My history hero: Sam Kinison (1953-92)

Stand-up comedian Omid Djalili explains why he admires a controversial comic

Comic Sam Kinison

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Sam Kinison (1953-92) was a larger-than-life American stand-up known for his intense, provocative, politically incorrect humour. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he too began life as a preacher before taking up comedy. He died aged just 38 after his car was hit by a pickup truck being driven by a drink-driver. He was married three times.

When did you first hear about Sam Kinison?

The first time I heard of Sam was in 2002 when another comedian’s manager described me as Sam Kinison-esque. I’d never heard of him but, intrigued, I got hold of an old audio cassette of Sam in full flow one night and found him incredibly rude but very funny. He just overwhelmed me with his energy – and I’ve been a fan ever since.

What kind of person was he?

He came from a Pentecostal preacher background and was a preacher himself in his early 20s. But he kind of just went crazy and suddenly became this rock’n’roll metal comedian. Interestingly, quite a lot of comics come from a religious-type background. I love this clip of one of his shows in which he says: “I’ve been a Baptist preacher… but now I want to taste it all!” And that says it all really. He brought some of that ‘fire and brimstone’ approach to his comedy act. However, he wasn’t ‘on’ all the time. Like a lot of comics, he could be quite serious off stage. He liked his drink and was quite bloated in his final years. But he was a very popular comedian and revered on the circuit. His big downfall was women!

What made him a hero?

His total commitment to his mood on stage. If he was ever a bit depressed, it would show in his act – and when he was up, he was really ‘up’ on stage. I love the way he’d really go for whatever topic he was talking about on a given night, be it sex or starving kids in Africa. He would find the comedy construct and then really attack it. That’s what made him funny to me. One of the ways in which he influenced me was his intensity – people love intensity. Another thing: he was overweight (a bit like me), but I never heard him say “I’ve got to lose weight” and that’s another reason he’s a bit of a hero to me. I think he was a big influence on the legendary comedian Bill Hicks too. I’m sure Bill must have gone to his gigs and thought: “I want a bit of that!”

What was his finest hour?

One of his finest hours was his tour of England in the late 1980s. He’d obviously been told to tone it down it a bit. But then he walks on stage at one gig and suddenly explodes and launches into this fantastic monologue about marriage. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Another finest hour was his 1988 cover of the Troggs’ hit ‘Wild Thing’, and the video, featuring some of the biggest US rock stars of the day, is hilarious. I suspect he would probably regard that as his finest hour.  A lot of comics want to be rock stars.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I think he did bang on about sex a bit too much. It’s such a theme throughout his work, but that’s also a large part of what makes him so funny. He was also constantly cheating on his wives; but at the same he was remarkably candid about his womanising, and there was sometimes almost a confessional quality to his work.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

We both had a kind of religious upbringing. I was born to Iranian Bahá’í parents. Like me, as I said, he was also physically quite portly. The only difference was that he had long blond hair! And despite masquerading as a devilish humorist, I think deep down he was a kind man. I’d like to think that underneath I’m a benevolent sort of guy too.

If you could meet Kinison, what would you ask him?

I’d probably ask him about his faith. He may have made the move from preacher to stand-up comedian, but I don’t know whether he ever rejected Christianity. I’d like to ask him whether he still embraced his religion.

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Omid Djalili was talking to York Membery. Omid Djalili’s autobiography, Hopeful, is out now. For details of his tour dates visit omidnoagenda.com