When asked last week if I could contribute today, I said yes, because satisfying the request seemed more definite than the possibility of could, or the ability of can, and ranked up there with the obligatory shall. I must contribute today, and so prepared humorous resources and online links to gird my humble opinion into resplendent truth.
And then I was hit by a car.
Thankfully, I had my own car surrounding me at the time to prevent significant damage, but my opinion in truth, unattended this past week, grew desperate in need of a blacksmith and some polish for its brilliant panoply, as I was in need of medical and mechanical attention. But here I am, without my original idea, inspired to write something else—more fitting to my present circumstances.
Sam Kinison came into my life at the impressionable age when children choose sports teams and musical genres to define them. My family had cable in the 1980s, and not just cable but HBO. They later regretted the lack of supervision they placed on their children’s television habits, but before you assume poor parenting remember the time and place. America in the 1980s was Dickensian dichotomy: the best of times and the worst of times, capitalism vs. communism, televangelism vs. the Devil, AT&T vs. MCI. Baby Boomers cared more about their social status than the state of society, and the family unit fell apart from rampant divorce and parental apathy. Preachers, teachers, and politicians condemned the arts for drug abuse and questionable morals while the same vocal minority were caught trafficking their own vice. Cocaine fueled the American dream, but I didn’t know what made it run. Like many children I was just glad it went fast and loud.
Basketball was fast. Magic, Larry, and Michael. Music was faster. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen were the technical greats, but in the eighties you also needed to shock in order to sell. The biggest comedians were shocking. Howard Stern earned the crown King of All Media in the 1990s, but he won his kingdom one decade earlier pushing the limits of censorship in radio broadcasting. Andrew Dice Clay sold out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row riding a wave of profanity and misogyny in nursery rhyme. Sam Kinison was all of this. He was fast. He was loud. He was good, and he was very, very bad.
Sam Kinison was born to Pentecostal preachers in 1953, and raised in Middle America, where a God-fearing message found its widest bulletin board. Young Samuel accepted the family business warning parishioners of fire and brimstone with the trumpet of his voice and a righteous sneer. He played guitar during service, and these elements of evangelical performance never left his stage act, just reversed direction.
Kinison abandoned the pulpit for the Comedy Workshop of Houston when he joined the Outlaw Comics (Bill Hicks, Ron Shock, Riley Barber, and others) in the late seventies before striking out for Los Angeles a few years later with Carl LaBove, both landing jobs as doormen at the Comedy Store. I don’t remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1984 Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special when Kinison broke through to the mainstream. I discovered him three years later, watching unedited broadcasts of Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) on HBO, where he played the volatile Professor Terguson. His rise to the top was meteoric. Suddenly all over MTV, Kinison appeared in Bon Jovi’s Bad Medicine video, and made his own video covering The Troggs’ Wild Thing. He was the hottest comedian in Hollywood, and kept up with the likes of Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses, two more cornerstones of my childhood not known for their Christian missionary work.
But the highs of 1987 preceded terrible lows in 1988. When Sam Kinison’s younger brother, Kevin, committed suicide in May of that year, Sam’s drug abuse spun out of control. For all of his excess, Kinison lasted another four years, and could’ve gone longer, if not killed by a drunk driver on April 10, 1992 in Needles, California, near the Arizona border. I drove through Needles ten years ago. Not much to note besides the obituary.
Twenty years after Sam’s death I wonder if he could’ve survived the rest of the nineties. Like 1970-71 saw the deaths of Jimmi, Janis, and Jim affect the cultural landscape, the loss of Kinison and the release of Guns N’ Roses’s overindulgent Use Your Illusions 1 and 2 in late 1991 helped push society towards the sobering reality of Seattle grunge and alternative comedy grounded in observation and not gimmick (four screams—one long, two short, one long—explain Kinison’s act to current audiences). I miss Sam Kinison. His overcoat covered the chasm of eighties culture, and he knew it: “If you’re going to miss Heaven, why miss it by two inches? Miss it!” I thought of him after my own brush with vehicular manslaughter last week, but it could be the concussion contributing to Humor in America. I can end it here, as I shall make time for medicine. Possibility, ability, obligatory.