Kyle Kinane is everywhere like farty Jesus. He is in the shower with a six-pack of beer.1 He is drunk at a Wendy’s drive-through ordering chicken nuggets out of the sliding door of a taxi van. He is the guy at Red Lobster getting into a fistfight with the night manager over whether the moon landing was faked.2 He is accidentally childproofing himself out of a microwave while trying to nuke Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Then he is berating the microwave, shouting at the microwave to unlock, finally unplugging the microwave and eating the pizza rolls raw, while in his underwear. The next day he is crapping his only pair of pants.
“I drink in the shower,” he says. “I don’t understand why that’s the one room that’s taboo. That should be the only room. It’s perfect; you can’t spill it on your clothes. It’s meant for relaxation. A hot shower with a cold drink is a refreshing juxtaposition. It’s OK to go to a spa and do it, but you do it at your house, and you have to go to meetings because of it? I’m not going to buy into Big Spa’s idea that I have to go to a strip mall somewhere and lay down with incense and champagne, but if I do it vertically in my own home, I’m some sort of scumbag? I’m a grown man, go in there and take a six-pack.”
This is actually a very specific thing that he has admitted several times was likely to happen to him at some point — maybe it actually has.
In his first hour-long Comedy Central special Whiskey Icarus, Kinane is talking about the state of his life, and he admits that he realized what the definition of lonely is the time he forgot he was in the process of jerking off in a hotel room in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the nuisance of finishing like taking a broom and shooing raccoons off his porch: “Hyah … get outta here … hyah, hyah.”
He is the guy on Drunk History who knocks back an entire bottle of tequila and pukes into a trash bag. He is on Conan in a wool hat pulled over his eyes, sighing: “You ever see an abandoned TV dinner in the beer aisle? Yeah, that’s me. I did that. That’s my street art.” He is the title character in a reality-show pilot about the experiences of his life called Kyle Kinane’s Going Nowhere, in which he is smoking weed and hunting Bigfoot in a Back to the Future vest and watching a lizard wearing plastic dragon wings shit on the robe of a wizard. He is paunchy, prickly, grumbly; when his beard is at its woolliest, it presents him as a little knight in a visor of hair. He has a tattoo on his arm of a skull eating a slice of pizza.
Onstage, somewhere out there, pretty much every night of the week, in big, famous places with theater seating and tiny, leaky places with buzzing lights and fake brick as a backdrop, with a beer in his hand and the stage lights on his face, Kinane is confessing to an audience, telling stories that go on and on without obvious punch lines and build to often startling introspection; he’s in front of middle-aged Midwesterners and in front of college students and in front of other comedians, in front of hipsters who follow him on Twitter and grow similar beards and with whom he gets into occasional fights; with empty beer bottles next to him and empty pint glasses on a stool beside him, the hairs of his beard brushing the microphone, he is harrumphing about failure and the stasis of unrealized dreams.
Kinane’s third album, I Liked His Old Stuff Better, will be released January 27. His latest Comedy Central special, which goes by the same name, debuts Friday night. This type of comedy has made him a cult hero among modern stand-up comedians. There is no one like him performing today. And it is comedy composed of what he describes as scumbag stories, the nonevents that make up his daily life: stories masked in futility and resignation; stories that often happen under the influence or in the middle of the night, but are relayed with a subtext that makes them parables; stories about being down and being bored; little, oft-depressing stories that strangely uplift.
That describes the first story I ever heard him tell. The one that made a room full of other comics stagger with laughter, the one that made me eventually want to visit him to see what his life was like and to discover how a scumbag gets famous — the story about Michael Jackson and the Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
On the day Michael Jackson died, Kinane went to the Facebook fan page of Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. He was in his early thirties, he worked a day job writing closed-captioning for reality TV,3 and he visited the page because he loved the flaky, buttery side item (he’d gone so far as to imagine where Cheddar Bay was located, and what it was like there).4 That day, the Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits fan page had become an unlikely forum for mourning the loss of an icon. Kinane read the comments, one below the other. Each was a slight variation of the next, the words naked with sadness and love. He would later recall, “The Venn diagram of Cheddar Bay Biscuits fans and Michael Jackson fans eclipsed itself. They found each other.”
“The cruel irony of that job,” he says, “was that a lot of people who wanted to be television writers, not only are they not accomplishing that, but now they’re forced to write out other people’s words, reality television — or the very type of garbage television that was keeping them out of work — keeping them employed as closed-captioners. It was a unique bit of torture. As scripted and horseshit as it is, it was like the Real Housewives of Wherever, five people yelling at each other and you have to figure out how to convey that, and you’re so tempted to write down the caption ‘TURN OFF YOUR TELEVISIONS!’ Like now we’re poisoning the minds of the hearing-impaired, like maybe they had a way out because they didn’t have access to this trash; they wouldn’t be poisoned by this. But instead we’re making this shit available to them.”
“Somewhere north of Nova Scotia, where the weary sailors slosh into the cheesy waves, the salty fog hitting them, carrying a bounty of cheesy goodness and necklaces for their port lovers, named Brandi.”
He could not stop reading.
Oh my god… Michael, we miss you. We know you went through hell on earth, but hopefully, you’re finding peace in heaven … RIP, King of Pop.
Your music meant so much!
Legend, we love you, RIP!
As Kinane kept scrolling through the eulogies, every 30 posts or so he would come across something out of place — the sentiment of someone who hadn’t heard the news.
Man, Cheddar Bay Biscuits are off the fuckin’ HOOK, am I right? YEAH? Where my PEOPLE at?!?
Cheddar Bay Biscuits are the SHIT!
The responses were time-coded. Kinane saw that it took about a minute for the Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits community to really come together as one.
Listen, man. Today’s just NOT about BISCUITS, okay?
Kinane could feel the remorse emanate from his computer. The shock from the posters whom he imagined waking, stretching, perhaps having coffee, and then heading first thing, like him, to their favorite place in the world, to either read about or share in their love of Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Then learning the horrible news.5
This is a less-than-verbatim version of his joke, cobbled from my memories, from old notes, and also from two online links of him performing this act, in slightly different form. I have only briefly examined the RLCBB Facebook fan page.
“It was either like the absolute zenith of understanding, of human compassion and technology intertwining to make me think, like, Yes, we’re going to be OK as a society, as a species,” Kinane said, telling the story onstage. “Or it was like the downfall of mankind. I don’t know if that’s beautiful or terrifying, man. But it’s … somethin’.”
The biscuits. The biscuits are how I remember him. I was in the back of that audience in 2011. The story was so weird, so unexpected, so inane … yet, in the end, hopeful. As the story built, Kinane whispered. Then Kinane shouted. In between, Kinane paused for effect. The fluctuations of his voice were so precise that they lent the story a bit of opera. That said, he was also fisting a tallboy of Tecate beer. And what made the story even more memorable was his voice. It was the voice of an older, disgruntled man, weary and deep for a guy who wasn’t really that old, a voice that sounded like it had completely given up on the guy to whom it belonged. It was a beer voice, a tequila voice, the sound of all the poor decisions he had ever made — but it also had this tiny bit of wonder. Hearing his stand-up was like the first time I’d heard an electric guitar. I wanted to understand how he got from Cheddar Bay Biscuits on Facebook to a six-minute opus about the strangeness and beauty of life.
Three and a half years later, on a warm night last summer when the tilted power lines loomed above the recycling bins on the Los Angeles sidewalk, Kinane was not drunk, and was not down, though he’d had a couple of beers. He sat on his couch, a taco in each hand, his beard in direct counterbalance to his exposed and almost completely recessed hairline. In his living room there was a skateboard and one of his four mountain bikes leaning against a little plastic trashcan, and an electric fan on his floor next to a huge TV he’d received as payment for a show. His kitchen was clean and the fridge nearly empty, signs he’d been on the road for much of the previous month. He had a stash of bottles on the counter — Johnnie Walker Black and Jameson, a silver flask. Above the microwave he’d childproofed himself out of was a bowl of bananas. There were eye drops on the mantel, a pair of green sunglasses and keys, a map of the United States above his computer, stacks of books and unopened mail. The fake gravestone propped near his kitchen window was made by a fan who’d heard Kinane’s bit about what he wanted written about him in the end, because he still wanted to make people chuckle from the afterlife: “Kyle Christian Kinane. Born Dec. 23, 1976. Died in your arms tonight. Must’ve been something you said.”
Kinane was eating the tacos from open tinfoil. Slowly, some meat and hot sauce dribbled into his beard. He’d recently been kicked out of Canada,6 and he was gearing up to perform in London. I had been sitting with him at one of his favorite places, the Red Lion Tavern, right across the street from his condo. We were drinking cold German beer and he was spinning loooooong stories above a single lit candle, stories about growing up in the Chicago suburbs, about ghosts and Bigfoot, and about how he resembled a certain type of white guy.
Literally, he was not allowed entry into the country. Customs found out he had a DUI and wouldn’t let him through. He missed a weekend of shows. “Fuck em,” he wrote on his Tumblr page, while linking to a video of Night Ranger’s “(You Can Still) Rock in America.”
“Going on the road so much, I see a lot of … this look, people telling similar jokes,” Kinane said, caressing his beard. “I think maybe it’s just everyone knows some asshole like this right now. Guy who’s a little too loud at the bar, talks out of his ass, but he’s entertaining and so people don’t want to punch you. Yeah, I’m describing myself. Maybe that’s what the appeal is. A lot of guys are like, ‘Hey, yeah — I’m that guy too!’ That adds to the pressure of it.”
But when he was a guest on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, the acerbic host wasn’t interested so much in Kinane’s relatable aesthetic as he was with his unique style. “It’s rare that I see someone who is his own thing, and holds the stage as a singular entity,” Maron said. “You’re a character, but a true raconteur, a man capable of spinning a yarn. That’s a rare talent; you don’t see that anymore. You are a storyteller. We all tell our jokes, and have our jokes. But I have not seen a dude … say I’m going to start this bit, and it’s going to go on for eight minutes. If it’s not working a couple minutes in, you have nowhere to go.
“You’re like what we call a classic cranky guy,” Maron added. “Prematurely cranky. You have a nice simmer of cranky.”
“Hey, laugh at this thing that I think is dumb with me,” Kinane said while describing his comedy to Maron. “It’s joyous for me to be cranky about things. And there is a fine line between being cranky and bitter. No way to make being bitter funny. Life is full of failures and challenges and disappointments, and you only ever feel as good as that one time that you’re holding on to, landmarks in your personal history. That’s not going to happen a lot. But once you start saying, ‘Why the fuck can’t that happen again?’ Once you cross over into bitterness … Everybody’s experienced disappointment. Not many people have truly given up.”
You hear someone’s comedy and you get a little window. You form a picture in your mind of what that comedian’s life is like, where that stuff comes from and how it happens. It wasn’t that hard to picture Kyle Kinane drinking, Kyle Kinane eating tacos and maybe puking in a taxi, or Kyle Kinane at some shitty job about to give up on the world, with Del Taco wrappers at his feet. I could imagine him weighing the inevitable dilemma of eating dinner — a stale cheeseburger bite — at 7-Eleven at 3 a.m. Since the moment I heard his stand-up, I wanted to know how those stories were formed. So I finally wrote him. I asked if he’d be up for me actually stepping into that aforementioned window, maybe having some beers with him, maybe eating some tacos, and maybe watching him … fuck up. And maybe I’d catch a glimpse of something that he might eventually write about.
“I’m around,” he wrote back. “My life isn’t incredibly interesting while I’m home. Or away for that matter.”
He once did an entire bit about watching some guy on a plane eat pancakes with his hands, pancakes pulled one by one from a Foot Locker bag, and a bit about watching Huey Lewis–related videos for five hours straight, back when he had a day job, until he finally pushed himself away from the computer screen, stood from his swivel chair, and yelled, “Am I ALIVE? Is this IT?! Unnnhhhh.”
I wrote that maybe we’d see bunnies fuck or try to eat the world’s biggest pizza. Or I’d be there when something like the biscuits happened. He first agreed to let me, a total stranger, stay at his place, on the couch (his material often takes place in the middle of the night) — and then he thought better of it.
Kinane is 38 now, traveling the world telling scumbag stories. He is on TV a lot — not only in his specials, but as the gruff, daily voice of all Comedy Central programming,7 announcing upcoming shows and what times to watch. He has become something that Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt can’t really become in the world of mainstream comedy. They are more famous, and no less respected, but Kinane has embodied his character in a more complete way.
For instance: “Futurama! Tomorrow at 4:30. It’s Bender’s big score. Filled with robots, aliens, narwhals, and hot cyclops-on-yeti action!”
“He may not have as many fans as Louis C.K., but the fans he has are completely hardcore,” said Dave Stone, a rising comic in L.A. “People drive from states all over the country to go see him. Bill Engvall, on paper, is much more successful. But … are people preordering his album?”
“He’s become iconic,” said Matt Braunger, Kinane’s longtime friend and fellow stand-up from Chicago, who also lives in L.A. “He’s a little folk hero, a Paul Bunyan. When you say ‘Kyle Kinane,’ people think, Drinks a lot, has a beard, Uncle Barbecue.8 He has presented himself in the past as a drunken loser. But I call bullshit on that. Which is how he still kind of presents himself to a certain degree. He’s a smart fucking guy. There is a tendency in this industry to make us into caricatures. He can be marketable that way, and his stories onstage are often exaggerations. He’d be dead if he were drunk that much. He drinks way less than people think. And the stereotype is that he’s miserable and sad. That is not Kyle. I’ve seen him in sad times, but his career is going gangbusters. All his stuff is actually positive; he’s just calling himself a shitbag.”
I find a couple of references to this moniker, the first being on Death of the Party, where he introduces himself as Uncle Barbecue and asks the audience if it has come to hear “Dumb-dumb stories.”
During the week I spent in Kinane’s life, one of the first things we did was go to a grocery store called Gelson’s Market. It was an expensive grocery store, way more expensive than the ones where he usually shops.
“Look at this fuckin’ cheese,” he grumbled. He was wearing a Thin Lizzy trucker hat. His pickup truck had a “Death to False Pizza” bumper sticker. He pushed a mini–grocery cart over the clean tile floor. He said he never shopped there. He examined the salad bar that shot mist onto lettuce. Ran a finger across a can of organic chili. “This is gourmet shit,” he said. He put some ramen in the cart. “I’m going for it. I’ll put onions and mushrooms in this and be real proud of myself.”
“I would normally shop at Trader Joe’s,” he said. “Or Ralphs. But just go and look at the parking lot at Trader Joe’s. It’s a butt fuck.”
A dude with a ponytail came up to him. There was a moment of silence as they regarded each other. “I don’t mean to be a dick in the grocery store, but I love your comedy,” the dude with the ponytail said. Kinane was holding his own grocery bag.
“Oh, that’s nice!” he replied. They shook hands.
He walked the aisles and mumbled, reciting food items as he saw them, only I was with him, listening, hoping for anything that might turn into a story for the stage. “Chips … salad fixins … onion … I have a cucumber coupon! They don’t have all these onions at my shitty grocery store. Look at this big, stupid onion.” He touched the onions, the bread, the salad in cellophane packaging, the peppers that had just been spritzed with water, as though it were a way to understand them.
He drove me to the front of Glenn Danzig’s house. It was covered in cobwebs and moss. We almost had our fortunes read. We were so close, in the actual fortune-teller’s store, ready to buy — hypnosis, $150 for one hour; shamanic healing, $250 for two hours; psychic reading, $50 for 30 minutes — but he backed out because he didn’t want to know if something bad was in his future. He asked me if I wanted to go mountain biking, and then he didn’t bring it up again. We walked the sidewalks around Silver Lake, and one day he wore a fanny pack, pushing his bike; L.A. was green and gold and cracked and new and the color of the burnished sun. We drank a lot of beer, but nowhere near enough to make either of us black out. There was no puking. He wore pink sunglasses on one of the days.
I met his girlfriend, Rachel, a Comedy Central employee. They first got to know each other at 5 a.m. at a McDonald’s in Montreal. Before that, they had met briefly at the roast of Roseanne Barr. At McDonald’s, she told him to come sit with her. “I’m sorry, I’m really high,” he said. On one of their first dates they put together a hot-air-balloon puzzle.
We met up with some other comedians in Westwood, in what looked like a warehouse behind a motorized fence. The comedians were practicing for a musical about Bob Seger called A Night of 1000 Bob Segers. Kinane was nervous about singing in the show. The warehouse was a studio owned by Tenacious D. The musical was narrated by a modern Seger, looking back upon the decisions of his life, and featured iterations of the man at various times in his life. Liberties were taken with story and song. He’d murdered someone in the musical. A bunch of comics were drinking beer and singing, and it was hot enough in the studio to drive them outside toward a cooler full of Budweiser. Kinane’s song was “Roll Me Away.” He had to practice singing while also pretending to be riding a motorcycle. He had been asked to whip out a dildo at one point in the song and flap it around — like maybe Seger would. Every one of the comedians had performed a joke about Seger somewhere along the line, including Kinane.9
Kinane said he used to get the type of drunk where he misinterpreted Seger’s songs as the national anthem. “Goddammit,” he said to a friend. “Take off your hat. ‘Night Moves’ is playin’! Don’t be a prick, man.”
We took Uber everywhere. Kinane made idle chitchat with the drivers. I never saw bunnies fuck or Kinane puke. Not once.
“It’s awesome that people like what I do,” he said, trying to choose among 3,000 dishes of spicy Thai food at Jitlada Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, after we went and traded in some games at a video game store. “But there’s no need for what I do. In a doomsday value system, I’m fuckin’ bait. I’m sent to run through the field so a game animal can chase me and they can shoot the animal for food. That’s my value if shit goes down. Anytime I see a hint of ego coming into this, I’m like, ‘Hold on. Get the fuck out of the way. You’re unnecessary to this world.’ Hopefully what I do makes the world a little better. Oh, you laughed? Now you’re in a better mood? Good. But this isn’t a necessity to have someone with a sense of humor around at all times.”
That week he was honing newer material for I Liked His Old Stuff Better. There was a notebook open on his living room table, next to his keys. He leaned his head back on the plush red pillow of his couch; he doesn’t have a ton of time to write anymore. That time is compromised because of his fame, because of how much he travels; when he was a younger comic, all he had was time to write. Now he’s on the road almost 25 days a month.
“I’ve been in a lull. It comes in cycles,” he said. “It might take a while for the writing to kick back in, but it never truly goes away. It comes back. I’m in a routine right now. Airport. Hotel. Show. Airport. Hotel. Show. Yeesh, I’ve been doing nothing. And nothing new to inspire anything. The lull is not writing new stuff. That’s what makes me nuts. I’m like, You’re done. It’s all out — that reserve. You spent whatever you had. It’s never really the case, but it’s my fear. I’ve been allowed to do this by some cosmic thing; the universe lets me do this, and I don’t deserve to do this. If you take it away in a year, I understand. I’d be like, thank you. I try and sock away the money. I just buy bike shit. That’s all. Booze and bike shit.”
With the travel, the success, the voice-over work at Comedy Central, he is actually living a healthier lifestyle than he did on his slovenly rise through the stand-up world. Still eating a few hamburgers, yes, and still drinking some beer, but he has become successful at the only thing he ever wanted. He has been practicing telling scumbag stories every night that he’s had a chance, in slight variation, at clubs around L.A. for 11 years. “I’m a comedian,” he said. “My dream came true. And a lot of my dream is just me in a hotel room, treating myself like an animal.
“I’m painting a picture for someone else about me with this,” he said. “Rarely is it I’m a good guy. I don’t lie to make myself seem better. I don’t want to experience things in my life with only the hope of getting comedy out of them. For a while, that was the … thing I was doing, and I was like, I’m shortchanging myself out of living my life. Comedy comes from something hitting me … I don’t think you get a sincere experience if you go through everything just trying to figure out what the joke is. Let it affect you emotionally and then maybe later write a joke about it.”
The longest and most developed of the new stories was about something shitty and depressing that had happened to him — crapping his pants after eating Totino’s Pizza Rolls and having his mother bail him out of the situation — but I wondered how he would continue his comedy if he was beginning to live a different life, in the glow of his success, in the shadow of his compromised time, and in a happier place, a scumbag-lite place.
He was driving down Sunset Boulevard to a show, his second of the night. Everything around him was pink and purple and blinking slowly to life in the dark. He idled his truck at a stoplight beneath the glowy feast of West Hollywood, the music from other cars bleeding through his cracked windshield, the air coming in and rippling his beard. He stared at himself in the rearview mirror, grumbled about traffic, and traced a finger into the beard, which he had just cut. He slowly raised a pocketknife to his chin, squinting at himself so he could see the stray hairs, using the blade to delicately cut one hair, then another.
“I don’t normally do this Crocodile Dundee shit,” he said. “But I have OCD if I trim my beard and there’s a couple weird, stray long ones; I can’t stop fucking with them.
“A white, chubby, bearded dude doing comedy now is a guy in a blazer with his sleeves rolled up doing comedy in the late ’80s. It’s done. I want to make the beard shorter and shorter, and part of me wants to go completely clean-cut. But could I still tell my scumbag stories? The look fits my act. I have self-referential jokes about being slovenly. I have never been anything but that. You see a lot of handsome people with full heads of hair growing beards and wearing hats now. But it’s for bald people. Bald people with no chins. This — ugghh — this is where my face ends when I don’t have a beard.”
He parallel parked on a side street in front of a club called ComedySportz. He was the headliner for Chicago in L.A. Comedy Night, put together by Columbia College and Northwestern. “Did I just steal that dude’s spot?” He got out of the car and nodded to someone at the front of the club.
He stood in a cramped hallway and leaned against the wall, occasionally glancing down at the bent pages of a pocket reporter’s notebook. Other comics, mostly in their twenties, filtered in and out of the hallway, paused to chat, to shake his hand, or to tell him how funny he was. He walked through a door at the back of the stage and stood behind a curtain. A peek around the corner revealed the room was filled to capacity. He had made his bones in Chicago, and this was a Chicago crowd.
He was introduced by the MC, and then Kinane walked onstage. He didn’t even need a microphone, which is what he joked about to break the ice. That was not a story, and not something that he’d practiced. His set lasted 28 minutes.
“I’m the fuck-up of my family,” he said, and then told the story about nuking the Totino’s. “They have to support me no matter what choice I make. And this is also sort of … they don’t treat me like a child anymore, as much as like a special-needs adult. Who lives on his own. A lot of checking in and very basic, general questions. My mom comes to visit … she goes right into the cupboard. Whose house do you do that in? The words she said — she said, ‘Oh, you got plates, and bowls, and everything!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a man. No, I just tear open a bag of cereal with my teeth and dump it on the floor, and eat it like a fuckin’ raccoon whenever I get hungry. I have plates and bowls, Mom.’
“But as much as I want to get angry at stuff like that, the universe puts me in check. Two weeks ago, I was back home, visiting — I was in my childhood bedroom. The house I grew up in. Mom in the other room. I do some voice-over work here and there — one of those weird things, that you live here, and you don’t even realize those are jobs — Up next, watch this fucking show. I get a paycheck for that. I’m doing that in my childhood home in my bedroom. Mom in the other room. I had an upset stomach all week [because of the Totino’s rolls he’d eaten raw, after locking himself out of his microwave]. I was laying on the futon. I shit my pants. I shit. In. My. Pants.
“Now, yes, OK, pant-shitting stories are hack, but it happens sometimes when you’re 37, after you’ve reprimanded your mother, and you’ve told her that you’re a man, and you shit your pants in your childhood bedroom. I travel light. Only one pair of pants. And that’s the pair of pants I shat in. I then had to leave my bedroom, and then say, Mother, may I borrow your Nissan Altima? I need to go to the mall. To buy some pants. I have shat mine. And this wonderful woman who I love, and who pisses me off, said OK. And she cleaned my shit pants.”
He moved to L.A. when he was 26. Drove his Ford Focus out with hardly anything in the back. He had been performing in Chicago since he was in college, several times a week, at places with names like the Lincoln Lodge and the Lyons Den. He played guitar in a punk band called the Grand Marquis (because he drove one). But people told him he was funny. He thought he was funny. He had no career ambitions and started doing comedy and it turned out to be the only thing he was good at. He thought he would end up as a warehouse supervisor if he stayed, and he knew he wouldn’t be happy as a suburbanite. He did not want to stay in the town where he lost his virginity at 21.10
Here is a summary of that experience: Kinane lost his virginity to a stripper he met at a gas station. A woman entered the store at ten o’clock one evening. “I need shoes,” she said to Kinane. There was desperation in her voice. Kinane told her to call and see if Payless was open (“It’s not open at 10 p.m. in Wood Dale, Illinois.”) This was pre-Internet. He let her use the gas station’s phone book. He asked her why she needed shoes. She said she worked at Allstars Gentlemen’s Club, down the road. “You should come in,” she said to him. He was 21. “I’ll give you a dance.” She was not an attractive stripper. “You know, she was cashing in on what little she had,” he said. “I called my buddy and we went there. The specific moment, we were drinking Crown Royal in the parking lot, I was singing the Misfits: I want your touch. I didn’t know the lyrics. My buddy was like, ‘I want your skull! It’s the Misfits, you idiot.’” Kinane went in. Saw her. She took him for a very long lap dance. A very “above and beyond lap dance. And she told me, ‘I’ll meet you at the gas station and you could come home with me.’ And I was like, I guess … this is how I’ll lose my virginity. She drove me all the way to Joliet to a Days Inn. She goes in and gets the room, she comes out … she’s like, ‘I get a discount. They know what I do.’ I was like … What’s happening? I just had awful sex. She had all these fucked-up dragon tattoos, each one worse than the other; the newest one was the shittiest one. I was like, these should be improving.”
His first comedy was fictionalized comedy, goofy comedy, wordplay. Like his hero Mitch Hedberg. He aped that style at first. He was terrified of crowds. He didn’t put any personality behind what he was saying, because he merely wanted to know if the writing was good. He hated making eye contact. In the beginning he would find the one person who wasn’t laughing and focus on them, and then think, Oh, god, this is terrible. He won a regional stand-up contest held by Comedy Central. Instead of going on the road, he decided to move to L.A. He got a place with Braunger and slept on the couch. He went to open mics, got a spot on a show, got a spot on another show, not even thinking about the years it would take to make comedy a career.
Kinane sold cake decorations over the phone. He worked at another warehouse. The apartment was a mess. Braunger, flying in and out of town doing commercials, wrote on Kinane’s MySpace page, “I should probably tell you this in person, but you left a huge piece of chicken on the floor by the couch.” That turned into a story.
He didn’t have a stage presence back then. He had to get drunk to tell stories. He had no idea what he wanted. He gave himself until he was 30. When he was 30, he got a spot at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which is big for a young comic. He got drunk and bombed. He thought he’d ruined his opportunity, that his dream was gone. So he adopted a new attitude: It didn’t matter anymore. He grew a depression beard. Started dressing even worse than he already dressed. Started talking about anything he wanted, which is where the weird, lonely stories came from. That’s when someone from Last Call With Carson Daly found him. Once he thought he’d failed, he was at ease. The first thing he said to the Carson Daly audience was, “What’s up, baby cheesecakes?” It made no sense, but it made him happy.
He got a Comedy Central special. He opened on tour for Patton Oswalt. That was his first big showcase, often in front of more than 500 people, and for what Kinane described as an audience that was specifically there for comedy, that had paid to see it performed at its highest level, not just some people sitting on stools and picking at the labels of their beer bottles — an audience that had come to see one of the most famous comedians on the planet. He was nervous. “To walk up there,” Kinane said, “their applause told me, ‘Here’s our opener, we have no idea who you are.’ And to win over a room that has no idea who you are, well, by default you respect their opinion of comedy because they are there to see Patton Oswalt. That set things off for me.”
“Kyle is an example of a comedian who, once they figure out what their voice is, that’s the spark that ignites the jet fuel,” Oswalt said. “And he’s become so prolific so effortlessly [that] it just makes me tremendously excited to see that happen.”
“I never had any superstar dreams,” Kinane said. “I just thought, Let’s see what happens when I pursue the one thing I love doing. Not putting a wife and kids in jeopardy; if I fuck up anyone’s life, it’ll be mine. So, I’d rather gamble on seeing if I could make this happen than be secure and always wonder about it. I’m doing what I want — this ridiculous, asinine thing that I set out to do.”
Los Angeles, at midnight, at some bar with wrinkled tablecloths, and then at some other comedy venue where groups of comics stood around, each one trying to best the other with a funnier joke. Los Angeles, in the morning, over plates of eggs with hot sauce and then more beer. Los Angeles, in the creeping afternoon, the haze dissipating, stuck behind a necklace of taillights and a million cars creeping north. Los Angeles, as seen from his truck, with the little talisman on the dash, while he drove to Comedy Central. Nothing was really happening.
But nothing really happening is what Kinane always writes about. We ate at Umami Burger and shared some fries under the menu option “Truffle ’Em.” We went book shopping at Wacko. He has a deep knowledge of L.A. history, telling stories about streets and theaters and neighborhoods as we passed. I bought a pack of cigarettes and pushed them toward him, pressured him to start smoking again, hoping it might lead to at least one poor decision. He had a couple and regretted it. He sang his Seger song in front of a crowded bar while wearing a denim vest and a long black wig, a pair of handlebars strapped to his stomach. He went to the opening of Season 2 of Drunk History and had one beer. Where would his next spark come from?
“I want comedy to be an art form,” Kinane had said. “I feel like I put just as much heart and blood, sweat, and tears into this as any musician, any sculptor, and I want it to be appreciated as such. But … then, you know, I was in a van with my friends not too long ago, and I announced, ‘Hey, guys, these farts are like contractions for the turd baby I’m going to have later.’ And that’s why I’m not an artist. That’s why this is not getting federal funding. That’s why there’s not going to be a grant to fund this to be performed in the City Center, for the citizens.”
When I got home, I asked him if anything we saw might inspire a story.
“I didn’t have anything inspire me, but I have been more and more fascinated with cults,” he wrote. “Not that we did anything cult-like.”
Kinane likes the sunny bubble of L.A., and the city has made him the comic he’s become. He likes the diversity, the freedom it has allowed him, the anti-suburbia of it, being away from his family, running around a city that is, to him, like a perpetual Breakfast Club–themed party: “I’m a princess … I’m a criminal … I’m a basket case! No, you’re all GRAPHIC DESIGNERS,” he said. “All right? Get over yourselves.” But he isn’t from there, he’s from the middle, where people “made things; things like engines and … vegetables. And that is where shit really happens,” he said. “This is a city of transients … everyone latches on to one small thing that might be like where you’re from. That defines you. Well, I’m from Chicago.”
Kinane’s family is something that defined his comedy, his comedic personae, and is a way in to his stories and who he really is; his mom, Deb, has actually turned out to bear the brunt of many of his stories. She told me this while sighing over the phone. Told me about where his comedy comes from. She used to send him packs of smokes in an Easter basket. She used to make his friends chili when they came over to practice for their punk band.
A lot of his stories are rebellions against how supportive and encouraging she and his father have been to him. How stifling the suburbs were, how uncreative he felt. He has a bit about his mother paying attention to everything he says on Twitter. A bit about his parents being forced to hunt for a copy of Hustler in the Chicago suburbs like two old perverts because Kinane had a brief interview in the magazine.
But did she raise a scumbag? Nah. That was just an act. As much as the stories he tells can be depressing and dark, they aren’t based on the real Kinane she knows; they define his comedy, but not him. She raised a kid who was in the gifted classes as a child, who got A’s on his essays in college. Kinane worked at Clyde’s Delicious Donuts growing up. He worked at the gas station where he lost his virginity. At night when he got off work he would take off and do open mics. His mother and father sometimes went to watch him.
“Instead of these elongated stories that could mesmerize you and take you in, he did more like one-liners,” she said. “His first joke we heard him tell was about two tow trucks. He had seen one tow truck towing the other one. I can’t believe this is about to come out of my mouth, but … ‘Oh, look, something about those two tow trucks fucking.’ Or whatever. You get the gist.
“There was a talent show at school, she said. “He was really young, in fifth grade. I stood in the back, watching. They actually had to pull him offstage. He started to tell a story about me birthing him. My husband and I also have a dark sense of humor.
“I just really don’t know if he’ll ever grow up,” she said, unbidden.
He had a special insight into things, she said. Could interpret the truth.
She and her husband did try to find a Hustler. But the real story was that they didn’t drive all over the suburbs looking. They went to one 7-Eleven, and 7-Elevens quit selling adult magazines years ago.
Kinane’s old bedroom is now a TV room. The room where he shit his pants. Kinane’s dad sits in there and teaches online classes for DeVry. When Kinane comes home, he constantly complains about the futon. And for them to stop bugging him. Until, of course, he needs help.
I asked his mom about the Totino’s story, about him shitting his pants — the scumbag story where he got mad at her until Kinane, a 37-year-old man, needed his mom. I wanted to know if that was the real Kinane and what about it fit into his character. Did he really shit his pants? Did he really eat raw food? The story is like 10 minutes long.
“Yeah, that happened,” she said. “But … and excuse my language, in reality, it was probably just a Hershey squirt.”
Justin Heckert (@JustinHeckert) is a writer living in Indianapolis. His stories have been published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Indianapolis Monthly, ESPN The Magazine, Men’s Journal, River Teeth, and Atlanta magazine, among others. He previously wrote about Puddles the Singing Clown for Grantland.