April 1st, 2002

Sam Kinison

(This is an unedited version of a piece first appeared in Uncut in April 2002)

The Comedy Store, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, 1983. For a few dollars and a two drink minimum, you can have the door guy escort you to a table in the dank bowels of the joint and sup till the small hours laughing it up to a series of aspiring stand-ups. Good stand-ups, too – quirky, sharp, self-deprecating, most of whom you’ll never hear of again. That said, all the American comedians you ever heard of started out at the Comedy Store.

2am. Most of the smart crowd have melted away. A sleazy assortment of bikers, junkies, drug dealers linger. Last guy on tonight started here working the door himself, so hard up he had to walk seven miles every night to the Store to raise enough money in tips for a pizza slice and a cab home. He was a hit out in Houston and decided to try his luck in LA but Mitzi Shore, the martinet who runs the Comedy Store, doesn’t get him. She doesn’t think he’s funny and worse, he’s profane as fuck and Mitzi is trying to run a clean-ish Store, at least before midnight. But this guy once stepped in to defend Mitzi from a drunken attack by her alcoholic boyfriend so he’s temporarily in her good graces.

The MC announces him, there’s a lairy whoop and on he slinks, wide as he’s tall, sporting shades and a nasty little moustache, hair lacquered aggressively over a bald patch, bursting out of a tight leather jacket. Already, you suspect this guy is not a graduate of the whirling bow tie school of chuckles. He stares hard at the tables, letting an uneasy pall descend on the room.

“Okay,” he hisses, finally, drawing on a cigarette. “You folks have had a good time, right? You’ve seen a lot of comedians. Maybe you thought they were funny. Some you may want to see again. A lot of comedians try to get you to love them. Well, me, I take a different approach.” Here, he dons a single leather glove, as if about to go to work on somebody tied to a chair. Then he removes the shades. “My name is Sam. Sam Kinison. YOU’RE GONNA WISH TO GOD YOU NEVER SAW ME! YOU’LL BEG GOD TO FORGET MY FACE! AUUGH! ! ! AAAAUUUGHHH! ! ! !”

Sam Kinison, who died ten years ago this month, was a nasty man. A former preacher, he forfeited his soul for a coke and booze habit and a few jokes about Christ on the cross. He was very wrong about many things. He lambasted gays for “fucking monkeys” in Africa and thereby visiting AIDS on the world. His routines were rife with a black streak of misogyny. His politics were of the jocko, right wing, America-uber-alles variety. In the wake of the Gulf War he mocked the Kurds. “They’re fucking idiots, man! They should change their name to The Fucks because they’re fucked.” and blamed them for declaring war on the USA. He prowled the deepest, darkest sewers of obscenity and taboo with the zeal of a holy man turned about as unholy as you can get. And those who saw him will swear that to do so was to laugh, laugh till you thought you were going to asphyxiate, laugh in surprise and disgust with yourself at the sheer toxic glee of it all. It was like that footage of the exploding whale – audiences would be drenched in Sam as the body parts his raging demons showered the room. He was very possibly the funniest man who ever lived.

Early on, Sam Kinison hung out with a brattish pack of stand-ups known as the Outlaws, who included Andrew Dice Clay and Bill Hicks. Dice was the most obnoxious of the three, with his Fonz-like posturing and bullying of Asian-Americans (“If you don’t know the language, get the fuck out of the country!”) but it wasn’t long before the joke faded and all that was left was a cold stench of washed-up, racist braggadocio. Of the three, Bill Hicks is best known to British audiences and, despite his misanthropic attacks on white trash and pro-smoking schtick, the most palatable to liberal sensibilities. His act bristles disgustedly at the hypocrisies of American life and the consumer culture perpetuated to keep its citizens sated and stupid. He touched raw nerves of political truth and his death of cancer at 32 lent him a posthumous authenticity – as if his nicotine-fuelled rage literally ate him up. Hicks was very funny. Yet he pales beside Kinison. He filches a lot of Kinison-isms such as the evil chuckle between bits and bellowing crescendos. Yet there’s sometimes a distracting, self-satisfied air about Hicks and an odd lack of rapport with his audiences.

Sam Kinison was far less politically on than Hicks and yet, in that signature primal scream of his (“AAAAUUUUUGHHHHH!!!!”) there was a deeper, more Promethean truth. Sometimes, Kinison is faintly praised with the feeble epithet of “political incorrectness” but he was much more than that. He chafed at the very restrictions of life itself. One routine sees him relate a call from his parents saying it was time he took some financial responsibility for himself, stop sponging. He replies that before he had been their child he had been a free spirit walking the cosmos in a pure body of light; “I was light, I was truth I was a spiritual being – then YOU had to FUCK! AND BRING MY ASS DOWN HERE! I didn’t ASK to be born – I didn’t call and say ‘Hey, please have me so I can work in a fuckin’ Winchells someday! Now you want me to pick up the tab? FUCK . . . YOUUUUUUU! !” he’d scream, with glass-shattering, tonsil-busting virtuoso raucousness.


Sam Kinison was born in Yakima, Washington in 1953, son of a maverick Pentecostal preacher. He was a placid infant until, aged three, he was hit by a truck and suffered 30% brain damage and epilepsy. Aged 16 he ran away from home, disappearing for two years before meekly returning and joining his brothers on the ministry circuit as a preacher.


From the scant footage that exists, it’s clear Sam was some preacher man. He learned how to bring on his congregation, from a quiet opening, rising and rising to a tornado pitch of evangelical frenzy, hitting the sort of rhetorical equivalents of Aretha Franklin bringing the plaster from the ceiling with “Amazing Grace”. He was full of the same fire he later brought to his comedy. But his message was unorthodox. He didn’t warn the faithful about the Second Coming but that Jesus and the Holy Spirit was within us all, to discover for ourselves.

Furthermore, for an American preacher, Sam showed a marked indifference to the collection plate. Indeed, it was his disillusionment with the Jimmy Bakkers and Swaggarts of the world, spiritual snake oil salesmen stumping up funds for Theme Parks in the name of Christ that caused him to quit preaching. Later, he would expend some of his choicest bile on “wacko preachers” and revelled in the eventual disgrace of Jim and Tammy Bakker.

In his twenties, already divorced, Sam decided to enrol in comedy school. His first appearances were in Houston, where, although short of material, he certainly knew how to grab an audience. Faced with row after row of ten-gallon hats defying him to entertain them, Sam would leap offstage, jump the hugest guy to hand and mock-sodomize him in front of his girlfriend. Amazingly, none of his cowpunching rodeo victims ever punched him out. They were reduced to sheepishness as the joint fell about around them.

Sam’s second wife was Terry Marrs, a divorced businesswoman. However, theirs was always a fractious relationship as he was starting to make up for years of temperance, shipping aboard all the drugs and booze he could find, while she was disinclined to put up with too many of his lost, riotous weekends. The couple moved to LA and fought with cartoon intensity, her trying to wrench him into line, him feeling caged by marriage and a small apartment. Sam’s wives fed into his act as one composite, prissy, fun-hating and vindictive female, engines for his venom. It was wholly unfair and overwhelmingly hilarious. He would kick off asking some guy if he intended to get married, settle down. They guy would nod, then Sam would say, “Then promise me this. Remember this face. AAAAAUUUGHHH ! ! ! !”

After years of rejection, Sam broke through in the mid-Eighties. He took a cameo in a Rodney Dangerfield movie, Back To School. He released his first album, Louder Than Hell. It was, simply, nuclear comedy. On marriage: “If you see me round the yard and stuff, round the house? Kill me. Remember when I was a man and controlled my destiny? KILL ME! SHOOT ME IN THE FUCKING FACE! I BEG FOR DEATH! AAAUGGHH ! !” On Christ, as his disciples weep at what a terrible thing it is he has to die. “WELL, IT WOULDN’T BE SO BAD IF SOMEONE’D FETCH A LADDER AND A PAIR OF FUCKING PLIERS!” And finally, with customary sensitivity – the starving of Ethiopia. Imagining himself, improbably, as a frustrated aid worker, Sam rants, “It occurs to us there wouldn’t BE world hunger if you people would LIVE WHERE THE FOOD IS AT! YOU LIVE IN A FUCKING DESERT! YOU SEE THIS, HUH? THIS IS SAND! KNOW WHAT IT’S GONNA BE A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW? SAND! GET YOUR SHIT, WE’LL MAKE ONE TRIP, WE’LL TAKE YOU WHERE THE FUCKING FOOD IS AT! WE HAVE DESERTS IN AMERICA, WE JUST DON’T LIVE IN THEM, ASSHOLE!”

Come the late Eighties, Kinison was an LA superstar, partying with Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, appearing regularly on Letterman and Howard Stern, sober or otherwise. As if having to sate a gigantic muse, he was a man of voracious appetites – food, beer, sex, marijuana, cocaine which he snorted to the point of developing an irregular heartbeat and had to kick. That’s what he said, anyway. Career wise he was too hot for some. Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC, announced he would never appear on the network again following a Saturday Night Live appearance where he’d speculated as to Jesus’ last words, mimicking a nailing noise with his mic; “NOT THE OTHER ONE! NOT THE OTHER ONE!” However, NBC were flooded with letters of support for Sam, with Tartikoff himself sent faeces in the post by disgruntled Kinison fans. The network relented. Talk shows, HBO specials followed. But even if he’d wanted to cutesy up for a Hollywood or sitcom career, a la Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, his inner monster would never let him. He’d tried out in an abortive movie called Atuk in which he played an Eskimo in Manhattan. It was dire, Sam knew it. He bailed out and agreed out of court to pay $200,000 to United Artists for breach of contract. Then, there was AIDS. On his second, otherwise brilliant album Have You Seen Me Lately, Sam, revelling in his outlaw status, questioned that the disease was contracted by heterosexuals. “Name ONE!” he snapped. He’d later do the bit on Letterman. The gay community was furious, demonstrated outside his shows. Elton John denounced him as a “pig”.

Kinison, without exactly climbing down, quietly dropped the bit. “Sam never hated gays,” his brother Bill insists. “He just hated being told what he could and could not say.” On his third album, however, Leader Of The Banned, he got his own back. After an extended eulogy to Walt Disney, how he’d conceived Mickey mouse after watching a rodent scurrying around his apartment, how this had led to the whole Disney empire. “Just suppose he’d been a FAGGOT,” Kinison screamed. “He’d have taken the mouse and SHOVED IT UP HIS ASS!”

Banned, with Kinison bandana’d up like an honorary heavy metal guru, was not his greatest album. However, it would be the last released while he was alive. By April 1992, Sam seemed to be emerging from a period of turbulence. After dating girlfriend Malika but also fucking her equally sultry sister Sabrina, he’d married the former. He was regaining his comic form after a dip in his popularity. He revelled in the upbeat American mood following the Gulf War. One of his routines, later released on the posthumous album Live From Hell, included a touching tribute to John Kennedy. “There he is, in the Oval Office, dick up Marilyn Monroe’s ass, finger on the nuclear button telling those Russians to stay the fuck out of Cuba . . it DOESN”T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THIS!” This was joie de vivre, Sam-style.

On April 10, a convoy of vehicles set out toward Laughlin, Nevada. The passengers included Sam (who could have flown but was nervous of planes), Malika, his best friend comedian Carl LaBove and older brother and manager Bill. Bill took care of Sam, picking up his career, dismissing some of his more wayward entourage and now booking him a three-year residency in Vegas. Bill knew the real Sam – a goof-off, a fuck-up, a “misguided missile, a prick, a truthteller” in his own words. Sam always felt bad around Bill, felt he was constantly letting him down. But Bill took care of Sam.

Turning north onto Highway 95 around sunset, a truck came speeding head-on towards them. Sam, leading the convoy, wiggled the front of his car to alert the driver, swerved but it was no use. The truck driver was a 17 year old with a couple of beers inside him. Sam had once done a bit about drink driving. “What is the big DEAL? How are we supposed to get the CAR back to the HOUSE? We will drink and we will drive. Because most of us pull it off every single FUCKING NIGHT!” But not tonight. Sam seemed unhurt. Carl LaBove assured him he’d be all right, held his head. But Sam seemed to be in conversation with some invisible entity. “Why now?” he asked. “I don’t want to die.” Then, after a pause, he replied “OK . . OK”, as if having seen reason and, peacefully, shut his eyes and stopped breathing.

Sam Kinison was a man of very bad habits who said some awful, terrible things. Had he lived, who is to know what awful, terrible things he would have had to say about Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, George Dubya Bush, the war in Afghanistan. Incorrect he may have been – but the truth he uncovered was the dark, nasty stuff most of us keep properly locked away in order to function as civilised human beings. Sam showered us with his, with almost righteous fervour. And some of us will never laugh so hard again.

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