The Comedian's Homecoming

By Dan O'Donnell

July 8, 2021

Since its founding and even earlier, American faith has been inextricably linked to the American idea. The freedom to worship is among the most cherished of American rights, and Americans of all faiths have made this an indelible part of their lives.

But sometimes their lives pull them away from their faith, when the trappings of fame and fortune become temptations that prove impossible to ignore. And sometimes when they return, their stories serve as powerful reminders of the power of faith in America.

This is the Forgotten History of The Comedian’s Homecoming.

Young Sam was born to preach. The third son of a Pentecostal pastor, he listened in awe as his father’s sermons thundered as if from the heavens themselves. The family never had much money, and they moved from town to town and church to church, but they had faith and hope.

And the four young boys knew from a young age that they would follow in their father’s footsteps and become preachers, too. When he was just 17, Sam began giving fire and brimstone sermons—trying his best to emulate his father and preach the Gospel he held so dear.

He graduated from high school, then Bible College, then got married. He kept preaching. He was young, he was in love, and he was happy. But his wife wasn’t. She divorced him and he spiraled into depression. He began using alcohol and drugs to deal with the pain. He could no longer put his soul into preaching. He had lost his faith.

But Sam could always find humor in his pain. Even when he was preaching, thundering from the heavens, he had a remarkable ability to make people laugh. His soul was no longer in the ministry, but he threw his heart into stand-up comedy.

He moved to Los Angeles but struggled as much with finding gigs as he did with his drug addiction. Once his oldest brother Bill came out to manage his career, though, things started to turn around. Bill convinced him that their lives as former preachers would make perfect comedic material, and once Sam started to riff on God, the Bible, and everything else he wasn’t supposed to mock, he shot to stardom.

Within months, his was a household name. Sam Kinison, comedy rebel, the man whose piercing scream was heard the world over.

He toured the country, he costarred in “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield, he even recorded bestselling comedy and music albums. He was on top of the world, and while it seemed to the Christian world that he had sold his soul by mocking God to achieve fame and fortune, the truth is more complex.

Sam had never really lost his faith, at least not totally. His was a rock-and-roll lifestyle, with all of the drugs and women and sin that go with it, but he always called himself a Christian.

His heart was no longer in preaching, but his soul forever belonged to God, and the rock-and-roll comedy rebel even told Rolling Stone magazine that he missed “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.”

A week before Good Friday 1992, Sam and Bill got in their cars to drive from Los Angeles to a sold-out show in Laughlin, Nevada. Sam and his new wife, Malika, with whom he had just returned from honeymooning in Hawaii a few days earlier, were in their Pontiac Trans Am. Sam’s best friend and opening act, Carl LaBove, was in the back seat. Bill followed them in a van as they set off on a scenic desert highway.

Suddenly a pickup truck trying to pass another vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic. Before Sam could even react, the truck slammed head-on into his Trans Am.

The car was a mangled wreck. Malika was knocked unconscious and Carl was dazed. But it seemed Sam was barely hurt. He climbed out of the car and began pacing on the side of the street, only lying down when his brother begged him to.

Carl sat and cradled Sam’s head in his hands, quickly realizing that Sam had suffered massive internal injuries. Sam looked up at him and then off in the distance, as if he was taking in someone who had just appeared next to him.

“I don’t want to die,” Sam said to what appeared to be no one. “I don’t want to die.”

Then he paused, still looking in the spot where his gaze was fixated and seemed to be listening intently.

“But why?” Sam asked, then paused again to listen to the unseen presence.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he answered, and then slipped away.

He was just 38 years old. A stunned Carl recounted his friend’s last moments to the Los Angeles Times: “The last ‘OK’ [he said] was so soft and at peace. Whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer and he just relaxed with it. He said it so sweet, like he was talking to someone he loved.”

It seems that Sam Kinison, the preacher turned comedian turned rock-and-roll celebrity who turned away from the ministry but never his love for God, had been welcomed home with open arms.

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