Sam Kinison: Comedy and controversy
"I've always tried to look for a clever angle in a punch line rather than just do shock comedy and bathroom material. To shock was never a goal."

(Author’s note: Thirteen months later, Kinison was killed in a head-on car crash caused by an intoxicated teen driver.)

Oh, yes, central Illinois native Sam Kinison says, when asked if remembers going to the Illinois State Fair as a youth.

The burly, barrel-voiced comic – whose trademark scream “AAARRRGGG!” punctuates his jokes – is a Peoria native who grew up in a conservative, deeply religious family. He left central Illinois at age 15 when his family sent him to Bible school in New York state.

“We were reasonably poor, and the state fair was the thing in the summer,” Kinison says, speaking from his beachfront house in Malibu.

Sam’s fondest memories of the state fair . . . corndogs? Carnival rides? Auto racing? Nope. A youthful Kinison enjoyed the freak shows.

“My little brother and I used to go to all of ’em. I remember this guy called `frog boy.’ I’ll never forget this – he was a guy covered with warts or something, and he had a midget’s body. He used a little microphone, smoked a cigarette and sat on a stool. He was in a glass cage, and he did his own standup comedy routine.”

Kinison then mimics “frog boy’s” cigarette-ravaged voice: “`All right, I’ll take any questions you got here. You sir, what’s your question?’ ”

Kinison laughs. “Man, it was absolutely bizarre.”

The irony here is as subtle as a slap in the face. The 37-year-old Kinison, who performs at the Sangamon State University Auditorium Friday, is absolutely bizarre, a comedian who stalks the stage as if contemplating a mugging.

Kinison regularly earns the reputation as “America’s most controversial comedian.”

“I’ve always tried to look for a clever angle in a punch line rather than just do shock (comedy) and bathroom material,” Kinison says.

“To shock was never a goal. Like my world hunger situation (routine). I found a twist on something that’s already there – (Ethiopians) should move to the food; moving out of the desert should be rule one.”

On Friday, Kinison’s show will contain at least 20 minutes on the Persian Gulf situation.

“It’s not funny directly. But there’s animosity and whenever there’s animosity toward anything, people are ready to laugh. Saddam Hussein is a wide-open target. You have to be very good to Bush, but you can still trash Dan Quayle.”

During the 35-minute interview, Kinison remains a stark contrast to his stage persona. He’s polite, relaxed and humble. He’s ecstatic when he hears there are two locations of his favorite restaurant, Steak N Shake, in Springfield.

Reminiscing about his childhood, Kinison asks, “Isn’t there someplace called Salem near (Springfield)?”

New Salem.

“Yeah, they have a little village that was pretty cool. I remember that.”

Although he ran away from Bible school in his second year, Kinison eventually spent seven years as a Pentecostal evangelist. During Christmas 1978, he left preaching to become a full-time standup comic.

In 1985, Kinison received his big break –Rodney Dangerfield booked him to appear on Dangerfield’s “Young Comedians” special on HBO. Afterward, stardom came quickly. By ’87, he had appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

An established stand-up comic, Kinison branched out into brief movie roles, including a hilarious part as a crazed history teacher in “Back to School.” Still, Kinison’s reputation as a drug and alcohol abuser have hampered his film career.

“A lot of articles about me have described me as out of it every night. The image most people have is that Kinison is somewhere at a bar right now, with a bunch of call girls and dialing his dealers. If anybody kept up that schedule, they’d be dead,” he says. “I have been on health alert for 18 months. It’s disgusting how well I’m taking care of myself.”

Kinison promises that Friday’s show will feature original material, not a rehash of routines from his three albums or numerous TV appearances. (In April, he’ll be featured in “The Sam Kinison Family Entertainment Hour,” a tongue-in-cheek-titled HBO special.) This winter, Kinison has maintained a schedule of live performances at mid-sized theaters. The crowds, he says, have been a mixture of “fortysomethings” to young adults who recognize him from his raunchy music videos.

“Then you have a whole bunch of women haters, guys who have had their heart broken who think I’m their savior,” Kinison says.

It’s not a male-dominated crowd, he adds.

“I don’t know how many women come independently; I mean I don’t remember seeing packs of women. But it’s a good show for dates, especially for the first date.” His voice develops a devilish quality: “It really loosens things up.”

Kinison’s on-stage scream, he says, developed during his turbulent second marriage.

“We separated in 1982 and never could agree on a divorce. I didn’t see her for five years; she kept stalling on a divorce. When my picture came out on the cover of Rolling Stone, then it was time. She said, `Here’s my lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson.’ We settled out of court.”

The scream, though, follows Kinison.

“It’d be nice if fans just came up to me and said, `Hey, you’re funny. I enjoy your work.’ But I’ll be in an airport or a mall and I’ll always get someone who comes up to me: `AAARRRGGG! AAARRRGGG!’ “

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