Robin Williams called him “the Evel Knievel of Comedy” for his fearless leaps into the dark abyss of Modern Man’s psyche. Women, religion and drugs fueled both his controversial social life and his equally controversial material. Over the course of 38 years, four albums and countless whirlwind tours, he refused to apologize for either.
Born in Yakima, Washington, and raised in Peoria, Illinois, Samuel Burl Kinison followed his father, Samuel Earl, and older brother, Bill, into the Pentecostal ministry. Disillusioned by the revival circuit and seeking a fresh start after his first marriage failed, he relocated to Texas and tried his hand at stand-up.
“Sam Kinison has obviously never heard the term soft-spoken. Easily the most manic and audacious of the aspiring funnymen, he will apparently do or say anything to get a laugh, collapsing on the stage in an impression of Peter Sellers having a heart attack while playing Inspector Clouseau, and tearing up the joint in a dead-on-target parody of a tent revivalist. His act has no unity, but it has frenzy to burn, and you can’t help laughing at the all-out, bludgeoning outrageousness of it.”
–Houston Post, July 13, 1979
Dan Barton, comic: I heard about the Comedy Workshop in Houston. They used to do stand-up comedy on Monday nights and just within the last couple of months had branched it out into another full-time club called the Comix Annex. The first night I was there I saw Sam Kinison. This was about October 1979.
He went onstage with a box full of props, which he didn’t do, of course, later on. And he did characters, which he didn’t do later on. He didn’t do that well. He tried. He was a ton of energy. Sam was, at that time, about six months out of the ministry, and he was about 26 years old. He was just kind of going at it. The emcee said, “All right, Sam Kinison! It happens!”
Dwight Slade, comic: I did my first open-mic in ’78 along with Bill Hicks. We were a comedy team. And then my father got transferred, so I moved to Oregon, but I came back in New Year’s of ’79. Bill had been working at the Comedy Workshop, and Sam had just started there. Bill introduced me to Sam, and I watched him do a few sets including the New Year’s Eve show, which was poorly attended. Sam was hysterical, though.
Barton: It was Sam’s transition out of the ministry and into the hip, bohemian world of show business that, up until then, he was completely unfamiliar with. He had done some drinking before and after his first marriage had broken up, but it was his first exposure to drugs. He never smoked a joint until he was 26. He had run away from home at 16 and hadn’t had any formal education past that point. It was a whole new scene for him. He was kind of dropped into this society: actors, intellectuals, a “coffee-house” crowd.
Kevin Booth, filmmaker/author: Here was this Sam guy getting in people’s faces, talking about women leaving him and screwing around with other men. Just doing this real shocking but real honest comedy. It was on a whole other level that none of us had ever been exposed to, even listening to Richard Pryor albums.
Slade: The Screaming Man: That was his moniker. What struck me most about him was he developed small vignettes that he would perform, like “The Sam Kinison School of Speech Rehabilitation.” Another one was “Tickets to See Mac Davis in Concert,” and another one was “Walking on the Moon.” These are all short little—almost like sketches—that all wound up with the same thing: Sam screaming. And I remember on New Year’s, with tickets to the comedy show you also got dinner, which was a barbecued-beef sandwich wrapped in Saran Wrap. Unwisely, right before midnight they started handing out noisemakers to the audience while Sam was onstage. Of course people start playing with them, and it really frustrated Sam. He goes, “The next person that blows their horn, I’m gonna throw this sandwich at them.” Of course, immediately “Toot!” Sam takes the barbecue sandwich and hurls it at the wall, not at the person, but it makes this horrible, barbecue-sandwich splat.
Booth: Sam would be breaking the chairs and stuff. Sam’s bits always involved throwing something or breaking something, and I remember [Annex creative director] Steve Moore threatening him, telling him, “If you don’t quit that, you’re going to be out of here.” And, of course, telling Sam not to do something was ridiculous. So Sam did it 10 times as worse.
There was a convenience store right across the street. It might have been a Utotem. Either that or a 7-Eleven. I think he was wearing a diaper, but he made it look like he was being crucified on their sign. It was a pretty good publicity stunt, and he ended up being allowed back into the club. It was one of those things where everyone was telling both of them to shake hands and forgive and move on. I always remember Sam going, “Listen, if I break a chair I’ll pay for it! It’s part of the act! Just chill out!” Steve Moore was trying to act like he was the big daddy trying to tell the little kid what to do.
Bob Saget, comic: I met Sam when I was doing a place called the Comedy Workshop in Houston, right after he had tied himself to a light pole in front of the club and dressed himself as Jesus because he claimed that they weren’t giving him spots. He was feeling persecuted.
This was in ’79. He was still doing his tent show with [his brother] Bill [Kinison]. I heard these crazy stories. I mean crazy. Like they got a mentally challenged guy who stood up in the audience and they said, “We’re going to heal you.” The guy was a monolithic, 6-and-a-half, 7-foot tall guy running toward the stage. The guy hit his head on a beam, split his head open and his pants fell down. He had no underwear on, he was incredibly well-endowed, he was moaning like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, and they continued to “heal him.” As Bill tells it, supposedly the guy came back and opened his head again; he fell again, and he passed out because of “healing, the spirit.”
Ron Shock, comic: When he was in Houston one of his first just incredible bits was Baby Jesus and his dog, Nigger Dog. The premise is Baby Jesus and he’s a brat, you know, “This is Nigger Dog. I’m Baby Jesus, I can call him anything I want. I’ll turn ya into salt! AAAHHH! AAAHHH!”
The very first evening Bill had gone to the Annex, Sam Kinison was performing. The gnomish former boy preacher from Oklahoma had just begun his career. He had this bit where he’d put a pair of men’s bikini briefs over his jeans, sing a song called “I’m Mr. Lonely.” He’d go down to the audience, pick a guy in the front row, and by the end of the song, just when he was singing “I’m a lonely soldier,” he would throw the guy to the floor and start humping him.
Of course, Bill was sitting in the front row that first night. Of course, Sam picked him.
Bill became a regular at the Annex, and great friends with Sam. By the end of Bill’s senior year, Sam was exiled from the Annex after a brawl. At the time—spring of 1980—the only true hallowed ground for stand-up was the Improv in New York and the Comedy Store in LA.”
–GQ, September 1994
Booth: Sam came to Los Angeles before any of those guys did. Sam was the most career-minded. He started going out there by himself to start with.
Barton: We all took a trip out to LA—me, Sam, Bill and Kevin, Sam’s brother—in 1980. And Sam kind of fell in with the guys that were into booze and drugs. He thought that was cool; he thought that was hip. And he wanted to be a dark, dangerous comedian. When he got out to LA he discovered not only an appetite for drugs and later alcohol—because he really wasn’t into alcohol that much to begin with—but he also discovered a capacity.
Booth:This would be after the first time they came from LA: One night in Austin, it was one of those three-day coke benders. Sam got up at the Comedy Workshop in Austin and was in people’s faces, telling them he wanted to f--k their wives, just offending the audience so harshly. Sam was totally up in this couple’s face, basically inciting a riot in the club, which Sam used to love to do. But he had been up for days, and it was kind of getting out of hand, where the audience was actually getting up and acting like there’s going to be a big fight. One of the guys running the club got Sam off the stage and was like, “You need to get him the f--k out of here. These people are fixing to gather on you. They’re going to start throwing furniture at you.” We go running outside, and literally we were getting into the taxicab with the angry crowd coming out of the comedy club, running towards the cab. Sam was in the front seat, and Bill and I were in the back seat. We’re yelling at the cab driver, like, “Go! Go, dude, go!” We look over at Sam, and Sam was snoring.
Slade: There is a famous story about when Bill Hicks wanted to move to Los Angeles and be a comic. He was 18 years old and had given up any idea of college. He was like, “Look, I don’t like school. I’m gonna be a stand-up. Why not support me out in Los Angeles with the money you were going to give me for college? Just send me to Comedy Store College.” His parents were going to refuse him. Sam drove out to Bill’s mother’s suburban home, had dinner with Bill’s parents and basically used all of his charm, all of his con-man capabilities, and said, “Look, this guy is a gifted stand-up comic. I know. And these are the things that are available to him in Los Angeles.” And his parents at the end of it acquiesced.
Booth: Sam was going to convince all these Texas guys that they should move to Los Angeles together at the same time. Sam actually went to Bill’s house and had dinner with Bill’s mom and dad, these very strict Baptist people. The idea of him not going to college, instead going to Hollywood, was a total nightmare for them. Not part of the Baptist suburban game plan. Sam went to their house and played it really straight. He knew what to say, how to act and all the right things to do to make Bill’s parents trust him.
Barton: Sam organized this big show at the Tower called the Outlaws of Comedy, which featured him, Riley Barber, Carl [LaBove] and Bill Hicks. It was a terrible flop. He lost a bunch of money on it. He thought he was going to draw this huge crowd and get enough money to move out to LA, but no.
Booth: It was called Texas Outlaws on the Lam or something. One of the first dumb showbiz moves I remember him making was that he did this farewell show at this big thing, I think it was called the State Theater. It was a really big room in Houston. These comedians all performed all the time, so what Sam did was fly in this comedian Argus Hamilton, who at the time was a Tonight Show regular. The thinking was, “Hey, if I bring in a Tonight Show regular, we’ll pack this house.” Even though he was a Tonight Show regular, he wasn’t all that funny, and the Houston audience didn’t really care that it was a guy from The Tonight Show. Nobody showed up for that thing, and Sam took a complete bath on it.
[Shortly before leaving] he ended up in a fistfight with Steve. I think he broke his leg.
Barton: I went and saw Sam that night. He had broken Steve Moore’s leg. This was the first in a long line of conflicts of real or imagined authority figures he would run into.
Booth: When they all got to LA, a lot of them were all sleeping on the same floor at one apartment. The thing was, though, that Sam wasn’t. Sam was already better and having slots. Sam did get Bill some slots at the Comedy Store, because Sam was in with [owner] Mitzi Shore. Sam helped Bill, but none of the other guys were breaking in, so it was a pretty hard time for everybody.
Sam would come visit all these guys that he had convinced to come out there, and they were all camping out and living in squalor. He’d go, “Hang in there, guys! Well, see ya later!”
Barton: It later became a rivalry. They kind of separated after awhile.
They were friends, but Bill started to get a different response as he progressed in his career. Bill began to get a reputation as a real quality comedian, this underground bohemian. He began to get a real credibility. Sam was very jealous of other people’s success, and I would say he got jealous of Bill. It became more of a rivalry. It was like how he was friends with Jim Carrey, and then he got jealous of Jim.
Booth: It had a lot to do with broken promises and people owing people money and just various things. I think too there started to be a little bit of an issue of material. There were times when Bill thought Sam was stealing a little material, and Sam felt that Bill was stealing not so much material but kind of the act, the voices.
There wasn’t one day when Bill was like, “I’m mad at Sam and I don’t want to hang out with him.” They just kind of weren’t friends anymore. Things happen. But years later, after Sam had a lot of popularity and money, Bill went to go see Sam for the first time in many years, and Sam had a house in Malibu. Bill came back to me, and he was like, “Man, it was just pathetic. Sam is a big, rich blob. He’s got everything he wants, and he’s absolutely fat, and he’s absolutely miserable.” He called him a “pathetic Buddha” or something.
Slade: There was definitely a real sibling rivalry between Bill and Sam. Sam was the only comic that Bill felt intimidated by, which is only a testimony to Sam’s stature.
Shock: Bill Hicks, who I thought was a genius, he thought Sam Kinison was a genius. So I have to give a lot of credence to that. If Rembrandt tells me this guy over here is a great painter, well, I’m going to listen to him, you know?
Saget: I actually was there and had Mitzi watch him at the Comedy Store, the very first audition. I was sitting next to Mitzi, saying, “This guy’s really good.”
Allan Stephan, comic: Sam was an amateur at the Sunset Comedy Store when he first came out, and I was a bigger act there, so he went out of his way to know me. He really hadn’t found himself yet. Then he left and came back out a while later. I think the first thing I said to him was, “You seem to have no fear,” and he said, “Well, I used to have to heal them.”
He spent a few years running everybody out. Then at some point the Store put him on at midnight or something, and things started to turn around for him. He started to find himself.
Slade: I ran into him a number of times in Los Angeles in the early ’80s. I don’t know how it all happened, but Sam kind of wound up in charge of the Westwood Comedy Store, so I would always wait until I knew Sam was going to be over there, because he would always give me stage time. I don’t know how he got that kind of power. That was the odd thing about Sam: He’d be down and out, and the next thing you know he’d be this powerful figure in LA comedy, and you’re like, “How’d that happen?”
Martin Bergmann, actor/writer/director/producer: There used to be a Comedy Store in Westwood. My first trip over to America I saw him performing with an audience of 80 people before he had even done that Rodney special. You knew he was extraordinary. He got the audience so angry that they really wanted to kill him. He was just messing with them up there, torturing them. He was asking people to write down on napkins the names of anybody they had recently lost, who had died recently, and collecting them at the end of the row, because, “I WANT TO WIPE MY ASS ON IT!” He would do things like that to basically upset the entire room.
Slade: Bill and I were down there in the Main Room, and we were waiting for Richard Pryor, who was working out stuff for his new concert film. This was ’82. Sam comes running up, and he slides up to our table. He’s on his knees, and his head is sitting there on the table. We both kind of laugh and go, “I don’t remember ordering a head.” He goes, “I came up with this great new bit!” He’s trying to whisper this bit to us because he doesn’t want to do it too loud as people are being seated for the show. He goes, “The problem is, we gotta stop sending people food. We have to go out to these people and go, ‘YOU PEOPLE LIVE IN A DESERT! IT’S GOING TO ALWAYS BE A DESERT!’” The specter of Sam whispering and screaming at the same time was just so wonderful. It went on to be his signature bit.
Barton: When you’re an up-and-coming comedian, your lifestyle is very different. You get up around noon or 1, roll a joint, smoke it, go see a movie, and then go to the Comedy Store. It took him a while to get to that point. He was a doorman, used to work at the Westwood Comedy Store. There was a period of time where he was very happy just being an up-and-coming comedian. He was making a living, barely. He used to say, “Do you have any advice for comedians?” “Yeah, date waitresses. You’ll always eat for free.”
Slade: I snuck a tape recorder into the Comedy Store back in ’82, and I recorded one of Sam’s sets. It was kind of a greatest hits up to that point, just 20 minutes of his best stuff. And it wasn’t even one of Sam’s better sets. He was a little sluggish onstage that night. But I’d never seen a guy fall out of his chair and writhe on the ground, and a guy in front of me did that. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t get his breath. He fell out of his chair and was kind of dry-heaving on the ground because Sam was pounding this bit. I’d never seen a guy kill like that.
Barton: They used to have a campaign called the Coffee Achievers. They were looking to show comedians drinking coffee, and so a showcase was arranged in ’83, ’84. There was an ad agent, a casting agent, and they were going to have comedians do material. All these comedians got up in their coats and ties doing this ... and there I was drinking my coffee ... They were being very clean and very serious. This was past the stage where Sam was wearing a coat and tie. Sam had taken to wearing sunglasses, smoking onstage, wearing a dark leather jacket, having the lights dimmed and spooky music playing as he got onstage. All the other comedians prepared special material; they showered, they shaved. Sam prepared for this showcase by taking acid. He timed it—and he said to me, “I am so self-destructive, I can’t believe it”—to where he was peaking when he went onstage. He opened his act by saying, “Did you see those other comedians? Did you like them? Did they make you laugh? Yeah, well, I just want you to know this is the first time I’ve performed since I got out of prison. I was put in prison for killing my wife and my two daughters, barely 10 years old.” Somebody chuckled at it, and Sam goes, “Is that funny to you, pal? Is that a joke? This is my f--king life we’re talking about.” Really got mad at the guy. He got the audience’s complete attention, and he said, “The only reason they let me out is every year I go before the parole board. They would say, ‘Why’d you do it, Mr. Kinison?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what could possess me.’ It was this last year when they said, ‘Why’d you do it, Mr. Kinison? Why did you take an ax to those you loved the most?’ And I was finally able to tell them, ‘It was because of COFFEE! Coffee made me kill! Coffee made me kill!’” He went from one end of the stage to the other yelling, “Coffee made me kill!” Then he saw someone with a coffee cup and goes, “What is that? What is that? What do you have there?” He took that coffee and poured it into his mouth like it was this bubbling brew, and he went, “Oh! Oh! It’s happening again! It’s happening again! Oh! Oh! God!” He went screaming up through the aisle, out into the alley. He took great pride in the fact that they cancelled the showcase and pulled the campaign.
Jimmy Shubert, comic: I met Kinison in probably 1984 at the Comedy Store. He was running with a group that included Carl LaBove, and he was definitely not famous yet, but there was something about him right from the beginning. He was one of those comics’ comics. When he went onstage, all the comics would run in to watch him. Sam was doing something really unique. He would go on late, and last, in the Main Room on Mondays, and he started to get a following of porn stars and movie stars; John Landis; Saturday Night Live alumni would come in. He was one of the guys where you go, “You’ve gotta go see this guy.” This was before Sam broke huge.
One night he was doing his Monday night Main Room show, which was the show all those people would show up at. I was sitting on my motorcycle backstage, just kind of hanging out, and someone said, “You gonna ride your motorcycle out there?” ... I started the motorcycle up, kind of gunning it, and people could hear it back there. They opened the curtain, I drove out onstage and I said, “Last call! By the way, your ride’s here!” Sam was onstage doing his thing, and he looked at me and goes, “Let’s do it! Let’s do it! AAAHHH! AAAHHH!” He jumped on the back of the motorcycle, I turned it around, and I drove up the steps and into the backstage area. But I didn’t stop; we kept going. We went down the hallway and literally right out onto Sunset Boulevard. Sam had a death grip on my rib cage. We got out on the road in one piece, thank God, and we made a turn at the light to go back, and he goes, “You’re a crazy motherf--ker!” And I said, “Hey, you’re not so bad yourself!” We came back down to the Comedy Store to like 40 people running out of the building because they heard the motorcycle going right through the building, so they came out to see where we went. We got back, and they’re all out on the sidewalk applauding. I pulled up, let Sam off and drove home. I just thought it was a good story, but the next time I saw him it was like two weeks later on a Monday night. I walk backstage and I hear, “Jimmy Shubert! Get over here, you crazy motherf--ker!” He’s standing with Laraine Newman and Randy Quaid from Saturday Night Live. He introduced me and tells them the story about how f--king great it was, how cool it was. To hear him tell it, it was something special. From that point on we were good buds.
Saget: He would do things at 2 in the morning, standard ad-libs of his, that would refer to their unborn children in a horrific way, and they would walk out. He would have the same line every night at the same time, at like 1:30, to make sure they left and didn’t come back. It was the way a comedian says, “I’m walkin’ ’em. If they walk out, if they can’t handle it, this is what I’m doing. This is my voice.”
Louie Anderson, comic: The Original Room at the Comedy Store: I’d heard this guy was going on, and I’m not a guy who likes to stay up late, even back then. Mitzi was putting him on at like 1:30. I’d heard he was terrific, so I stayed around one night. Every once in a while you see someone who’s completely original. At first, it’s like everything that’s completely original: It’s shocking. As a comic, I was able to quickly grasp just how great it was, just how groundbreaking and utterly amazing. What he was saying was going to have an impact one way or another. I didn’t know the exact impact, but I absolutely knew that he was either going to make people really mad, or make people really happy.
Charlie Viracola, comic: He had this red corvette that said “Ex Rev” on the back, and he used to blaze into the Comedy Store. I used to kind of admire that. That was back when the comics would all sneak out back and get high, smoke pot, do coke, whatever it was that you were doing at the time. And I was graciously accepted into that group because I had long hair and was a little hippie comedian, and I knew the right people. So I would go behind the Comedy Store or up to the house that Mitzi owned up at the top of the hill behind the Comedy Store, and we would get high and talk about comedy.
Saget: A lot of the stories are a lot worse than what you’ve heard. Starting in comedy in LA in the early ’80s is like being sentenced to the first 40 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. And that’s what I loved about Sam: He was always in the trenches. And he never wanted to get out of the trenches. That’s where comedy is found.
Barton: He once dragged a television set up onstage and watched TV with the audience and just made comments about what was on TV. Before the drugs and alcohol really took effect, the year before he made it famous and the year after he made it famous, he just was a monster onstage. He blew up the Comedy Store like no one’s ever blown it up. The room would explode. He would go on after midnight, and he had 20 minutes that would just absolutely, utterly destroy. Once he was in the middle of his act, he turned to the crowd and he went, “Okay, you people love me, right? You think I’m a great comedian, right?” He says, “Okay, now I’m gonna turn you against me, and then I’m gonna get you back.” He began to tear into that audience to the point where people were getting their coats and leaving. And then he said, “You hate me now, right?” and people booed. He said, “Okay, now I’m gonna get you back.” And he got them back.
Jim Mendrinos, comic: I was working at the Comic Strip in New York, and Sam was couch-surfing with a lot of different people, but he had gotten into the Comic Strip, and automatically he was the best comic in the club. There was just no doubt about it.
Sam would watch from the sound room while I was onstage. After doing this two or three times and finally starting to find my way, I came offstage one night and he said, “You know, you’re doing these jokes, and they’re really good, but here’s how you can make them better.” That was my first introduction to Sam. And from there we went drinking, partying all the time. We used to frequent an after-hours place in New York City called the Home Bar. We would leave the Strip, go there and just drink until the sun came up, then a whole bunch of nights he would crash on my mom’s couch. As a 20-year-old, that was about the most fun you could have.
Home Bar started to get a lot of comics, because wherever Sam went, comics would follow. We would all wind up hanging out at Home Bar, and he got more and more comics every time. Home Bar decided, “Since we’re going to have comics here, let’s do a comedy show.” So it would be literally 2 in the morning, they’d start a show, and comics would do a few minutes. Sam had broken up with the lady he had been seeing earlier in the day. He went up behind the microphone, and he did over two hours, from 2 in the morning ’til 4 in the morning, on his failed relationship. Stuff that had never been done before, and I never saw him do after. It was all brilliant and all wonderfully funny. We just sat there mesmerized at his ability to weave the story and to bring this thing to the stage. We also sat there cursing our own talent that we didn’t have the ability to do that.
That would be very late ’84 or very early ’85.
The sheer amount of liquor consumption that he could go though was breathtaking. I tended to drink until the bar closed but Sam was just ... beyond. We drank so much at the Home Bar, and we were in there so good, that they gave us keys.
There was a disastrous night we borrowed a car, went to New Hampshire, did the gig, got thoroughly soused, then flipped a coin to see which of us was going to be the most sober. I, of course, won, the really sad part of which was that I had no license. I’m driving back on back roads, we got pulled over, and Sam was such a personality that instead of both of us winding up arrested he actually convinced the officer to let us sit in a diner until we sobered up.
Barton: Rodney [Dangerfield] used to come backstage to Sam’s shows in LA. The first time was in Houston, the second time was when Sam went to New York and went to Dangerfield’s and saw Rodney onstage and got word to him that he was there. Rodney invited him backstage and talked to him. They stayed in touch over the years. Sam showcased for his 1985 Young Comedians HBO special, and according to Sam, he had a full crowd, packed crowd, great night ... and Sam cleared the room. They just didn’t get what he was doing. Rodney went up to him and said, “Hey, kid, you took the hard way!” He didn’t include Sam on the show and then there was a falling-out. That’s when Rodney called him up and said, “Hey, I want you to be on the show.” And that was the start of Sam’s career. He called it the six minutes that changed his life.
“Well, I’m sorry I’m late. I was supposed to be here a little earlier, but I just spent the last two hours at a 7-Eleven going, ‘Marlboro! Marlboro! Cigarettes! Smokey-smokey! You don’t even speak English! How the f--k did you get this job? I should have shot your ass in Da Nang when I had the chance!’”
–Rodney Dangerfield’s 9th Annual Young Comedians Special, August 3, 1985
Rita Rudner, comic: I remember him coming off and everyone getting so excited, saying, “That was it! That’s going to hit!” And they were absolutely right. That was the thing that propelled him into the public consciousness. That was the one night that would change his whole career.
Saget: My biggest break was when Rodney Dangerfield put me in his Young Comedians’ show right after Sam. Regis Philbin was the guy that warmed up the audience and introduced Rodney. It was at Dangerfield’s in New York City, and it was a big night for all of us: Louie Anderson, Yakov Smirnoff, Richie Gold, Bob Nelson, Rita Rudner. There was a lot of partying going on. Sam was going out of his mind, because he had arrived.
Anderson: Sam was in the middle of the pack. That was a red-hot crowd. When Sam got done, honestly, there needed to be oxygen pumped back into the room. No one was looking forward to performing after he was done. The New York audience saw something for the first time that was somewhat their sensibility: that cynicism, that edge. I dreaded going on that night, but luckily I went on last, so they had recovered to some degree. It must have been terrible for Bob.
Tammy Pescatelli, comic: I had videotaped the Rodney Dangerfield special and wrote down Sam’s act verbatim in Spanish class. As I passed it in a note to my friend, the teacher found it and was mortified. I was a good kid; I never got in much trouble, so I’m sitting down in the office and the vice principal says, “What are you down here for?” I showed him the letter, and he called the shop teacher, and they proceeded to shut the door and read it out loud with me there and just laughed and laughed and laughed and said, “Hey, can I keep this?” So he got me in trouble, and he got me out of trouble. It helped me to learn that if you can make the right people laugh, things can go your way.
Eddie Brill, comic and Letterman talent coordinator: When I watched the Rodney Dangerfield HBO special, that’s when I first ever saw him. I thought, “Oh, my God, this guy’s fantastic!” A very short time after that I was at Catch a Rising Star in New York and he walked in to do a guest set. I went, “Oh, there’s the guy from that special!”
“We’re in for something now, folks. My next guest is making his network television debut tonight, and we believe it’s long overdue. He is one of the strangest and most original comedians working today. Brace yourself. I’m not kidding. Please welcome Sam Kinison.”
–David Letterman, November 14, 1985
Caroline Hirsch, owner of Carolines on Broadway: He played there in 1986, and it was my first club, which was on 8th Avenue and 26th Street. It was a wild, wild week. I remember every night watching his friends stopping by to guest-set with him. I do remember Robin Williams being in there most of the nights, and his family being there with him, his brother, his mom, his whole family coming to see him in New York, and he took care of everyone. He made sure everybody had hotel rooms.
It was also the week of the shuttle crash. We were on pins and needles about when the first joke would come out that he would make about the shuttle. But the shuttle crashed, I believe, on a Tuesday night or something, and we were like, “Oh my God, I hope he doesn’t make a joke about any of this.” I think it probably made it out on a Saturday night.
I can see him with the beret and the long coat. That’s the vision I have of him. Mouth wide open, and it was always the joke about moving from the desert: “You can’t raise anything there! So just goddamn move!”
It was kind of like the beginning of his arrival.
“[He made] his network television debut on this program a few months back, and we’re just now recovering from the initial shock. Now if you’re brave enough, he can be seen in person this week at Caroline’s right here in Manhattan. Please welcome, and hang on to something, Sam Kinison.”
–David Letterman, January 27, 1986.
LOUDER THAN HELL
Saget: Rodney put him in Back to School, and he played the teacher. Sam took no time. He right away got all the minks and the jewelry, and he walked the walk. He went absolutely nutty and turned into a giant urban legend. Everybody was coming to the Comedy Store, and then he started doing concerts. He just blew up.
Pescatelli: In Back to School, that great character he plays, he was one of the first comics who made that transition by playing himself.
Barton: The director of Back To School, Alan Metter, said about Sam: “Sam Kinison is the only comedian I’ve met who enjoys his success.”
Dayvid Figler, Las Vegas author and attorney: There was a recurring Comedy Store show in the main showroom at the Dunes. It was pretty regular at one point. Mitzi Shore was involved, so she was there on some occasions. Louie Anderson was kind of heavy on that, too. Some friends took me to a show on my birthday in August of ’86. It was Sam, Mitchell Walters, Carl LaBove, Steve Kravitz and Allan Stephan.
Anderson: None of us were Vegas performers at that time. It opened the whole town to us. Mitzi was really smart: I don’t think anyone had more than 10 or 15 minutes onstage, so there was no way to steal or take the show from one another. For me, it was a jump-starting place. For Sam, it was like a guy who’s playing in the minor leagues and he’s hitting .500. People just go, “What’s going to happen?” Well what isn’t going to happen? He’s going to get everything he wants. You knew it right away.
Mendrinos: I think it was February or March of ’87, and I had not seen Sam in over a year, although we called each other every once in a while. Me and my first wife were standing outside of a Woolworths on Second Avenue. All of the sudden I am grabbed from behind and this huge, booming voice is there, “I heard you got married! You’re in hell! AAAHHH! AAAHHH!” screaming in my ear, and I’m laughing hysterically. My poor wife at the time was terrified and was actually hitting him to try and get him off.
Shubert: He was the first guy to talk about marriage like that: “I was married for FOUR F--KING YEARS!” Just classic comedy. It’s still good by today’s standards, there’s no question about that.
Rudner: We always saw each other in the comedy clubs and said hello, and then one night I was playing one club and he was playing some place else—I think we were in Tampa—and he and his girlfriend, Malika [Souiri], came over, and we hung out together and had a nice long talk. We just got along really well, and whenever I’d see him, he’d tell me how he was straightening up. It was funny, always trying, saying, “I’m moving to Malibu because the problem is I’m too close to where the parties are. Then if I’m in Malibu and there’s a party on the Sunset Strip, I can’t get there.” And then he drove into the Strip anyway. He was just that kind of guy.
Sabrina Stephan (formerly Souiri), comic and Vegas native: He invited me to his show at the Dunes. I swear to God the sweetest voice you’ve ever heard was on the answering machine. He was like, “Hi, this is Sam Kinison. I’m calling for Sabrina, and I wanted to invite her to my show tonight.” My sister said that he would be calling, but she was like, “Oh, I told him that you were a big fan, that you’d seen his act. Just go along with the story.” I was like, “Okay, cool.”
So I go to the show and honestly I didn’t think he was all that funny until he did the U-Haul joke. A lot of the jokes were just flying over my head. So I go backstage and I wanted to thank him for the tickets. When he saw me, I had this black velvet dress on, very Audrey Hepburn, with my little braces and hair. He was staring at me, and it was so out in the open I finally was like, “How come you’re looking at me that way?” He goes, “I’m really just sorry. You’re not what I expected.” I said, “Well what did you expect?” He said, “I thought a little Malika would show up.” ’Cause Malika’s more of a wild girl. And he goes, “And you show up, and it’s just kind of throwing me off.” I started laughing, and I’m like, “Well, you know, it happens.”
Allen Stephan: She was a baby. My God, when she started hanging with us, she was 15 years old. I think her sister was like seven years older.
Sabrina Stephan: I had been working since I was 5. I had to change my act because I was outgrowing it and my sister was ditching me at every turn. It was a sister act. We were belly dancers. [A producer] said, “You should become a comedian. You do all these impressions and stuff.” So when I saw Sam and the Outlaws blow through town, a big light bulb went off in my head. They were talking about their real dysfunctional lives, which is always hysterical, like, “Oh my God, my family’s screwed up as them.” I spent every waking second listening to the shows and listening to the albums. I don’t think people realize I was as involved in his career as I was.
I was very aware of substance abuse problems when I was younger because my sister liked to get down, and a lot of people in Vegas did. I just kind of numbed myself to it, went on my merry way. Sam would always go, “Hey little kid, you want some?” And I would go, “No, Mr.-who-pulls-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-and-asks-the-kid-to-get-in-the-car, luring-her-with-candy. No!” I’d say, “You are the poster child for the reason why I shouldn’t do them. How many times are you not going to understand that?” People that were there look back and say, “How come we didn’t call Children’s Protective Services on you?” I’m like, “I don’t know, why didn’t you?”
Booth: In ’87, my band and I had a major record contract. I had money, and I had drugs, and this night we were at a hotel. Sam used to always wear this trench coat, and I remember he used to say it shielded him from evil. He was giving me this big long speech about how wearing this trench coat has kept him from being a drug addict ... while he’s snorting these huge lines of coke. He was literally telling me how he had quit drugs, he was sober, he was born again, the whole speech, while he was snorting these giant lines of cocaine.
Figler: When I went to school in Arizona I booked Kinison in our Centennial Hall, which was our brand new concert hall. That would have been spring of ’88. He was huge. He had a really big fee, and it was a big chance we were taking. Our campus had gone dry. In the rider he had all these liquor requirements, and the University wouldn’t approve it, so we had to go buy it on our own and sneak it in. Then he came out and had the Jack in his hand in this concert hall. We were freaking out trying to get him to go back in. He was already way gone. We got a little bit of grief—he had the “Cunnilingus Alphabet” bit—and we got into a bit of hot water. They were thinking about shutting it down. Then they decided he was so engaged with the crowd that they would have a problem on their hands. But they were definitely trying to cut it off. I was just trying to keep everyone calm: “It’s just words! It’s just words!”
Backstage after the show he was really, really sloppy. He went through at least one full bottle of Jack from the beginning of the show to the end. That’s a lot of alcohol for anybody. I was trying to push him out, but he was trying to stay back and talk to everybody who wanted to talk to him backstage. He was so nice. So drunk, but so nice. Just the most gracious, gregarious drunk I’ve ever seen.
Barton: And then Kevin died. After Kevin died, that was just kind of it. He never really got over it.
Shubert: His younger brother Kevin committed suicide. He went through this grieving period and was trying to numb all this pain, which was totally understandable. I think what happened was he was stuck with all these addictions that he created for himself while he was trying to numb the pain.
Brill: His brother Kevin and I became like best friends. And Kevin unfortunately took his own life. He was a really sweet, sweet man. I didn’t know he was as troubled as he was, but I really enjoyed being his friend, and he really looked up to his brother. I can’t put words in Kevin’s head, but I guess he couldn’t live up to his brother’s talent or something like that.
Allan Stephan: By then Kevin was gone. I don’t know what drugs he did. There was a period there when I wasn’t hanging out, but apparently Kevin went over the top and never came back. And I think Sam felt some responsibility for that, so that might have been some of his pain.
Sabrina Stephan: That’s one of the times I severely tried to block out. I spent my 18th birthday in the basement of the China Club with Sam and a gun. The owners wanted him out after three days, and he wouldn’t leave. It was just he “should have been there for Kevin,” the darkest, most dismal thing.
The owners thought it was all fun and games the first day or two, and then they were like, “Okay, get out.” And then when there were the shots, I don’t remember who he was shooting at, I just remember putting my arms over my head, going, “Oh, just get me out of here.”
Allan Stephan: It just got very hard. Was his brother an escalating point? I think it was just an excuse. If you know anything about drug addicts and drunks, excuses are their favorite thing. If a woman dumped him, that was the excuse. So for a while I think Kevin was the excuse to continue his bingeing.
Next week: In Part 2, comedy insiders recall Kinison’s relationship with Rodney Dangerfield, his Vegas exploits and escalating drug use—and his unexpected death.