None of the TV anchors knew quite what to make of Sam Kinison when news of his death came over the wire early Saturday morning. "The loud comedian," most of them called him, struggling to make do with a meaninglessly vague adjective, then running a silent interview clip in which, with brushed shoulder-length blond hair and faintly rubicund face, he looked like an amiable Friar Tuck dispensing words of comfort and reassurance to his unseen listener.
If anything, Mr. Kinison was a manifestation of acute discomfort, and that's why he's remembered, even if TV's public memory is shrouded with incomprehension. The circumstance of his death -- a head-on auto collision with a teen-age driver speeding along the wrong side of a highway -- may well have made the news on the strength of its spectacular brutality regardless of who the victim was. Obviously, Mr. Kinison made the top of the hour because he was a celebrity of sorts, a famous comedian, a show-biz person. But there's more.
There's no denying he was a base figure. Sam Kinison came along in the mid-'80s as a shock trooper of the American subconscious. On top, we had the sunny Reagan presidency and its fond avuncular approval of the get-rich-quick ethos -- BMWs and lucrative paper chases for insiders and the thirtysomething crowd, and "Morning in America" promises for the rest of the electorate left holding its hand out.
Mr. Kinison planted his squat legs like a fierce troll by a bridge, skewed his face into a florid rage, and screamed. That was his act. There was no pretense of comedic refinement, of structure and build and the bait-and-switch line that is comedy's stock in trade. A Sam Kinison joke didn't hit the media wire and zip through the country like one of Johnny Carson's political zingers. It was usually crude, misogynistic, homophobic or wrongheaded for a while he was the most aggressively misinformed comedian of his generation when it came to understanding AIDS.
But Mr. Kinison was a creature of the '80s' excesses and frustrations. His alcohol and drug habit were common knowledge, and he tried to do what the other prevailing wild things did. He made record albums ("Louder Than Hell" and "Have You Seen Me Lately?"). He made a stab at the movies (Rodney Dangerfield's "Back to School" and the aborted "Atuk"). He appeared on TV's "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman" and was an MTV regular. He also played Tim Matheson's conscience on Fox-TV's "Charlie Hoover."
Mr. Kinison was the unhappy son of an impoverished Pentecostal minister in Peoria, Ill., and for a while became a minister himself before he married (at 21) and divorced (at 25), and then gave up the calling ("I was getting too hip for the room" he told an interviewer).
It's impossible to tell now if Kinison would ever have been able to get out of the shockmeister '80s. He was capable of enlightenment, and maybe his new marriage might have brought him the peace he never knew. But the violence of his end is particularly haunting: a troubled man meeting a senseless, smoldering end on a strip of desert highway under a half-moon.