It has been a helluva time for the self-styled bad boy of today's shock comics. Not only was there his record company's disavowal, the bust-up of a fling with Jessica Hahn and the disintegration of what was to have been his first starring screen role, but also a deeply felt personal tragedy. Last May, his brother Kevin, 28, committed suicide. "I thought I was going through problems," Kinison, 34, says solemnly, "but that made everything irrelevant."
His critics(and they are legion) would say that considering what Kinison dishes out, he should be able to take it. No topic is too touchy, no routine too raunchy for the marauding mouth of screaming Sam. His primal yowls have rocked everybody from televangelists ("Jesus is still up in heaven, thumbing through his Bible, going 'Where did I say build a water slide?' ") to MADD ("It's not like you're going to your car thinking, 'Well, I sure hope I slide into a family of six tonight' "). And then there's the really offensive stuff. "People know I'm triple-X rated," says Kinison with his trademark smirk. "Obviously I'm not a role model for impressionable youth."
Incredibly, it once seemed that he actually would be. Born in Peoria, III., to a husband-and-wife Pentecostal preaching team, young Sam was even enrolled for a year at the Pinecrest Bible Training Center in upstate New York. In the wake of his father's sudden death in 1970, he settled on the ministry as a career and spent five years as a roving, road-show evangelist. "It was a lot like working comedy clubs, but I was never very successful," he recalls. "I didn't have a magazine, a satellite or that free gift that's so tempting with just a $100 donation.'
An early, two-year marriage foundered in 1977, at about the same time as Sam's Elmer Gantry phase. "I started saying things in church that didn't meet with a lot of approval—like 'Jesus isn't coming back,' " he admits. "They started throwing Bibles." At Christmas 1978, Kinison was born yet again—this time as a stand-up comic.
After some unholy groundwork at a Houston comedy club, the newly incarnated comic arrived in L.A., where Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, understandably nervous about his laceratingly obscene material, scheduled him for the besotted post-2 A.M. crowd. "By that time, the audience had seen 35 guys, so I'd get up there and say, 'I know you've seen everyone else, but you're going to wish to God you never saw me.' I was a maniac."
That didn't discourage Rodney Dangerfield, who gave Kinison a guest spot on a 1985 HBO special. A role as a schizoid history prof in Dangerfield's 1986 hit Back to School was a door-opener to Sam's own 1987 HBO special, an LP (Louder Than Hell) and four guest shots on Late Night.
And then there was that wicked lifestyle. Kinison began hosting a nonstop string of all-night parties at his Hollywood Hills home, fueled by nightly $1,000 liquor tabs and attended by such newfound friends as Billy Idol and the guys in Mötley Crüe. Sam only enhanced his party-hearty, out-of-control rep last year when he walked away from what was to have been his first starring role, as an outcast, half-breed Eskimo in Atouk.
In an effort to quash rampant rumors that he was running amok, Sam bought a two-bedroom Malibu beach house. "So many people counted on me to be the party," he says, "I had to move far enough away that they wouldn't want to drive there." He also hired new management. "I don't deny my life-style is occasionally pretty wild," he adds, "but I hadn't lost it. So I decided to work three times as hard and put out better quality work."
By some standards, he has. A current four-month U.S. tour is selling out, and his heavy metal video, Wild Thing, is an MTV smash. But rumors continue to dog him. According to various sources, Kinison (a) carries a grudge against comedians Arsenio Hall, Roseanne Barr and "Bobcat" Goldthwait, (b) often carries a gun and (c) shot out a TV at Vegas' Dunes Hotel, à la Elvis. Kinison himself tells the story of a then-girlfriend who "accidentally" packed a loaded .38 into his airplane carry-on bag. "It took two years to get out of that arrest," he says. "If I get a parking ticket today, it still comes up 'Potentially armed and dangerous.' "
One person who finds Kinison disarming is Jessica Hahn, his co-star in the Wild Thing video and his partner in a fly-by affair last summer. "People think Sam's wild, but he also has a strong, deep love of God," says Jessica, who met Kinison at the Playboy mansion. "Both of us are religious people, however unlikely that may seem."
It seems plausible when Sam talks about the year's tragic low point, the suicide of brother Kevin. A struggling musician and recovering alcoholic, Kevin met with Sam for a family reunion last May. "I dropped him off, and about five minutes later my mom called and told me that he had just shot himself," says Kinison.
It was the only time in memory that Kinison had a hard time dredging up the laughs. "I still wake up mornings and think, 'I'm never going to see that kid again,' " he says. "Kevin was almost always in the audience when I performed, and a lot of my stuff was to make him laugh. But I know what Kevin was about. And he would've said, 'Do it, Sam.' "
—Susan Schindehette, and Todd Gold in Los Angeles
There are two gummed stickers on the cover of Sam Kinison's latest album, Have You Seen Me Lately? One is a stock "explicit language and material—parental advisory" warning. But the other is a little more unsettling: "The material on this album does not reflect the view or opinions of Warner Bros. Records." It's not often that a record company prints a disclaimer on one of its own LP jackets. But then, most records don't contain cuts like Rubber Love, Mother Mary's Mystery Date and Lesbians Are Our Friends. In short, most artists aren't Sam Kinison.