Comedy Central // 2010 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // December 10th, 2010
"I miss my dad and I miss Sam Kinison." -- Chris Rock
Back From Hell: A Tribute To Sam Kninison gathers Sam Kinison's numerous friends and admirers for a remembrance of the raging comedian. Chris Rock (Bigger and Blacker), Denis Leary (No Cure For Cancer), Lewis Black (Black On Broadway), Jay Leno (Igor), George Lopez (Marmaduke), and many, many more all-star comedians appear in the documentary; which analyzes Kinison's life, stand-up, and untimely death.
I've always been a big fan of stand-up comedy. I was watching Eddie Murphy concerts as early as the age of eight (nice call on that one, Ike's parents), memorized countless Conan O'Brien monologues as a middle schooler, graduated to Chris Rock and David Cross in high school and regularly worship the ground Steve Martin performed on. Yet, despite my fandom, I somehow missed the Sam Kinison boat.
Before watching Back From Hell, my only exposure to Kinison was from late night commercials that advertised the comedian's albums, VHS and DVD box sets. These portrayed Sam as a coked out, bad boy comedian who lived fast, died young, and screamed a lot. Back From Hell is a crash course on the man that re-affirms this hypothesis, but also delves deeper into what made Kinison, well, Kinison. From his most famous acts, to his most infamous backstage antics, this documentary paints Sam as an innovator of stand-up, a man whose in-your-face antics split audiences between horror and hilarity, and earned the respect of all his peers as a byproduct.
The celebrity component makes up the bulk of the documentary, which is both a good and bad thing. I can listen to Chris Rock wax philosophic about paint drying, and regardless of how you feel about Jay Leno as a Tonight Show Host, the man is a living encyclopedia of stand-up history. But as much as I enjoyed the entertaining input from these famous comedians, I couldn't help but wish there was more input from Kinison's non-celebrity friends and family. Sure, his brother and former manager put in some face time, but what about others that knew him during his days as a Pentecostal preacher? Or perhaps the infamous ex-wife that fueled his comedic fodder? There simply isn't enough exploration of Kinison's life explored outside of the comedy circuit, and while you can postulate that as fodder for another documentary, Back From Hell skates close enough to this territory to warrant the request.
Also, certain questionable comedian inclusions harm the cutting edge credibility of Back From Hell. Does anyone give a damn about what blue collar pandering stand-ups like George Lopez or Ron White have to say about one of the most notoriously un-P.C. comedians that ever lived? Talking heads like these feel shoved in to interest a broader audience of comedy fans into renting or purchasing the disc. I'm sure this trick works, but it feels about as fitting as Gallager commenting on the legacy of Bill Hicks.
With these criticisms in mind, the documentary often comes off as a bit of a puff piece. Still, its one hell of a well-made puff piece. At 60 minutes, Back From Hell feels far too short, but considering the massive amounts of information it packs into this running time, one can hardly fault it. Kinison is painted as a sympathetic, tortured artist that lived his comedy persona to the fullest. His stand-up clips are genuinely funny and thought provoking, if misogynistic and sometimes homophobic. The documentary hammers home that nothing is off limits in stand-up, and if the audience sympathizes with that philosophy, Back From Hell will be an enlightening look at a man who pushed the boundaries of his discipline.
As a DVD, Back From Hell delivers the goods. The video transfer is uniformly solid for a television production such as this. The 5.1 mix is equally decent, though I'd think really hard before deciding if you absolutely need Kinison's screeching in full surround. The stereo mix is also a good choice. Just sayin'.
Comedy Central gives us a respectable array of extras, starting with "Stories From the Comedy Store" by Bill Kinison, Craig Gass, Marc Maron, and Pauly Shore. These deleted bits from the documentary are amusing enough, though rough timing and content repetition make it easy to see why they made the chopping block. Music videos for Kinison's "Wild Thing" are also included in all there '80s MTV glory. Finally, bonus clips of Sam Kinison stand-up is included. One sort of wishes Comedy Central would've kicked in for a full-length special or two, as they've been prone to do on stand-up comedy discs of their past, but these clips are more than adequate replacements.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Performances
* Music Video