The Devil and Sam Kinison

The preacher turned heavy metal comedian spreads his unholy gospel, but can he conquer his own demons?

Comedian Sam Kinison performs on Saturday Night Live, October 18th, 1986. Credit: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Sam Kinison is pissed, man. Onstage, the squat, neckless Beast of Comedy bellows his anger — at televangelists, sobriety, women, gays and anything else that irks him. But backstage between two shows at Santa Barbara's Arlington Theater in December, he is talking calmly, spicing his friendly chat with more casual fucks and mans than Dennis Hopper uttered in all of Easy Rider.

The comedian's current tirade is about his former manager, Elliot Abbott. Abbott severed their relationship last February after Kinison's first leading-role movie vehicle, Atuk, was canceled on its first day of shooting. The two are co-defendants in a $5.6 million breach-of-contract lawsuit initiated by United Artists.

"I can't believe how on the hook I was to this guy," says Kinison, 35, who had also been renting his notorious $3500-a-month Hollywood Hills party pad from Abbott. "What a scumball, man."

Up close, the former preacher's daunting charisma and imposing bulk are undercut by a Muppet-like cuteness. Sitting in a folding chair, he's wearing his trademark knit cap atop his frizzy mane and one of his own Out of Control Tour T-shirts torn halfway down his sweaty barrel of a chest. In his dressing room are two women, both of them pregnant (not by him): Christy LaBove, his adoring personal assistant, and Trudy Green of Front Line Management, which signed Kinison after Abbott dropped him.

"I just heard that Elliot had a million-dollar life-insurance policy on me," Kinison says, glowering. "I did business with the guy for two years, and the guy's going, 'Kinison gets a record deal or he kicks — either way, I win.' Now I understand why he didn't care how fucked up everybody got."

Trudy and Christy nod knowingly. Kinison takes a swig of soda, the only liquid refreshment available backstage at his shows, and giggles giddily.

"Somebody told me he can still pay on the policy and keep it," Kinison continues. "I'm gonna cancel him. Take him out in the front yard and shoot him in front of his kids. 'I don't care if I burn, I want to see you fucking die, man.'"

"Uh, well," says Trudy, trying to lighten the mood, "success is the best revenge of all."

"Yeah," says Kinison, "success is the best, but still, the other thing has a great visual." He stands, brandishing a pantomime gun, then gets on his knees, as Abbott, and screams in terror, "Oh! OH! AAAAUGH!"

That unearthly scream — a supersonic boom born of bile — is Sam Kinison's comedy calling card. It doesn't matter that he later learns Elliot Abbott never took out any such insurance policy. For that moment, Kinison believed it, and his anger converted the room. The source of Sam Kinison's power, both onstage and in his decade-long battle to build a career, is this preacher's ability to believe what he wants to believe — no matter how wrongheaded — and make others act accordingly. "He's always losing his keys," says Christy LaBove. "And instead of looking for them, he just gets new locks."

The fantasy of shooting Abbott is quintessential Kinison; he is godfatherlike in his loyalty to his friends but utterly intolerant of everyone else. The problem, however, illustrated by the nonexistent insurance policy, is that Kinison — a high-school dropout raised on the Bible — is not always well informed. And though he is not without feeling — he seems devastated by the suicide of his brother Kevin last May — his capacity for insensitivity is boundless.

Yet the grosser he gets, the bigger he gets. Despite Kinison's limited national exposure — the usual stand-up spots, a 1987 HBO special, appearances on Saturday Night Live and a cameo in Rodney Dangerfield's movie Back to School — he has built up such a following that he plays 5000-seat venues at rock prices. And in an era when comedy albums are virtually unsalable, his debut, 1986's Louder Than Hell, sold a respectable 100,000 copies, and his current effort, Have You Seen Me Lately?, is going gold, thanks to a heavy-metal cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing," reworked with Kinison's cartoonish bitch-hating rants.

Have You Seen Me Lately? bears an unusual sticker that warns, The Material On This Album Does Not Reflect The Views Or Opinions Of Warner Bros. Records, his label. (Employees there had been so put off by the antigay and antiwoman material on Louder Than Hell that they petitioned their bosses not to release it.)

On Lately, Kinison struts his bad-boy ethos, railing against drunk-driving laws ("There's no other way to get our fucking car back to the house!") and Rock Against Drugs ("It's like Christians against Christ — rock created drugs!"). It's a testament to his stage presence and charm that he pulls off such material.

Preaching a gospel of irresponsibility to impressionable followers, though, raises serious moral questions. It's hard to tell if Kinison's audience is being entertained or simply getting led down his highway to hell. The most heated debate is over the album's routine called "Rubber Love." "Safe sex?" Kinison snarls. "GET OFF OUR BACK! Because a few fags fucked some monkeys... because of this shit, they want us to wear rubbers... 'Heterosexuals die of it, too.' Name ONE! It's not our dance."

An advance copy of the record reached Randy Morrison, who had produced the informational dance single "No Condom, No Sex," by Cruise Control. Morrison couldn't believe that Kinison's misleading, gay-baiting comedy was being released by Warner Bros. — the label behind an AIDS public-awareness program called Musicians for Life.

"To make fun of gay people for a group of people who hate gays is not adventurous comedy," says Morrison. "And blaming gay people for AIDS is like blaming heavy metal for teen suicide." Morrison and many advocacy groups helped persuade the label to insert an AIDS information sheet into later pressings of the record.

Yet Kinison, who has never taken criticism well, wears such protests like a badge. He opens his current act by defending his AIDS joke. "Nothing to start a fucking fag war over," he says, pacing the Santa Barbara stage in his long overcoat. "They say my jokes aren't medically correct. They don't have to be. They're not prescriptions, they're fucking jokes. They say I'm not sensitive. Sensitive? Aren't you the same guys that tape up gerbils and shove them up your ass?" The crowd — seventy-five percent male, mostly in its twenties — cheers and stomps.

Kinison recently told the Los Angeles Times that he can't help the way people interpret his material. "I think people get anger out of their system by seeing me," he said. "You can't ignore anger. If the gay community thinks there isn't a major resentment by the American public for the disease they've caused, then they're nuts... I can't be responsible for the way every single person reacts to my act."

Yet after the Santa Barbara show, it seems pretty clear that Kinison's effect on his followers is not one of furthering global understanding. In the lobby, a volunteer passes out business cards for a local AIDS hot line. Many of the fans streaming out take a card, read it, scream, "AAAAUGH!" and drop the card as if it were infected.

Although Kinison's moral standing is questionable, his marketing instincts are impeccable. His rude rise has been fueled by the popular video for "Wild Thing," a veritable time capsule of late-Eighties sleaze delivered with sledgehammer subtlety. It features Kinison and the newly busty PTL harlot Jessica Hahn rolling around in a pit, cheered on by heavy metalers — including Billy Idol and members of Bon Jovi, Poison and Guns n' Roses — who befriended Kinison at his Sunday postshow parties at L.A.'s Comedy Store. (Kinison and Hahn were briefly linked in the tabloids. All he'll admit is "she has a crush on me," but in his act he says that during the taping of the video, all the heavy metalers were shouting, "Fuck her!... Do it for Jim Bakker!" "So I did it," he says.)

Kinison obviously feels an esprit de corps with loathed celebrities like Hahn and the heavy-metal boys. He sent many audiences screaming from the room during his climb to stardom. But he's always stuck to his guns. In 1979 the Comedy Workshop in Houston suspended Kinison for breaking a stool onstage and inciting a riot; he went to the Stop N Go across the street and, in full view of the club's picture window, tied himself to a mock cross and doused himself with ketchup. Two weeks later, he returned in a limo — and his shows sold out. Ejected again for repeatedly doing a routine about a prankish baby Jesus, he picked a fight with the club's artistic director and unintentionally broke the man's leg.

In 1986, granted a stand-up spot on Saturday Night Live, Kinison ignored censors and imitated Jesus screaming as he was nailed to the cross. Thanks to the attendant publicity, he was asked to host the show two weeks later. He demanded to do more stand-up — including a bit about premature ejaculation — because, he says, "I didn't want to look like I'd been corrected."

Not all his material is inflammatory, but his outrageousness is what gets him publicity, so he's likely to get only more extreme in the future. But being naughty for naughtiness' sake is a dubious achievement, and Kinison's bullylike obstinacy is finally taking its toll.

Around Hollywood, the word on Kinison is relentlessly dark and laden with doom. Atuk was canceled, it is said, because Kinison had shown up late, drug crazed, clutching a wad of loose notebook pages — his rewrite of the script — and threatening to "walk through" the movie if his version wasn't shot. The powerful Creative Artists Agency dropped him, and he has been virtually blackballed in the movie industry.

Vicious rumors abound: his detractors say that he views himself as a savior figure and leads a cult of comics in satanic rituals atop the Sunset Hyatt; that before going onstage at the Comedy Store, he kills a cat for good luck; that he keeps a gun in every room of his house; that his women of choice are strippers and young girls; that the drugs are part of a "Belushi death wish" in which he has even rented the same Chateau Marmont bungalow where John Belushi overdosed.

After Kinison went on a drunken rampage at the Comedy Store last May, owner Mitzi Shore said she wouldn't let him back until he went through a rehab program. "He's killing himself with booze and drugs," she says, "and everybody's watching."

Before each performance, Kinison says, he readies himself by silently repeating, "I'm him. I'm him." Accustomed to creating his own reality by sheer force of will, he seems in danger of becoming the mythical, untamable monster known as Sam Kinison.

Vrooom! Whooosh! Vrooom! Cars shoot by perilously close to Sam Kinison as he pads alongside the dark Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. It's a December night, and Kinison, who has the night off, has just eaten a quick dinner at the house of Christy LaBove and her husband, Carl, a bald, ponytailed comedian who has been Kinison's best friend since their days in Houston. Kinison, loyal and generous to a fault, has for years helped the LaBove with the rent and recently gave them his old Jacuzzi as a housewarming present.

Kinison is walking the few hundred yards to the distinctive boat-style dwelling that he's in the process of buying. "It was tough to live in L.A.," he says, looking monklike in a cap, a muumuu and red suede sneakers. "So many people want to party. I'm thirty-five, I gotta knock this shit off."

Tonight, Kinison's biggest substance problem is having to eat a second dinner — not to fill his swelling girth (he has gained about fifty pounds in the past two years) but to keep the women in his life happy. "You hate to hurt their feelings," he says genially. Due to a mix-up, he had promised both Christy and his girlfriend, Malika Souiri, 24, that he would dine with them, and the women hate each other. Christy, who protects Kinison like a mother, has nicknamed Malika and her sister Sabrina, 17, "the whores."

"Sam likes a certain type," Christy says. "A light-headed, fluffy girl whose last job was like, dancing topless. He likes them not to have much at stake so he can completely consume them with thing he wants to do, because they're well kept." ("Actually" Kinison says, "it kind of provides a family life for me.")

After passing Buddy Hackett's driveway, Kinison strolls up the wooden gangplank to his own massive front door. "I love this place," he says. "The door's very cathedral, and my folks lived in a church till I was fifteen. It reminds me of that." The light fixture over the door shines bordello red. "That light was there when I moved in," he says. "It's not really red. It's a white light in a red frame." The offhand remark could be taken as Kinsion's self-justification: the exterior seems sinful, but the core is pure, God loving.

Kinison greets Malika, a dark-haired beauty, then wanders out to his balcony, listening to the waves crashing below in the darkness. "I got so many fucking rumors on me, man," he says. "About drugs, I carry guns, I'm out here with two 16-year-olds sucking on a base pipe waiting for my heart to stop. If you say you don't do it, it sounds like you're hiding, so you just go, 'Yeah, whatever, I did it all, I do it all.'"

After eating dinner number 2, however, Kinison beckons Malika to a drawer and takes out a 9-mm pistol. "Just want you to know this is here and ready to rock & roll," he says sweetly.

Driving at the speed limit, Kinison is tooling down to Los Angeles in his "undercover car," a Trans Am his parents helped him buy in 1985, which still has its Oklahoma plates. (He also has a Blazer, a Seville and a Corvette with license plates that read, EXREV.) It's the first time in days he hasn't been surrounded by cronies, and he quietly discusses the views he propounds onstage and the evangelical Midwestern childhood that gave rise to them.

"I have my own devious sexual thing," he says. "It's nothing I think should legislate a political party. I just maintain that I have the right to be confused by homosexuality. I don't feel I should have the understanding of it shoved down my throat. Fuck you, you don't understand God. Persecution comes with anything you're going to do in life. For being a minister, I was made to feel like a geek and an outsider because I believed in God." (Kinison still believes in God, he says; it's religion he doubts.)

His father, Earl, ran a dance hall in Granite City, Illinois, until he found Jesus at age thirty-five. Earl moved to Peoria, married and had four sons — Richard, Bill, Sam and Kevin. When Sam was in first grade, the Kinisons moved into a big church. "There was a big picnic table out back," says Sam, "and my dad would have bums wait out there, and he'd go make them a sandwich. Dad didn't care about money. He was always reading the Bible."

The combination of poverty and piety made young Sam feel like a social outcast. Soon after his parents' divorce, in 1967, he began listening to comedy albums by fellow Peorian Richard Pryor and a foulmouthed rhymer named Rudy Ray Moore. He also began skipping school and heading for downtown movie theaters.

About to flunk out, he was sent to Pinecrest Bible Training Center, in upstate New York, where he earned an equivalency diploma by sneaking in and reading answers out of the book. He ran away, hitchhiking to Virginia Beach. In his loneliness, he began talking to God, a relationship that sustained him when, in 1972, his father suddenly died, too broke to afford even his own gravestone. Sam went to join his mother, who had married another minister in Tulsa.

"The key to Sam's personality," says Steve Epstein, a comic who comanaged the Comedy Workshop while Kinison played there, "is that his real dad was into Jesus, his adopted dad looked at preaching as more of a business and that God didn't seem to reward people for doing it just for love."

The world of touring preachers is not unlike that of comedians — you perfect a shtick and take it on the road, and if you make a church some money, you're asked back. The oldest Kinison son, Richard, is cross-eyed and tells congregations he was born blind and retarded and was healed by a miracle. (Sam refuses to comment on Richard.)

Sam joined the fold but found less success with his heretical message — that Jesus could be found within, that people could save themselves.

At twenty-one, he married a nineteen-year-old gospel singer named Gail; he says he caught her cheating on him with a friend of his. Disillusioned, unable to find comfort in the church or to preach to others what he couldn't practice at home, he started to rethink his career choice.

In 1978, after a six-month separation, Sam and Gail decided to give the marriage one last try and took a vacation in L.A. They stopped in at the Comedy Store. Seeing Richard Pryor, Kinison was riveted. Then Robin Williams (pre-Mork & Mindy) took the stage, and Kinison was terrified: "I thought, 'How can you be this good and nobody know who you are?' "

Kinison's marriage ended, and he decided to try comedy. He moved to Houston, a town he knew, and went to the Comedy Workshop, a recently converted strip joint. After years of trying to sell God, he found it relatively easy to put across his novice jokes. He'd even take the stage and badger a small audience into donating enough money to pay for all the comics to go out for Chinese food.

During all his years as a struggling comic, in fact, Kinison got by without ever once working a day job, Moving to L.A. in 1981, Kinison, his brother Kevin and Carl LaBove lived off of friends, stealing food and palming Comedy Store tickets to sell. Sometimes they'd walk as far as ten miles to get to the club; when Mitzi Shore briefly ran a Westwood branch, they often sneaked back in after closing hours and slept on the plastic chairs, using beer-soaked tablecloths as blankets.

When all else failed, Kinison would resort to the occasional evangelizing gig with his brothers Richard and Bill (these days, the latter is Sam's road manager). Comedian Riley Barber remembers attending a revival preached by the Kinison boys in L.A.'s Watts ghetto in 1981. "We walked around with these empty video cameras," Barber says, "cables stuck into our pockets, trying to look like we were filming it to make it look professional. Richard was running around the church screaming and singing. He made Sam seem docile. He'd lay hands on, people would drop." And pay.

"Quitting the ministry and going into show business," says comic Fred Greenlee, "was the most honest thing Sam's ever done."

Kinison's former road manager, Bob Suszynski, sees it differently. "God," he says, "wasn't big enough for Sam to hang out with."

Kinison had a romantic perception of Hollywood. Riley Barber recalls that "the first place he wanted to see was Hollywood and Vine — which is just a Hojo's." Kinison took an apartment in Burbank near NBC Studios, because it was in the same building Johnny Carson had lived in on arriving in L.A. Unable to afford the $800 rent, Kinison soon had to give it up.

"There was no fucking money," says Kinison. "The Store pays more than the Improv, and that's like twenty-five dollars a spot. You have to live with a waitress or hang out with friends. If you survive that, nothing else affects you."

Being broke made his relationships suffer. "It was 'Either get a normal life, or give me up,' " he says. "And you figure, okay, if it cost me that much, then I'm in for the whole fucking ride!" His romantic failures became comedy's gain. The first one was in 1981, with a Houston actress named Kate Connelly, who went to New York to pursue her career — and soon, Kinison says, other men. "I had never really been in love like that, man," he says. "It really broke my heart. It hurt even to think about it."

On the rebound, Kinison quickly married a woman named Terry. This was the marriage in hell that inspired his first gutwrenching roar. On his new album, he does a whole routine about it, which goes, "I married her just to piss another woman off, man. Very stupid, dumb, high, drunk thing to fucking do."

In private, he is a bit more remorseful. "Aaah, she's a person I've hurt enough," he says. "When I was editing the album, I said, "That's a mistake. I shouldn't be drawing attention to that.' She was a nice girl that I knew when I was preaching in Texas. I'm very embarrassed about that part of my life. It's my biggest regret. No reason to hurt somebody else like that." He grins. "This is shit I should be telling a priest!"

Kinison pulls his trans am into a minimall Parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, ready to spend a lot of money on his current vice — home videos. An incurable insomniac, he has lately been watching as many as five a night, surrounded by his collection of neon sculptures, in the upstairs media center of his Malibu house.

As soon as he enters the video store, Kinison heads for the adult section. "Let's see how many of these girls I dated," he says. "I went with Seka for about a month." He points to another home-video companion: "I fixed this one up with [teen actor] Corey Feldman. Changed his life!"

Seeing a Madonna tape, Kinison says, "I have this picture of me with her, David Bowie and Billy Idol. That was my coke picture for a while. Take it out to do lines on, people'd go, 'Wait, who's that?' Of course, that was back when we did those things." He winks.

A customer's poodle starts yipping at him furiously. "H-h-hey," Kinison says. "I'm not Bob Goldthwait. I didn't do that stupid horse movie." He starts piling up tapes, which he will buy instead of rent so he won't have to deal with returns: Big Top Pee-wee, Sakharov, Elvis and Me, Kennedys Don't Cry.

He eagerly scans the comedy section. "Watching somebody you hate in a bad movie is such a high," he says. "You know they hate their lives. It's like they're in gay porno! You see Walk Like a Man? Howie Mandel's movie that was unreleasable? Bo-bo the dog boy! Hee-hee-hee." He scans the rack of other comedians' tapes. "Tired, old, old, tired, never had it, very weak ...How drunk was HBO when they agreed to that? Whoopi Goldberg — a nation decides not to hurt somebody's feelings."

According to Kinison, Goldberg's management kept him out of her movie Jumpin' Jack Flash and out of HBO's Comic Relief benefit because the same people also manage Goldthwait, whose whine and long hair often get him confused with Kinison, and they didn't want to give Kinison the exposure. Exposure, per se, isn't what Kinison is after. "I'm kind of like the Frank Zappa of comedy now," he says. "I'm locked into this underground, cult, outrageous, controversial kind of thing. Anyway, I'd rather be in 200 Motels than Scrooged."

Kinison had his first taste of big-time Hollywood filming a scene with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short in John Landis's Three Amigos. (The scene was later cut.) "I used to want to work with those guys," he says. "But they're just so dead. They fucking do slop. Caddyshack II? Dan Aykroyd's got an arrow on his ass, going, 'Will you please suck out the poison?' Oh, man. What the fuck is that, man? All they care about is the check. I defy Aykroyd or Chase or John Candy to come forward and tell me about any commitment to art. If the yardwork paid what they get for a movie, they'd show up and do it."

Dear Mother. Guess what I am? A movie star. All I have to do is be an Eskimo and they give me a gold Amex. How about that? —The script for Atuk

The plot of Atuk parallels the story of Midwestern high-school dropout Sam Kinison's attempt to star in his first feature film. The script called for Kinison to play Atuk, an Eskimo who leaves the tundra for the big city. Atuk is unwittingly used by an evil tycoon in propaganda films until, finally, he gets pushed over the edge and screams.

There were only two problems with the Atuk script: (1) it wasn't very good, and (2) Kinison didn't get around to reading it until January 1988 — three weeks before shooting was to begin.

"This was new territory for him," says Elliot Abbott, who was to serve as the film's executive producer. "Sam had always written his own material. But not reading that script is beyond all rational behavior." Kinison's friend Dan Barton, a novelist and comic, says that "Sam was afraid to read it, because he saw the looks on his friends' faces when they read it. He hadn't read too many scripts. He wasn't sure what to think, and Elliot and the studio were saying, 'This is great.'"

When he finally read the script, an alarmed Kinison tried to get United Artists to hire some of his friends to do a rewrite. Abbott thinks that in the eleventh hour, Kinison balked at playing a sympathetic character that was at times dim and weak; Kinison contends the script had gaps in logic and not enough jokes. His friends' rewrite, however, wasn't handed in until February 15th, the day before shooting, and called for too many set changes.

The next day, studio executives flew in to New York and summoned Kinison, in full Eskimo makeup, to a meeting. (Despite rumors to the contrary, he says he was clean and sober.) They told him his rewrite was unusable. Kinison says he replied, "Fine, we'll shoot this your way, man. 'Cause it's going to be a piece of shit, and when it comes out, I'm going to tell everybody that it was my first movie, I didn't know what I was doing, and, boy, am I sorry."

Believing Kinison to be a man of his word, the UA executives dismissed him, briefly shopped for a replacement, then shut down production and initiated the $5.6 million lawsuit.

Kinison's favorite movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He loves the way the Midwestern hick, played by Jimmy Stewart, takes on the corrupt system. And though Kinison's approach was typically indelicate, there's something similarly innocent, even touching, about a comedian in Hollywood refusing to participate in a mediocre movie. "I'd rather have five lawsuits like this," says Kinison, "than be in one Twins."

The Out of Control tour bus sits idling in the rain in front of L.A.'s Sunset Hyatt. On tour with Kinison are the Outlaws of Comedy — LaBove, Mitchell Walters and Allan Stephan — as well as three aspiring comics. Today, they are heading out to Riverside, a two-hour drive; everyone else is aboard, but Kinison is over an hour late. Tardiness is one of his most incurable vices. In San Diego he slept right up until going onstage — then gave a stellar performance.

He finally shows up, and the bus gets rolling. Someone pops in a tape of the Traveling Wilburys, and everybody starts singing along with "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," a tongue-in-cheek song about two outlaw partners on the lam: "When the walls came down/All the way to hell..."

For many years, Kevin Kinison was Sam's favorite outlaw partner. Never a preacher or a comic, he worked odd jobs in clothing stores, sometimes stealing clothes for Sam to wear onstage. Kevin looked up to Sam and was always in the audience for his shows and partied with him to all hours.

Last May, Kevin, then twenty-eight, had just gotten out of his second rehab program, paid for by Sam, and was on a prescribed lithium treatment. Sam himself seemed to feel the need to slow down. He'd exhausted himself doing a flurry of shows to get himself out of debt. He organized a convention of preachers who had influenced his style; it was to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his mother and stepfather live and preach. Kinison flew in many of his comedian friends to witness the event. Then, during the gathering, Kevin walked calmly into his parents' house, took out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Kinison blames the rehab programs, which, he says, "dealt with Kevin chemically instead of dealing with his inner pain. Now people will never know what it was. I don't even know if he knew."

The night after the funeral, Kinison began five straight nights of previously booked comedy gigs in New Jersey, feeling work would be therapeutic. Onstage, he raised a glass to toast Kevin and made a joke, warning Liberace's ghost, "You dead fag! Stay away from my brother!"

After the Jersey shows, Kinison says, Kevin's death "really caught up with me. It was like drug-and-alcohol weekend. I was fucking blown out." Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore says she'd arranged a wake for Kevin that Robin Williams and Roseanne Barr were going to attend, but Kinison missed his plane, and it was canceled. When he finally arrived back in L.A., he went to the Store looking for a comic who had allegedly said, "It's probably because of Sam's lifestyle that Kevin took his life."

Unable to find the man, Kinison led his cronies on a reckless crusade, beating up another comic and trashing an apartment. When he returned to the Store the next day to apologize, he found Shore talking to the police about his drug problem, and he stalked out, swearing never to return.

Once again Kinison has chosen to see things in black-and-white terms. After considering the Comedy Store his home for eight years, he now refers to it as the Comedy Sewer, and he made sure that a billboard for Have You Seen Me Lately? was placed directly across Sunset Boulevard from the club.

Kinison is adamant that he's got his vices under control. "I've never had a problem distinguishing what drugs are — a substitute for life," he says. "I've never allowed them or booze to be more important than what you have to do. The people that have real problems are the ones who can't distinguish that a line of coke is just a party thing. To make it more important is really dangerous."

Yet Kinison's oversize image continues to haunt him. He attributes some of his bad rep in Hollywood to the fact that he pissed off the wrong people — the powerful Creative Artists Agency and its head, Michael Ovitz — by losing them their percentages on Atuk. "They're business people," he says, "not artists. I'm not going to be their fucking bitch, man. Let them get that from the other pussies. I know Mike Ovitz and all those guys think they're such big fucking badasses. Well, my message to them is, Fuck you, I don't need any of you, and I'll do concerts the rest of my life, and videos, until somebody that makes movies is smart enough to say, 'A Kinison movie would make money.' I think we have the potential to deliver a film with the impact of The Blues Brothers.

"When you hang a man, you better be sure he's dead," Kinison says, fuming. "I'm not going away. We're coming after your fucking asses, you losers, to show you what comedy's about. Taking all your fucking money and offices, and you can park our cars."

The rain continues, and the tour bus moves at a funereal pace on the clogged freeway. Kinison moves to the front of the bus and stands in the stairwell, leaning forward, his face up at the windshield. "I love this," he says. "One of my dad's last jobs before he became a minister, he drove a bus. When I was a little kid, I used to go along for the rides. This is my favorite place to be on the bus. It feels like you're in the pilot's seat."

Piloting this merry band of foulmouthed wisecrackers, however, isn't as fulfilling for Kinison as it might seem. What he misses is, he says, "how good preaching used to make people feel. I mean, comedy's fun, people laugh, but I don't know if that makes them feel good about themselves. No. Let me put it this way. You can make 'em laugh, but you can't make 'em happy. It takes God to do that."

Suddenly, there's a break in the traffic. "All right!" says Sam Kinison. "We sacrificed a couple of cats. Crank up 'Tweeter,' roll a few, and let's rock & roll."