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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 902

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This is the grave of Sam Kinison.

Born in Yakima, Washington in 1953, Kinison grew up in a hard-core Pentecostal background. They had little money as their father traveled around as a preacher. In 1964, his parents divorced and he was forced to live with his mother instead of his father. He very much did not want to do that, especially as his older brother went to his father. This made for an angry young man, an anger that would remain with him his entire life. At this point, he was in Peoria, Illinois and that’s where he went to high school. Then, Kinison followed his father into the family business. He went to the Pinecrest Bible Training Center to prepare to become a Pentecostal preacher. He started preaching by 1970, mostly in the Tulsa area, where his mother had moved after remarrying another preacher.

Kinison was not a particularly successful preacher. I don’t know too much about Pentecostalism but my understanding is that the preacher pretty much lives off whatever donations the audience gives. Although Kinison was very fire and brimstone, he didn’t get those big donations too much and he never made much money. He married and then divorced. By 1977, he was through with preaching. Maybe he never really believed in it. In any case, he left the ministry, moved to Houston, and went into something that interested him a lot more, stand up comedy.

As everyone knows, Kinison was a mad man on stage. He was never my ideal of a comic, but as a performance artist, one has to respect him at least. He was completely indifferent to audiences liking him, perhaps even hostile to the thought of it. He was there to challenge the audience and he certainly could do this. He became quite successful at comedy. He also became quite successful at becoming a degenerate cocaine addict, moving pretty quickly into freebasing. This of course just exacerbated his already over the top personality and act. If there was ever one comedian who seems like they should be a coke addict, it’s Kinison. He was also an unregenerate sexist. Much of his comedy was openly misogynist and probably came out of his hatred for both his mother and his ex-wife. But that also made him popular.

In the 1980s, Rodney Dangerfield hosted a series of shows on HBO to highlight up and coming comics. In 1985, one show featured Kinison. He was the big star of it, getting notes in The New York Times and other media outlets. His material was also viciously anti-Christian, which certainly got attention as well. Given that the late 80s was the era of the preacher scandal, with Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Oral Roberts and all those other scumbags getting busted for their behavior, Kinison had a field day with these grifters he knew well.

But Kinison’s brand of utterly caustic comedy really was mostly awful and does not hold up at all today. He wasn’t only misogynistic but extremely homophobic. Working in the AIDS years, this was an easy target for comedians but also a stupid one. He became a target himself of protest, such as a Lincoln show where Queer Nation Nebraska had a march in front of the theater.

Kinison’s personal life was of course a mess, with two divorces, the second coming as he started a relationship with a dancer before he was divorced. That dancer was his third wife and she claimed that his bodyguard raped her while Kinison was sleeping while he claimed the sex was consensual. Ugh.

Without really remembering the details, I assumed that Kinison had died from his own excesses. But no. He was driving to a sold out show in Vegas when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit his car. Like the death of Ira Louvin from the same fate, one can be amazed that for all the reckless and dangerous behavior Kinison engaged in, it was someone else’s reckless and dangerous behavior that killed him. Kinison wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and so was ejected from the car. He died shortly after. He was 38 years old. Of course, the kid who killed him received a year of probation.

The question with Kinison, I guess, is how much of this you still think has value given the politics of it. I was never a fan, not only because of the politics (not even sure if that mattered at the time to me), but because I never really found people shouting extreme statements all that amusing. So I’m certainly not going to defend the guy. What I do struggle to get is why people thought he was this amazing genius who was worth a cult following. At best, he was a pretty good comedian, but that’s if you overlook a whole lot of awfulness. At his worst, well, it’s pretty bad and seemed to appeal to people who were already angry at women. So we can talk about that.

Anyway, let’s watch Kinison’s act, if you want:

Sam Kinison is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you would like this series to visit other comedians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rodney Dangerfield is in Los Angeles and Bernie Mac is in Homewood, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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