By Rick Kaempfer
I was watching one of his classic routines on YouTube this morning and saw the date of his death. Sam Kinison died exactly twenty years ago this month. It's a day I'll always remember; not just because he was my favorite comedian of all-time. In my previous life as a radio producer, I had gotten to know him.
One of the first in-studio guests I ever booked to appear on the Steve & Garry show (WLUP) was Sam Kinison. I'll be honest. It wasn't exactly difficult to do. It went something like this. My phone rang.
"Hello, Steve & Garry show," I answered.
"Who is this?
"Rick, it's Sam Kinison. Tell them I'll be up to the studio just after 4 today."
Sam obviously already had a relationship with Steve and Garry, and it was just understood that whenever he was in town, he would come on the show. Over the next few years I got to know him about as well as any guest. He was a warm and friendly guy--a teddy bear--not at all like his on-stage persona.
But I didn't know that the first time I met him.
In the old Loop studios, the AM 1000 air studio was only a few steps away from the receptionist's desk. The receptionist was trained not to make the really famous guests wait at all, so she would simply open the door leading to the short hallway, and the guest would bump right into the producer.
In the late 80s, at the height of the stand up comedy boom, no comedian in America was more famous or popular than Sam Kinison. I thought his stand up act was just about the funniest thing I had ever seen. I taped his HBO special, invited friends over to watch it, and we watched it over and over again. It was revolutionary.
Well that day, Sam was late. He wasn't just a little late, either. He was more than an hour late. Steve and Garry kept asking me if I had heard him correctly. After about twenty minutes or so it became another "I bet Rick screwed this up somehow" moment. In fact, I was even starting to believe it myself. Had I written it down wrong? Was it somebody just pretending to be Sam Kinison? Did I just dream the whole thing?
I was so upset about the berating I was receiving on the air, that I didn't even notice Sam walk past me. The receptionist had let him in like she was supposed to do, but because Sam was so late, he didn't bother checking in with me. He just walked right into the studio.
Not realizing he was on the air, Sam started swearing about the things that made him late. If you've ever seen his stand up act, you know what impressive tirades he could go off on. This was one of those profanity-filled tirades. Steve had to scramble to hit the delay button.
Unfortunately, the delay system wasn't really designed to get rid of more than one obscenity. After the button is hit, it takes another few seconds to re-engage. Until it does, you are live on the air without a safety net.
Sam was so revved up about being late, and what had caused his tardiness, that it took him more than a few seconds to realize he was on the air. By then it was too late--quite a few unmentionables escaped into Chicago radios everywhere.
I think I actually saw my life flashing before my eyes during those moments. I knew it was my fault that Sam wasn't stopped before he came in the studio. I was in the middle of composing my Last Will and Testament when something incredible happened.
Steve and Garry both laughed. Then Sam laughed. Within a minute, it was just another bit. They didn't break for a commercial for a good forty five minutes, and it was some of the most hilarious radio I've ever heard.
When they finally went to commercials, however, I stopped laughing and buckled up. I put my tail between my legs and went into the studio to accept my punishment. Before either Steve or Garry could say a single word, Sam jumped up to greet me.
"Hey, man," Sam said, "I'm totally sorry. That was completely my fault. I didn't check in with you. I was just so f***in late, and I knew these f***in guys would be pissed--I wasn't thinking."
He held out his hand, and I shook it. Steve and Garry didn't say a word.
Over the next few years as Sam's career kept rising, he appeared on the Steve and Garry show probably another half dozen times. One time he brought Guns & Roses guitarist Slash with him. Another time he stayed on for almost two hours. Every time he saw me, he apologized again for almost getting me in trouble that first time.
A few years later he was gone.
I was doing an overnight DJ shift on the FM station the night it came across the wires. Sam Kinison, a man that had lived life on the very edge of the cliff, had died outside of Las Vegas.
Sam was about as self-destructive as anyone in show business--it almost seemed like he was daring God to take him. Ironically though, when it was his time to go, it wasn't self-inflicted. A drunk driver had swerved into Sam's lane and crashed into his car head on. He never had a chance.
20 years later he's almost forgotten.
In my mind, however, he's one of the all-time greats.
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