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Friday, March 27, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kinison, Smirnoff, `Mo' Better Comedy' Lay On The Laughs

Sam Kinison was born in Yakima.

"You heard it first," he yells over an echoing speaker phone from Los Angeles. "My dad had a ministry in Wapato."

You have to believe him, he pronounces Wapato correctly.

But Kinison, the fire-breathing, gale-force funny man we've all come to love or loathe - he blows at the Temple Theatre tomorrow night - spent his formative years in Peoria, Ill., where his father continued his ministry. Kinison literally lived in a church until he was 15.

Even after his parents split up, he couldn't get away from evangelical religion. He dropped out of high school, but landed at the Pinecrest Bible Training Center in New York state where he eked out an equivalency diploma. He eventually made his way back to Tulsa, Okla., where his mother had remarried another minister.

It couldn't help but rub off on Kinison. He, like his brother Richard, became a preacher. Much of Kinison's fire-and-brimstone comedy delivery can be traced directly to that time. He's a yeller and screamer, a ball of kinetic energy and wrath, be it righteous or (as it often is) profane. Kinison is Elmer Gantry past the edge. He doesn't dangle from the thread over the fires of hell; he rides it like Tarzan on a vine.

But the ministry didn't work out for Kinison. A failed marriage shook his faith. It was a trip in 1978 to the L.A. Comedy Store, where he saw Richard Pryor and Robin Williams, that renewed him. He moved to Houston and the Comedy Workshop, sharpened his skills and hit the road again, this time a reborn comedian. He claims the hours are easier and you don't have to heal anyone.

Even though Kinison is projecting over the phone, he isn't overbearing, rude or obnoxious. His language is almost pristine. His accent has a weird Midwest/Southern twist to it, an amalgam of places seen and heard. You can hear a woman in the background laughing occasionally.

"I love Seattle, man, great city. You guys have a real thing for me there. I don't know who gets more pickets, Dice or me."

When he's reminded of his first gig in the Emerald City, playing KISW radio's 15th anniversary party at Parker's in 1986, he lets out a breath.

"That was a long time ago, it's pretty much a blur." Kinison played to an audience dressed for a prom, one with no idea what he was about. The next day, the only part of the show that KISW could air was "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen."

At that, Kinison lets out a cackle. "Yeah, man - well, not much has changed."

Not true. This year, after years of one-night stands and one-time TV shots, Kinison broke into television fulltime with "Charlie Hoover," a Fox Network sitcom. The show, however, is on "hiatus." "It's not canceled," says Kinison, "they're just not showing it." He says he's found the experience enjoyable. "It's nice being home."

His appearance at the Temple is part of what he calls "a weekend out. I hate clubs, but I love playing live. So we go out and do these concerts. I'm doing Vancouver, Portland and Spokane. This'll be my first time in Tacoma."

He says he's mellowed a bit and that his comedy has taken on a more political bent. "It's election year. They make it too easy. I'm kinda glad Tsongas is out, though. I was doing too many jokes about his name sounding like a disease, something you get rid of at the clinic. Like a case of Dukakis."

Kinison bellows at 8 p.m.

It won't be merely more comedy at T Town's Pantages tomorrow night, it'll be "Mo' Better Comedy: Straight from the Hood," with Chris Thomas, James Stephens III and A.J. Sanders.

"Straight from the Hood" is being produced by Stephens and his partner James R. Gore. The Seattle University graduates joined forces last year for "Mo' Better Comedy: One Night Stand" with May May Ali - Muhammad Ali's daughter - and a follow up. The shows proved popular enough to warrant yet another. This will be the first "Mo' Better" at the Pantages.

Headliner Thomas is an ace impressionist with over 200 voices in his repertoire. He's also very funny, something most impressionists are not. He's a gifted rapper, too, and includes the form as part of his act. He's seen daily on B.E.T.'s "Rap City" show and was recently featured on Whoopi Goldberg's comedy special "Chez Whoopi" on H.B.O.

Stephens also works music into his act. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Stephens got his start on the Seattle comedy scene while still in school. He eventually moved to L.A. and started doing television along with his club dates. His TV credits include "Live at the Improv," "Comic Strip Live," "Paul Rodriguez at San Quentin" and regular appearances on NBC's "Friday Night Videos."

And although Sanders is new to live comedy, she's already performed at L.A.'s Comedy Act Theater and The Comedy Show. She also has a recurring role on "A Different World."

This comedy jam kicks off at 8 p.m.

Russian-born Yakov Smirnoff has been something of a comedic Man Without a Country for years. Now, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, is there anything left for him to joke about?

It would seem so. Smirnoff has been in the United States since 1978. He became a citizen in 1986. His act has been based mostly on cultural differences between his mother country and his newly adopted home. Smirnoff went from being a reluctant communist to a jubilant capitalist, and he's been reporting on it all the way. His last outing, 1991's Moscow-to-Moscow World Tour, seems to sum up the Smirnoff dichotomy. It began in Russia and ended in Idaho. Moscow, Idaho. Yin and Yang Yakov.

Basically Smirnoff is a joke teller. Instead of beginning in the Catskills he started out working cruise lines in the Black Sea - pretty much the same thing. If Smirnoff is anything, he's a survivor. He should weather the latest storm in the homeland of his humor just fine.

Smirnoff plays the Paramount Theatre tomorrow night at 8 p.m.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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