Remembering Sam Kinison -- Richard Belzer pays tribute to his friend and fellow comedian

Remembering Sam Kinison

Comedian Sam Kinison, 38, who was born into a family of preachers and howled his way to fame as a shocking stand-up comic, was killed and his wife was injured in a car crash in Needles, Calif., on April 10. Staff writer Benjamin Svetkey asked fellow comic Richard Belzer to reminisce about his good friend.

I first met Sam at Catch a Rising Star in New York when he was breaking into the business in 1979. He was 25, very deferential, almost shy. But gradually he became more and more dynamic on stage. It was amazing to watch him evolve. You knew something important was happening — that a comedian was pushing his craft in new and disturbing directions.

Sam said things in his act that very few other comics had the temerity to talk about — subjects like the Crucifixion and starvation and the rage relationships can cause — and he made them into operatic diatribes that transported you to another realm. He took socially complex material — sexuality, religion, politics — and made you laugh and think about it. That’s what made him a great comedian.

His performing style was overpowering, with his screaming and wildman appearance, and it disturbed a lot of people. But to me the screaming was eloquent. It was a vent of rage. It added power and depth to his material. He alienated certain groups — particularly women and gays. But I saw his vitriol against women as an existential twist on the old ”take my wife — please” joke. As for gays, he eventually realized he was misguided about certain elements of the gay lifestyle. He came around.

The thing that strikes me most about his death is the tragic irony of the timing. He was married for only six days [to Malika Souiri, 27, a Las Vegas dancer]. He was negotiating a TV variety show with the Fox network. He had finally turned his life around. And now, suddenly, it’s over.