Heading east on the Sunset Strip just after dark, Sam Kinison swung his black convertible BMW into traffic, sliding past a pair of slow-moving trucks and zipping through a yellow light, aiming for the dark recesses of Hollywood Boulevard.
With the Pentacostal preacher-turned-Gonzo comic hero at the wheel, this wasn't a routine Grey Line Hollywood excursion. Call it . . . a Sightseeing Trip From Hell.
Slowing for a red light, Kinison spotted his first landmark--a popular heavy-metal hangout called the Rainbow. "Uggggggh!" he said. "I used to go there, but have you seen the kind of girls that end up there? I mean, if you took one of them home with you--them all loaded with methadone--who knows what could happen?"
Down the block, high above the Strip, was a billboard promoting a Las Vegas appearance by Liza Minnelli. Suddenly Kinison spun his head around to look at the billboard--a vandal had blackened both of Minnelli's front teeth. "I love that," he said, laughing uproariously, tugging on his trademark beret. "Sort of ruins the whole look, doesn't it?"
The comic turned onto Hollywood Boulevard only to run into a phalanx of police, who had blocked off the street for the premiere of the new U2 concert film, "U2 Rattle and Hum." The police, assuming that Kinison was on his way to the premiere, waved him through.
Any doubts about Kinison's edgy emotional bond with the MTV Generation were immediately erased as he slowly cruised past a pair of packed grandstands opposite the Mann's Chinese Theatre. As soon as his BMW approached the theater, an enormous roar erupted from the crowd.
Kinison beamed. He raised his huge torso out from behind the steering wheel, turned to the bleachers and offered his fans his favorite greeting, a bone-crushing banshee wail.
Just as happy saluting a malevolent comic as its idealistic rock idols, the U2 crowd answered with a roar of its own. "With any other celebrity, people come up and say, 'Hey, I really like your work,' " Kinison said, wagging his head. "But with my fans, when they see me, they don't even say hello. They just go, 'AWWWWWGHGHHHGHGHRRR!' "
The Mouth That Roared. The Outlaw Comic. The Most Dangerous Man in Show Business. The 34-year-old Sam Kinison deserves a heavyweight title--and not just because he has the beefy bulk of a caveman who's fattened up for the winter by feasting on a slab of freshly slaughtered bison.
Kinison burst to comedy-scene stardom in 1986, thanks to slash 'n' burn performances at the Comedy Store, guest shots on HBO, "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman" and a scorching cameo as a deranged Viet-vet history teacher in Rodney Dangerfield's comic hit movie, "Back to School."
Pacing the stage, swaddled in a huge tweed coat, he's a raging comic bull. Fueled by venom and anger, each attack punctuated by his window-rattling primal scream, Kinison overwhelms your senses with confrontational fury. Hearing his high-decibel tantrums, you sense that you've stumbled onto a monstrous new mutation--Heavy-Metal Comedy.
Cackling with glee, Kinison takes aim at:
Women: "I don't worry about terrorism. I was married for TWO YEARS !"
AIDS: "Heterosexuals die of it too? NAME ONE !"
MTV's Rock Against Drugs campaign: "Somebody must've been high when they came up with that title. It's like Christians Against Christ. Rock CREATED drugs!"
Fallen TV preacher Jim Bakker: "He's lost everything. He's ruined. And the worst thing of all is he still has to wake up to HER !"
Lost love: " DIE ! I WANT MY RECORDS BACK !"
Kinison's new album, "Have You Seen Me Lately," became a cause celebre even before its release. According to sources at Warner Bros. Records, staffers engaged in a bitter debate, with some executives arguing against distributing the album at all, citing Kinison's ugly AIDS jokes and ridicule of safe sex practices.
Now in the stores, the album offers two warning stickers, including a novel disclaimer ("The material on this album does not reflect the views or opinions of Warner Records") that supposedly distances the record label from its own artist. After more pressure from gay activists and label insiders, Warners has also announced that future pressings of the album will contain an AIDS information sheet, which describes AIDS as "an equal opportunity disease" and counsels that AIDS victims "deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry."
Warners executive Bob Merlis insists that the information sheet is not an antidote to Kinison's album, in which Kinison claims that heterosexuals have never contracted AIDS. "It's not a retort to his routine," said Merlis. "It was a pre-existing fact sheet."
If it wasn't for the ferocity of his material, it would be tempting to dismiss Kinison as just another nasty Shock Comic. Though his act is often mean-spirited and misogynist, he's one of the few comics today who echoes any of Lenny Bruce's blasphemous social satire or Richard Pryor's wild, emotional tumult. Amid a generation of comics who only offer timid topical humor, Kinison's raw spirit of abandon seems liberating by comparison.
It's easy to see why a barbed satirist like Randy Newman was an immediate convert--Kinison refuses to worship any sacred cows. In fact, what gives his routines such subversive force is the gleeful way he swaggers into forbidden territory, bashing such fashionable social concerns as AIDS, safe sex, the homeless and African famine victims. "There are things you either laugh or cry at," Kinison has said. "And you just can't cry."
Whether the blood-thirsty head-bangers who populate his audience appreciate such subtleties is another matter. Most of his critics don't think so. Several reviewers have compared his concert to a tawdry mud-wrestling show. Others have called him a demagogue. Gay activists already have blasted his "reprehensible" new AIDS routine while Los Angeles Herald-Examiner columnist Mitchell Fink attacked it as "thoroughly vile and disgusting."
Calendar's Lawrence Christon (see article below) has noted that the rise of Kinison coincides with a "mounting troglodyte sensibility of the Rambo-ized American audience," adding that it's often impossible to distinguish "the sadistic laughter, the brainless chants and mean-spirited glee" of Kinison's audience and Wally George's "gallery of yahoos."
Still, Kinison has his defenders. Rodney Dangerfield has championed him from the beginning. He's a cult hero among heavy-metal bands like Motley Crue, Poison and Ratt, who often jam with the comic at the end of his shows. Another fan is Robin Williams, who once signed a lease for Kinison when no one else would give him an apartment.
MCA Records chairman Irving Azoff, who owns Front Line Management, which handles Kinison's career, is also a big booster. "He's not so crazy," Azoff said. "Compared to the people I deal with in the record business, he's like Mother Teresa. I can really identify with his material, especially his rap on marriage. One day he was over at the office and all I could think of was--'I've got to get him to call my wife and have him yell at her.' "
Squeezing into a booth at a popular West Hollywood bistro ("Geez, I gotta lose some weight!"), Kinison seemed relaxed and surprisingly subdued. Wearing a fashionable jacket and weighing in at more than 200 pounds, he spoke freely about his detractors, his unlikely upbringing and his ill fortune with women. As he waited for a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, he sipped a Coke and tried to analyze why his act has inspired such indignation and disapproval.
"I'm not putting myself in any comedy hall of fame or anything, but every generation has someone who steps outside the norm and offers a voice for the unspeakable attitudes of that time," he explained. "My shows are like rock concerts. I represent everything that was supposed to be wrong, everything that's forbidden.
"It's funny--nobody minds this stuff when (poet) Charles Bukowski does it. Here's a guy who goes to hell in every story--'Here I am, reporting on life from hell !'--but because I'm out on stage and reaching more people, I get in trouble."
Kinison has thinly veiled contempt for today's Diet Comedy. "So many of these comics are just frustrated singers or actors--they want to get a gig doing a sitcom," he said. "It's paint-by-the-numbers comedy, lame joke-telling. They're drawn to it as a career move. If I stand out, it's 'cause I'm not doing (expletive) 'Star Search' comedy."
But what about his attacks on AIDS victims, his ridicule of safe sex practices? "Give me a break," Kinison said cooly. "Do all your jokes have to be medically correct? What am I responsible for? Who am I responsible to? Everybody? How come when Archie Bunker nailed everybody, it was funny--but when I do it, it's not?
"I'm responsible. I even did a commercial for MTV saying how I was going to register to vote." He giggled. "And I still haven't."
"Listen, safe sex--wearing rubbers--it's all a good thing, OK? But we're living in such a controlled society. People want to restrict everything. They don't want us to have any fun anymore. I just can't buy that. And I can't be responsible for the way every single person reacts to my act.
"I think people get anger out of their system by seeing me--I give 'em a vicarious thrill. But you can't ignore anger. If the gay community thinks there isn't a major resentment by the American public for the disease they've caused, then they're (expletive) nuts."
Kinison shrugged. "Listen, it's still comedy. And I can't see people using jokes I tell to replace any wisdom they've learned in their lives."
He flashed a thin smile. "So I say--let 'em have it!"
Down With Rehab
Back on the Sunset Strip, the Sightseeing Trip From Hell rolled by the Comedy Store, the stand-up club where Kinison first performed when he hit town in the early '80s.
"I (expletive) hate that place--it's dead now!" growled Kinison, who's feuding with owner Mitzi Shore. "We had a major split-up." Kinison eyed a billboard across the street. "Just my luck," he groaned. "That's where my billboard's going up--right across from the Dead Zone!"
Kinison kicked the car into the gear and hit the passing lane. "You should've seen him taking us around the Big Island in Hawaii," said his assistant, riding in the back seat. "He's driving through the rain forest at 80 m.p.h. and we're saying, 'Sam, could you please slow down so we could see the scenery?' "
Kinison drummed on the steering wheel. "I love Hawaii. It's my getaway. Why pay 13 grand for three weeks in rehab and be trapped in the same room with some guy with scabies when you can go to the Big Island for two weeks, have a pool, lots of sun, a beautiful beach. . . ."
Kinison cackled. "And save $8,000 bucks!"
Heading up toward Hollywood Boulevard, Kinison fell silent for a moment. "Rehab. (Expletive) rehab. That's gonna be my next batch of material. I've got plenty of venom saved up for that. It's a total rip-off. My little brother went in twice, for a drinking problem and other stuff, and they never cured him. They never got to the root of his unhappiness. They put him on Lithium, but after he got out he just stopped taking it, instead of coming off it gradually."
His Brother's Suicide
Asked what happened, the comic answered: "He just must've lost it. He got so depressed that he went into his back room and. . . ." Kinison put a finger to his head. "He killed himself. Great cure, huh? They get you addicted to something else and now the guy's dead and still no one knows what was beneath all the pain."
Kinison's elastic voice, which can soar to an angry tirade or droop to a breathy death rattle, had the chill of ice. "He was 28 and he was a good kid. He just broke down."
Kinison grew up in the capital of Middle America, Peoria, Ill., living upstairs in a huge ramshackle church his parents had bought when they became Pentacostal preachers. "My folks spoke in tongues," he recalled. "They laid hands on people. They really believed in healing. I never realized until later on how poor we were. But it was pretty humiliating for me as a kid. I never had friends over because I was so ashamed of the way we lived."
When Kinison was in third grade, his parents threw a surprise party for his birthday. "I was (expletive) crushed. I'd never let these kids see the way I lived. They had no idea. Then suddenly, they're all over at the church, seeing all that stuff, how poor we were. I couldn't stand it."
At 15, he ran away from home. When he returned, his parents sent him to Bible college in Upstate New York. He ran away again. He came back home at 18 after his father died. "I felt lost--I no longer believed in God at all," Kinison said quietly. "I'd felt my father totally wasted his life. He'd died completely broke. We didn't even have any money for a gravestone.
"It got to the point where my life seemed surreal. So, at age 18, I decided--this can never happen to me. I've got to make something of my life."
Kinison said his faith eventually returned and he became a Pentacostal preacher. At 21 he got married. "We both loved God," he said. "We were like Mr. and Mrs. Oral Roberts." Within two years, the marriage fell apart. "I don't think she thought I'd ever be successful. And I caught her in several affairs, which caused me incredible pain--terrible pain. It made me feel that the dream wasn't real."
At 25, Kinison was divorced and losing steam as a preacher: "I was getting too hip for the room."
He took up comedy, saying he was eager for social acceptance. He also fell in love with an actress, who promptly left him. Attempting to make her jealous, he immediately married another woman, a union that also ended in divorce, he said.
"It's just like I tell it in my routines," he said. "It's all true. My life was hell ! So one night in '82, I went on stage and it all hooked in. I felt like hell. I told everyone how rotten my life was--I just let it all out. And it worked.
"Rodney Dangerfield has his I-don't-get-no-respect bit. With me, it's marriage-is-hell." Kinison laughed. "And believe me, there's a big audience for that!"
He tapped his plate. "Every comic has to define themselves. For me, it's this primal scream of a bad marriage. It's life not turning out the way you'd always thought. I think lots of people have that reality in their lives, but it's just too painful for them to deal with."
Kinison eyes glinted. "So I deal with it."
How Kinison has dealt with his career is another story. MTV frequently uses Kinison as a guest veejay and emcee (he's hosting the video network's New Year's Eve broadcast) but he once showed up two hours late for an MTV Video Awards press conference. He also got in hot water with "Saturday Night Live" for appearing on the show with a routine cleared by network censors, then adding forbidden drug jokes at the last minute. ("It just came into my head," he said slyly.)
His most notorious escapade was "Atuk," an ill-fated United Artists movie vehicle (he played an Eskimo who became a media darling) that was shut down after eight days of shooting earlier this year. Who caused the debacle is open to debate.
Kinison blames his former manager, Elliot Abbott, who he claims told Kinison that he could rewrite the film script before shooting began--while telling UA the opposite. Once Kinison realized he didn't have creative control, all hell broke loose. "I did not walk off the picture," Kinison insists. "They shut it down. I was very professional. I even went to dog-sled school so I'd be prepared for the part. They tried to find someone to replace me and only when they couldn't did they shut it down."
Abbott insisted that both UA and director Alan Metter "welcomed" Kinison's input. "Everybody encouraged Sam to rewrite dialogue," said Abbott. "The problem was that Sam and his writers didn't get any of the new pages in until the day before filming began--and even then it was obvious Sam hadn't really read them. I think it was the case of a great comedic mind who couldn't focus on the work at hand."
When relations between Kinison and the production deteriorated, Abbott said several UA execs flew in for a meeting. "Sam behaved very badly," he said. "He was adamant that if he was forced to make the film that he'd just walk through the role. Then he threatened to go on talk shows and badmouth the picture. You can imagine how that behavior went over with executives who were about to sign a $15 million check to finance the film. They saw the writing on the wall and decided to cut their losses."
Abbott and Kinison split up shortly thereafter. "I hadn't seen a talent like Sam in years," said Abbott, who has managed numerous pop musicians, including Randy Newman. "But I realized I was dealing with someone who couldn't reciprocate. You have to be a professional in this business. Sometimes Sam was tremendous--and sometimes he was absolutely impossible."
Shortly after the Alan Metter-directed film shut down, UA filed a $5.6-million lawsuit against Kinison and Abbott (who was also the film's executive producer) in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing them for breach of contract and fraud.
(A UA spokeswoman said it was company policy to not comment about lawsuits while in litigation).
Several sources close to UA confirmed that the studio tried to replace Kinison, but all were critical of the comic's behavior. "It was very ugly," one said. "He made all sorts of outrageous, obnoxious demands--and threats--as if he were a huge star already."
How out-of-control is Kinison?
"He's been known to not show up when he's supposed to show up," acknowledged Chris Albrecht, senior vice president of original programming at HBO. "But when he was doing our special, he wasn't difficult. Well, not extraordinarily difficult."
Albrecht remains a fan, but with reservations. "When I first dealt with Sam, his ego was in check. But as he developed a cult reputation, his attitude changed--he started traveling with an entourage, which is usually a bad sign. Sam's very headstrong in terms of his career. And some people could interpret that stubbornness as self-destructiveness."
While having his picture taken at a Hollywood Boulevard mural, Kinison found himself cornered by a wild-eyed street person. Clearly a fan ("Hey, I know you from TV!"), the toothless man bummed cigarettes, volunteered several lengthy monologues about religious faith and badgered everyone on the scene for spare change.
If Kinison was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. In fact, he began jabbering away with the bum, apparently curious to see if he could make any sense of his ravings. Finally, when the man began raising his voice and muttering incoherently, Kinison quietly asked his assistant to bring him some money. She returned with a white envelope, bulging with cash, which apparently serves as Kinison's wallet.
The comic took out a $20 bill and handed it to his toothless visitor. The man grinned, shouted his thanks and scurried away, as if worried that his benefactor might change his mind and take the money back. Slapping the envelope of cash in his palm, Kinison shouted, "You owe me, pal!"
Sam Kinison has survived a rocky family life. Two bad marriages. The blow-up of his ill-fated feature film ("I was Mr. Box-Office Poison," he now boasts. "My agents, CAA, they didn't just drop me. They didn't call to hear my side of the story--they didn't even call to cuss me out!").
He's even weathered constant rumors of rampant drug use and outrageous misbehavior. "I've heard it all," he acknowledged. "I do party a lot. But I don't let it interfere with my business. There's been some hard drinking, some hard living. But I've pulled away from the amounts of stuff I used to do, especially since my little brother passed away. I've gotten a lot more serious--and started taking myself seriously."
He poked at his spaghetti. "Rodney (Dangerfield) taught me early on. You show up. You do your job. And then you go out and get wild."
Still, the question remains--is Kinison a bully? With so many deserving targets available for his unerring satirical blasts, why take aim on people with AIDS, on the homeless and the starving? Is there any room for compassion in his comedy?
He doesn't seem particularly impressed by that line of questioning. "Hey, I've been down on my luck," he responded. "I've slept in the streets. I've spent the night in cars. I just think I'm dealing with reality. All I ever said about the people starving in Ethiopia was--hey, how about the homeless right here on our streets?
"I feel sorry for people with AIDS. I felt sorry for Rock Hudson. I never made fun of the guy, just his rage and frustration. There's a difference. I'm not upset with gays, but I am upset because I have to wear rubbers because of AIDS."
So how far does Kinison want to take his humor? How much shock can we stand?
"Let me put it this way," he said, leaning across the table. "I'm always trying to figure out how I can make the audience feel what I feel. If I'm in pain, if I'm (upset), then I want them to feel it. It's as if I'm trying to slap people in the face with the truth--but raw, nasty truth--and say, 'How do you feel about that? ' "