It is often said that laughter is the best medicine. If that is the case, then the Late Great Sam Kinison was a miracle drug. Born on December 8, 1953 into a family of Pentecostal preachers, Samuel Burl Kinison lived life to the fullest in whatever capacity he was operating in. Whether it was preaching the Word of God at tent revivals across the Bible Belt, doing comedy bits about homosexual necrophiliacs on HBO specials, or performing to sold out arenas everywhere like an unrepentant rock star, he attacked every aspect with a passion. In his days as a preacher, he would bring down the house and have a congregation jumping in the aisles shouting, “Hallelujah!!” During his time as a standup comedian, he told stories with such conviction, you’d swear he hated God, gays, and girls, and loved drinking, drugs, and debauchery. It all depends what one thinks is funny, but the more outrageous yet topical the routine is, the better. If the truth be known, Sam Kinison was a hellraiser with a heart of gold. A true comic genius if there ever was one.
Growing up around a family of preachers instilled a firm foundation that his later life would soon be built upon. The family would eat, breathe and live church, literally. Living in a church was embarrassing to young Sam, so he would often ask the neighbors if he could tell his friends that he lived at their place, so as not to let people know that he lived in a church. In his teenage years, Sam was an accomplished musician with the piano and guitar. He would spend his free time playing old Black Sabbath tunes, and going to the local movie theater where he was captivated by the comedies of the day. The only time he would spend at school was the amount of time it took to walk in the front door and right out the back. It was natural teenage rebellion that was being exhibited during this time of his life. Shortly thereafter, he attended Pinecrest Bible Training Center in Salisbury Center, New York. He was still more interested in hanging out and playing his guitar, rather than pursuing scholastic endeavors. After his time at Pinecrest, he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to be with his family and church.
His brothers, Bill and Rich Kinison, were already doing the traveling evangelism circuit at whatever churches wanted to hear the Good News. After Sam’s father died, he went out on the road with his brothers for the next 6 years. At first, he did not take center stage, but opted to concentrate on what his gift was: piano and guitar. Then as he slowly began his preaching ministry alongside his brothers, he honed his craft into a razor sharp weapon of mass instruction. Listening to sound bites of his sermons can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He had the speaking ability. He had the desire to minister. He had the ability to make people see the light of the Gospel. He had a sense of humor. But what he didn’t have was money to survive. That is when he decided to take his performance abilities to the comedy clubs. After making a few dollars telling jokes, he would return back to the churches and spread the Good Word.
Doing stand-up comedy, Sam was starting to feel free to be himself, and it just felt natural. Just like in a church setting, he had the audiences in the clubs eating out of the palm of his hands. When he brought this up with his brother Bill, he made the conscious decision that he would continue on that road and not look back, no matter what happened. Bill knew Sam could make it, but with all of the buzz going around the comedy club scene in Houston, Texas, Sam already had a head start…especially when one of his audience members was the man who gets “No Respect”, Rodney Dangerfield.
Knowing that the Hollywood comedy scene in the early 1980’s was where all the rising stars were, Sam scraped up all the change he had, packed his bags and headed to the Golden State. In order to rise to stardom, he had to start out on the lowest possible rung in the business. He was the doorman at The Comedy Store, but soon enough the owner, Mitzi Shore, let him do stand-up in the wee hours of the morning. This is where he started to really get noticed. You could feel the energy erupt from the club when Sam took the stage. Once word of mouth got around, Sam became a hit everywhere he went. It was not until 1985 though, when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s “Young Comedian Special” on HBO, that Sam Kinison finally began to hit the big time. The late-night talk shows couldn’t book him fast enough. Due to FCC regulations, he had to cut out the cursing, but that didn’t stop him on Saturday Night Live from doing over-the-top bits about the drug war and Jesus being nailed to the cross. Because of that incident, not only was he banned from appearing on Saturday Night Live, but any other show on NBC.
Throughout the late 1980’s, the excesses of the road were taking hold. The name of Sam Kinison soon became synonymous with hard-drinking, drug abuse, and all night parties. His friends, best known for their own raucous activity, were the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Guns n’ Roses, and Billy Idol. He also became involved with one of the central figures in the Jim Bakker PTL scandal, and future Playboy centerfold, Jessica Hahn. His material got more offensive and his shows began to resemble rock concerts. He was still on top of his game, but by the time the 1990’s rolled around, the telltale signs of his death-wish appetite for cocaine and alcohol were beginning to be more evident. He would be so wasted that he could barely perform shows. He would also blow off his television guest appearances. He nearly had his career ended when he publicly insulted media giant, Michael Ovitz. This neglectful nature was not sitting well with those who would be doing the booking for him to appear. Maybe it was time for him to settle down a bit.
Being twice divorced, some of his routines were extremely scathing towards women, but in 1987 he met the love of his life, Malika Souiri. They were together through thick and thin, and in 1992 they tied the knot in Las Vegas with a subsequent honeymoon in Hawaii. Leading up to that time, he decided that he really needed to clean up his life. Here is a man that was riding the wave of success when he was at his most addicted; however, he knew he had to stop, or else he would end up in the gallery of dead celebrities that had their lives taken due to drugs. He was at the top of his game.
On April 10, 1992, that all came to end in a lone Nevada desert on his way to a sold-out show in Laughlin, Nevada. With his new bride of five days in the passenger seat of their Trans-Am, and his brother Bill following behind them, Sam and Malika were hit head-on by a 17-year-old in a pick up truck who had just been drinking . Malika incurred a mild concussion, while Sam lay outside the demolished car with his best friend Carl LeBove. He was talking to God, asking why he had to die. Whispering ever so reverently toward the darkening sky above, “Okay…okay…okay” were his last words as he passed on from this life into the next. Sam Kinison was pronounced dead at 8:30 PM. He was 38. In a strange twist of fate, the man who once did a comedy bit about driving drunk being the only way to get home, was sober at the time, unlike the driver of the pick-up. Who, by the way, was charged with vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 300 hours of community service, a year’s probation and released into the custody of his parents. A small price to pay for taking away one of the comic greats.
Sam is remembered by myriads of comedians, and they all reflect back on his life with great admiration and shower his memory with accolades. His humor contained honesty, confrontation, vulgarity, and extemporaneous quips with the audience. He had one of the quickest and funniest minds in the business, and his live performances proved that. Just because he made jokes about gays “giving us the Black Plague of the Eighties”, that didn’t mean he hated them. He was deeply saddened when one of his good friends, who was gay, died of AIDS. He also gave money to AIDS research. He made jokes about divorce/marriage (“If I get married again, I want a guy there with a drum to do rimshots during the vows.”), only to remarry a few years later. Being a former evangelist himself, it was ironic that he was blasting televangelists Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts by calling them “God’s Special Education Team”. He is also probably the only man who could ever compare anal sex to the Garden of Eden and actually bridge the two stories.
He opened up a lot of doors for new and aspiring comics. He pushed the envelope so that others comedians after him would have more room to play. His comedy will be remembered for the ages, as well as his trademark scream. Sam did not care who he offended. He didn’t write material to appease a certain group. Like many comedians, it’s all about putting on a good show and entertaining the crowd. Behind the scenes, he was one of the most humble persons you could ever meet. He loved to entertain his guests, talk about spirituality, and was always a sweet and gentle man…as long as he was not all drugged up.
Kinison’s life can not easily be summed up in a phrase, and there are many things that he could be called. I think the inscription on his gravestone expresses the sentiments of his many close friends and confidants, and the hundreds of thousands of fans that the Reverend Sam Kinison had: “In another time he would have been called prophet.” If there are comedy clubs in Heaven, then Sam is the headliner every night, and raising a little Hell.
- Official Sam Kinison Site
Kinison.com - A Multimedia Tribute to the Life and Comedy of Sam Kinison
kinisonpreaching.wav - Hear Sam from his days as a preacher
kinisonlovesong.wav - Hear Sam's love song
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