for a large guy. I think i bring a little sense of fashion for fat guys, to be blunt. But it’s a different kind of look – an outlaw-runaway look. Half rock star, half modern kind of pirate. A modern-day bandit chieftain.

Are you a loud dresser?

No. No, I don’t think so. One reason is my size. It would stand out too much. And I don’t care for real loud clothes on men. I would say that about 80 percent of my wardrobe is black.

Which fashion trend setters do you admire?

Mostly rock stars, I guess. I’ve always thought of my comedy in terms of rock and roll. I think Sting is real sharp. I like the stuff he wears. Clapton is a very sharp dresser, too.

When did you first start wearing your trademarks – those big overcoats and berets?

Just before the first HBO special. What happened was that a guy named Tom Hedley – he wrote Flashdance, and came up with the ripped sweatshirt and all that – told me that [the overcoats] were going to be really big that fall. And I thought, Well, I can get a jump on all the other comics. It would be something people could identify me with.

And now I love ’em. They’re like those dusters from the Old West. The Long Riders, you know? And as Rodney once told me, “Hey man, you never have to worry about what you’re going to wear.” I can show up in any condition, with just about anything on underneath, and throw on the long coat and the beret and do a show.

I’ve basically kept up with one tradition: Everytime I do a television shot, I wear a different long coat. Now I’ve got about twenty, thirty of them hanging in my closet. I’ve got one from Kenzo. Another one’s from Harrods in London. I wore that one on my second Letterman shot. But it’s funny. After I wear them once in front of an audience, I don’t want to wear them anymore.

The beret? That was something that women put me hip to a long time ago – which was, if your hair is messed up, wear a hat.

That makes sense. But I noticed a lot of clothes in your closet that don’t exactly fit your image as a wild man.

Oh, sure. I’ve got some suits by Nino Cerruti, and Bernini, and a tux by Pierre Cardin. I’ve got lots and lots of dress shirts. I like those shoes by Bally, and Capezio slippers. I’m also into short leather jackets that I can just pile myself into and wear around.

Are your onstage and offstage wardrobes any different?

Well, I really don’t wear the long coats much offstage. That sort of changes the look completely. Also, up there I wear ripped T-shirts a lot. There’s something about being able to tear up your clothes. After the show’s over, I just like to come backstage and – GRRRRR!- rip myself out of my clothes. It feel great.

I guess it does. Have you always been this interested in clothes?

Even when I was a kid. See, I was raised very poor, and I got into the idea of looking good in nice clothes. I really wanted to look nice and to have the finer things in life. To look “Hollywood” and really be somebody. That seemed more important to me than to the other people around.

Which brings up your days as a preacher. What did you wear back then? Were you better dressed than your audience?

Yeah. A minister is almost like an entertainer. It’s important that he be dressed up, really classy. Back then I had forty-five suits -conservative three-piece suits. Basically, that was all I wore. I was “Brother Kinison” from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed.

And it felt good. It made me feel like an executive. Like, “Hey, I’m doing something important here.”

That reminds me: I noticed some conventional suits in your closet. Some Perry Ellis, some Ungaro. Where would you wear those suits these days?

Oh, to a business meeting. If I was going to meet with my manager or with my lawyer. If I was going to be sued by United Artists… FOR FIVE MILLION DOLLARS!!!

I detect a bit of hostility. Are you a hostile guy? Do you not like women , for instance?

Like women? I &n$*!! love women. I’m just tormented by them like everybody else. For some reason the image gets interpreted as misogynic, but it’s not.

I mean – somebody who doesn’t like women doesn’t go shopping for them, that’s for sure.

You mean you buy clothes for your girlfriends?

Sure. My girlfriends get bored every couple of weeks, and you have to buy them new clothes and stuff. I just go down to the stove and have them show me three or four ensembles, and they pick out what they want out of those.

have any of your girlfriends ever tried to change your look?

No, because I wouldn’t have listened.

How would they dress you if they could?

Oh, God. Probably big $%&*$ sweaters and some corduroy pants. Those big oversized shirts. I don’t know.

Sounds awful.

Yeah. But what else would they pick out for you? They go, “This is nice.”

“Nice” is not exactly the word. But one more question: What do you wear when you don’t want to be recognized?

That’s a problem. Sometimes I try something bland, like a jogging outfit. And I wear sunglasses, and a big hat. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s my size, the hair, the shape of my face. But people just look at me and see right through it.

I’m walking down the street and people shout, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” Then I just say, “$&%**! it. I’m dead.”