Why you should care
Because being a comedian is a lot like being a preacher; you just use different four-letter words.
For a while in the late 1980s, Sam Kinison was as close to a rock star as you will find in the world of stand-up comedy. When the pudgy, frizzy-haired hell-raiser stormed the stage in his trench coat and knit cap in front of arena-size crowds and spewed his unscripted rant of a routine like a foul-mouthed Muppet on cocaine, it was like nothing else on the planet. (Name another comedian who got down with ’80s femme fatale Jessica Hahn and rock stars like Slash and Jon Bon Jovi in a music video).
For those familiar with the late Kinison’s original and unusually loud oeuvre, it will come as no surprise that he entered the profession after his first wife cheated on him. In addition to his trademark scream — “Oh! OH! AAAAUGH!” — Kinison built his act and his libertine Hollywood lifestyle around his failed marriages and the embittered rage they spawned. “I’m not worried about hell,” he liked to tell audiences, “because I was married for TWO F*CKING YEARS!”
Kinison’s irreverent and sin-filled rise was swift …
Amazingly, the devil inside Sam Kinison was once a Pentecostal preacher. Raised in the same projects of Peoria, Illinois, that also spawned Richard Pryor, Kinison had a devout religious upbringing. His father, Earl, ran a dance hall until he found Jesus and the ministry in his 30s. Kinison took the opposite track, working as a touring preacher for seven years until he caught his wife cheating on him and decided on a divorce (verboten in revivalist circles), as well as a career change.
When Kinison moved to Houston in the 1970s and started doing stand-up comedy in a converted strip club, he was really just exchanging one tour, and one gospel, for another. “Sam tried this fiery Pentecostal style in stand-up comedy and audiences loved it,” says Rich Markey, author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy. Unlike many contemporary comedians, who shied away from religion, Rev. Kinison leaned into his biblical training for material … albeit with a new theological twist.
One of Kinison’s best comedic sermons was doing Jesus as an aggrieved everyman, whether sitting at the bar on his day off, trying to avoid those needing healing, or on the cross angrily responding to his assembled followers lamenting that he has to die: “Well, maybe I wouldn’t have to if somebody could get a ladder and a pair of pliers!” He even cast the resurrected Christ into one of his favorite roles, that of a badgered husband trying to explain to his wife why he left with 12 friends on Friday afternoon and has been missing for three days. Kinison appeared on the comedy scene, says Markey, at the same time television evangelists were taking over the airwaves, which also provided the former preacher with plenty of fodder.
Kinison’s irreverent and sin-filled rise was swift in the late 1980s, including best-selling albums, late-night appearances and film roles like the angry Vietnam-vet professor in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. But some of his material, from the misogyny of the “Wild Thing” rock video to his rants against homosexuals and AIDS, has not aged well, and even at the time, Kinison quickly earned a reputation as a hard-core partygoer and drug user. Planned film projects were canceled, agencies dropped him and the rampant sinner’s life seemed to be careening out of control just like the Corvette with EXREV plates he frequently drove while intoxicated.
Kinison was killed in April 1992 when the car he was driving was struck by a truck driven by a 17-year-old who had been drinking (like Kinison). His brother and manager, Bill, claimed in later interviews that Kinison (who said he still believed in God) felt guilty about leaving the ministry and had even planned to make amends and return to it before he was killed.
But for a while the comedy legend was as unrepentant as they come. “I have lived a carnal life,” Kinison admitted to Rolling Stone at the height of his fame. “My view of life is, ‘If you’re going to miss heaven, why miss it by 2 inches? Miss it!’”
Kinison is buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under a gravestone that reads: “In another time and place he would have been called prophet.” Indeed. Let’s hope Sam is in a better place, or at least one better than his marriages. Here again is a taste of the Gospel according to Sam: