Last November, Bill Kinison interrupted rehearsals for the one-man show he was workshopping to grab a quick flight to Illinois to retrieve his elderly in-laws. He had just kissed his wife Sherry goodbye and stepped on an LAX escalator for the ride to the terminal's second-level screening checkpoint when, he remembers, “I noticed this guy with a duffel bag. And he pulled out this gun and he [fatally] shot a TSA agent twice.”
As the escalator whisked Kinison up to safety and out of sight, three more shots rang out. Fearing for his wife, he reflexively executed a James Bond slide down the escalator on his briefcase, only to find himself facing down gunman Paul Anthony Ciancia, who had just stepped onto the adjacent escalator and was now pointing the muzzle of his AR-15 assault rifle directly at him.
“And slowly I stood up, because I thought, 'God, I don't want to be shot in the back if he's going to shoot me.' And we went up these escalators next to each other with this gun on me, and finally I shrugged my shoulders – never said a word – shrugged my shoulders to let him know, 'You know, I can't get to you.' And when I did that, he turned the gun off of me.”
At the top, the two men went their separate ways – Ciancia to a hospital (after shooting it out with airport cops) and jail, Kinison to retrieve his unharmed wife and back to Upland to put the finishing touches on his show at the 400-seat Grove Theatre that the couple has run for the past 23 years.
Audiences won't hear anything about the LAX rampage in The Gospel According to Kinison, Bill Kinison's emotionally charged stage memoir about growing up with three brothers in a hardscrabble family of Pentecostal preachers in Peoria, IL – a family that most notably included brother Sam, the shock-comic superstar, whose hard-living and polarizing career was brought to an end by a drunk driver on a lonely stretch of desert highway in 1992.]
For one thing, says Kinison, “It's not a diary. It's not a journal. It's a play.” For another, after serving as Sam's manager through the final six rollercoaster years of the incendiary and unpredictable 38-year-old comic's life, surviving the homicidal rampage of a gun-wielding psychopath just doesn't loom that large in the incident-filled memory of the 65-year-old ex-Pentecostal minister and show biz veteran.
Gospel, he says, tells the story of all four Kinison brothers, who were literally raised in the Pentecostal church – for a time they even lived on the second floor of their father's church – before each followed their parents' vocations and became preachers in their own right: Sam for seven years, until defecting to the stand-up world in 1975; Bill for 17 years, until he left the ministry to manage his brother in 1985; and the real star of the family, eldest brother Richard, who preached until his death of cancer three years ago. (“Probably the best evangelist – and I knew them all – that I've ever seen,” says Bill.) The youngest brother, Kevin, was tragically murdered at age 28 when he stumbled upon a home invasion at their mother's house in Tulsa.
The evening, Kinison says, “is about a dysfunctional family. I didn't really realize just how dysfunctional we were until I started writing this.” But its most compelling and – to many audience members – alien character may be the Pentecostal Church itself. “On the social ladder of Christianity,” he quips, “that's probably the bottom rung. We're probably one step above the snake handlers. You know, very poor people, uneducated, very emotional, you know, dancing in the aisles, falling out on the floor and speaking in tongues – all that kind of stuff.”
The first act is staged in the evangelical rhythms of an actual Pentecostal service (by director Gregory Cohen), replete with altar calls, Bill's wife Sherry leading a gospel choir and Kinison himself dressed in white and delivering hell-and-brimstone descriptions of his father preaching and casting out demons. Act 2 features Kinison sitting down and talking about the different members of his family, and what happened to them and how their lives played out. “It's an interesting family,” he adds understatedly.
Like his older brother Richard, who was born severely mentally handicapped, and legally blind.
“At 13 he couldn't count to ten,” recalls Kinison. “He could not spell his name. He couldn't tie his shoes. And then one Sunday morning my mother went up to bring him down for psalm service. And when she went up and got him, he told her an angel was here and I'm healed. And her response was, 'Quit messing around Richard. Come on, we gotta go. Come on over and go downstairs with me.' And he told her again, he said, 'An angel was here.' He said, 'I'm healed.' And he told her, he said, 'Hey. Check my bad eye.' And he could see. So for the first time, he came downstairs and could see what his family looked like. He was two years older than me, and we graduated high school together.”
And while his more famous brother is a featured player in the evening, the Sam Kinison audiences will meet isn't quite the shrieking, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect comedy star – not yet.
“It's really about Sam's life in the ministry,” says Kinison, “which for a large part wasn't successful. He married a young girl after a short romance, and then two years later she had an affair, they ended up in a divorce. And in our religious circle, that's probably about the worst thing that can happen to you. … The way they put it is, 'If you can't take care of your own home, you're not fit for the house of God.' So that was the death knell for Sam. But I talk about his struggles and some of the bizarre things that he used to do in the ministry.”
That doesn't mean that Gospel doesn't offer rich insights to the serious student of stand-up.
Some of Kinison's most famously sacrilegious routines are obviously rooted in his familiarity with the Good Book, such as his riff off of shrewish wives and the Resurrection, “Jesus Wasn't Married,” or “The Last Words,” his revisionist take on the Crucifixion in which he portrays Jesus screaming and cursing as he is nailed to the cross.
What even longtime fans may not realize is that Kinison mostly worked extemporaneously. “Everything Sam did was pretty much off the top of his head or whatever was going on,” claims Bill Kinison. “When we were on tour, he would do certain bits so that I would know where he was at and how close we would be to getting done. But I'd say three quarters of his act every night was off the cuff, I think from preaching. Pentecostal preachers, they'll take one scripture and yell and scream for an hour-and-a-half. So I think probably from the seven years of preaching, he developed that style.
“He was the white working man's comic. Here you got a guy that's overweight, not the best looking guy in the world, that's up there telling you, 'You know, man, I never had any luck with women. You know, I was married three times and I got divorced every two years, and I never had any money.' And I think that, you know, coming from Peoria, IL and [the] Caterpillar [tractor factory], I think those are the people that really, really identified with Sam. Sam you either liked or you really disliked. There wasn't much of a middle ground there.”
The Gospel According to Kinison plays Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the Grove Theatre in Upland, through Jan. 26.
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