On the Ungodly Sam Kinison

It may be hard to credit for those who were alive and sentient back then but it’s nonetheless true — while he was alive, Sam Kinison (1953-1992) was only prominent in the pop culture landscape for about 7 years (1985-1992). I should make this plain coming out of the gate — I didn’t dig him. Not at all. It’s not just that I didn’t find him funny. He also sort of made me sick to my stomach. That much hatred and anger, that much unpleasant noise, that amount of inner and outer ugliness. None of those alone were the dealbreakers, though. It was all of them put together COMBINED with the fact that he wasn’t funny. To me, to me. Obviously SOMEONE found him funny; he had a career. Rodney Dangerfield clearly found him funny. He put him on at his club, and on his TV special, and he had him in his 1986 movie Back to School.

So why am I doing a post on him at all? Because, I find Kinison’s biography and his profile really interesting. I feel a similar way with respect to him that I do to Sarah Palin: I wish I liked this person because I love elements of their dossier. A bear-hunting lady Governor of Alaska who looks like she just came home from the beauty parlor? When I had heard only that much about her, two seconds after learning Palin existed, I was sort of ready to love her. But the instant she opened her mouth and started talking and I got the whole picture of who she was, that all changed to “Never in a million billion zillion years.” It’s similar with Kinison.

Up until 1982 Kinison had been a fire and brimstone Pentecostal preacher. Now THAT is fascinating. That is America. And he had employed the same oratorical style as a preacher as he did as a comedian! (There are audio clips of him preaching on Youtube). I’m glad that SOMEONE came along and made that transition. I just wish it had been someone funny and interesting and brilliant. Similarly, there was this rock and roll thing happening. Over time he came to dress more and more like Axl Rose, and his shrill screeching was kind of “metal”. He even released his own version of the garage classic “Wild Thing”. Lord knows the annals of rock are full of guys like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis who came from the same evangelizing background. So that is also fascinating, the rock and stand-up connection. And at the time Kinison hit, there were all these high-concept characters working the stand-up and comedy scenes, you know, Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Pee-Wee Herman, Howie Mandel, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, Carrot Top, Emo Philips, Andrew Dice Clay, Rita Rudner, Weird Al Yankovic. I admired and even emulated a lot of these performers in my obscure patch of the globe at the time.

So it’s not like I object to the extremisim of what Kinison did. It’s just, goddamn it, he wasn’t funny. His writing is not funny, and his performance isn’t funny. I mean, even if you could get past the misogyny of it, which of course you could — it was stand-up comedy! He talked about dating and relationships, so conceptually it’s not really different from, say, Garry Shandling’s act as subject matter. That was a comedy topic since time immemorial: “Women — am I right, fellahs?”. But usually, ya know, there are JOKES. Kinison would just talk about how horrible women were, periodically shrieking his animus with a string of profanity-laced epithets, his face getting all red, and his eyeballs bulging out of their sockets. And that was his gimmick. That was what got him booked, that’s what got him on TV shows like The Tonight Show , Saturday Night Live, and Letterman. Even when I was 20, at the lifetime apex of my sexism, I was like, “What the hell?!”

Anyway, all this time, I had assumed Kinison had died in one of two patently obvious ways: O.D. or heart attack. This unhealthy overweight dude, clearly on all manner of drugs. And he had that famous rider in his contracts stipulating a backstage oxygen tank, where most performers settle for, ya know, bottled water, or a fruit basket. But, no. It was a car accident. And, unlikeliest of all, HE WAS NOT AT FAULT. Some drunken 17 year old kid hit him head-on when he and his wife were on the way to a gig. Kinison went through the windshield (no seatbelt, so I guess he was responsible to that extent. But he didn’t cause the crash).

The legend is that Kinison had some sort of conversation with God in his last moments as he lay there bleeding waiting for the ambulance to arrive. But I’m positive that’s not what happened. Satan. It was definitely Satan.