I remember seeing a comedy special on HBO about 10 years ago in which a then-hot Damon Wayons smugly reeled off a spate of homophobic jokes, much to the delight of the crowd and at least to the minimal satisfaction of HBO executives. Flash forward to today and we see another pay-channel airing Queer As Folk and many of the most visible comics speaking out regularly and forcefully against the values espoused in comedy’s recent past. Shortly after the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, American society seemed to suddenly change its mind about the acceptability of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and the pop culture champions of such outmoded mindsets went down in droves. The ghastly misogyny of hair metal was replaced by sensitive rockers like Eddie Vedder. Gay stereotypes were shamed to the margins of society. And in the same year boxer-wearing, pot-smoking Bill Clinton defeated a starchy old scarecrow named George Bush in the presidential election, an old-guard comic named Sam Kinison died in a car crash, hit by a drunk teenager on a California highway.
From a career standpoint, it came just in time. It’s hard to imagine Kinison trying to hold his own against the wave of new comics like Janeane Garofolo, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, and David Cross. While he could have found a livable niche next to Howard Stern, he was perhaps more likely to have ended up following Andrew Dice Clay on his spiraling descent into America’s pop toilet. With the reissue of his posthumous 1993 album, Live From Hell, we’re able to look back on a career whose end coincided neatly with that of its milieu’s glory days and take a guess or two as to what might have been if Kinison had lived to joke another day.
Tragic as Kinison’s death may have been (and it was genuinely sad—the notorious party animal was finally taking a stab at cleaning himself up), it must have felt like a lifted burden to the entertainment industry as it tried to lurch in a new direction. Live From Hell is a document of regressive politics which mainstream America finally got the sense to denounce, and the only thing that deserves more disgust than the astoundingly unfunny material is the fervent enthusiasm that the audience displays for it. If there is a recurring theme other than sheer profanity, it is reactionary jingoism that makes Kinison sound like Bill O’Reilly with Tourette Syndrome without even the limited comedic value that that scenario would offer. When Kinison maliciously delights in the downfall of the Soviet Union on a track appropriately titled, “Russians Are Losers”, he doesn’t tout the superiority of democracy; he brags about America’s ability to kick other countries’ asses. As he does so, an audience member shouts, “Yeah!” and “That’s right!”, giving his crude “Amen” to an extended gloat about the misery of ordinary Soviet citizens.
Kinison focuses his attention on a variety of topics, but the results are rife with vitiating sameness. He thinks America is superior in all ways to the rest of the world. He thinks John Kennedy was a great president because he “fucked Marilyn Monroe”. He thinks the Kurds are so stupid that they should rename themselves “the Fucks”. He thinks the final solution to the homeless problem is to kill them all. And on and on and on, inane vulgarity punctuated frequently with trademark screaming. Kinison scores no laughs in spite of his bad taste because he hardly tells any jokes, instead stating socially conservative views with enough gratuitous swearing to make it seem as if he were some kind of rebel instead of the right-wing bigot that he was. Aside from shrieking of his love for his audience at the overdue conclusion of his set, Kinison shows not a dram of humanity or compassion for anyone or anything, least of all homosexuals. Starting out with a bit about a gay version of The Terminator (complete with the worst Arnold Schwartzenegger impression of all time), he surprisingly skirts the issue for the majority of Live From Hell only to mention towards the end that he had promised gay rights groups to tone it down. Then, after some goading from his audience, he proceeds to point out the irony of being accused of bad taste by “a group of guys that lick the shit out of each other’s asses”. The joke is grotesque, of course, but not so much as the encouragement of the audience that prompted it. Just as I would look askance at Germans of the Nazi Generation, so too am I now inclined to wonder about the men and women passing in our midst that elicited such a joke and then laughed at it.