Judge Victor Valdivia also screams his opinions profanely at top volume—which is not really appropriate during Sunday Mass.
"Sam Kinison took no prisoners."—Richard Pryor
Sam Kinison (1954-1992) was a standup comic who could be brilliant and offensive, incisive and adolescent, all at the same time. More often than not, however, he could be brilliantly funny. His trademark, of course, was his loud and distinctive scream, which he deployed to hammer home his unique and blunt observations. Subtlety was never his strong suit; Kinison was about revealing the deepest and darkest impulses in his psyche while finding the humor in them. When he screamed to starving African children, "Maybe you should MOVE TO WHERE THE FOOD IS! YOU LIVE IN A DESERT!," you could laugh, or you could wince, but, either way, you were getting a point of view that no one else could or would give. That's why Sam Kinison: Wild Child, a two-disc set of various performances, is a noteworthy release. Though Kinison (who was killed in a car crash in early 1992) has been dead for over a decade, his style of humor has become more influential over the years, and, for all his flaws and indulgences, there still really hasn't been anyone like him.
Disc One compiles two of Kinison's HBO specials (previously released by Mill Creek as Sam Kinison: Unleashed) and these do give, for better and for worse, a comprehensive portrait of Kinison's strengths and failings as a comic. The first special, Sam Kinison: Breaking the Rules, originally aired in 1987 and made Kinison a household name. It's easy to see why. In contrast to the tiresome Seinfeld-esque observational humor of the era ("Didja ever notice how airplane food is so terrible?"), Kinison is unafraid to take on controversial topics. His riffs on religion, in particular, are still as trenchant and hilarious as ever. Because Kinison was a fundamentalist preacher for over a decade, his take on the Bible, such as when he asserts that all Jesus really wanted at His crucifixion was "somebody with a stepladder and a pair of pliers," is the sort of irreverence that only the truly reverent could come up with. His jokes on relationships are scathing, and some might be taken aback by the harsh language he uses, although it should be obvious that he's referring to specific individuals rather than attacking women as a whole. His material on gays, on the other hand, is far more problematic, reflecting an adolescent point of view that isn't particularly funny or original. Nonetheless, the combination of truly original material and Kinison's high-energy delivery makes this one of his definitive standup performances.
Unfortunately, the success of Breaking the Rules gave Kinison all the success he could have dreamed of. As 1991's The Sam Kinison Family Entertainment Hour, the second special compiled on this disc, proves, that was at best a mixed blessing. Family Entertainment Hour suffers from the overstuffed self-indulgence that typifies the expression "too fast too soon." The show clocks in at 49 minutes, and nearly ten of those are wasted on Kinison playing guitar and singing two loud, sloppy versions of Jeff Beck's "Goin' Down" accompanied by a three-piece rock band. This isn't funny or entertaining—it's just embarrassing. Kinison also wastes time on an audience participation bit where he solicits the worst story of infidelity and then calls up the cheating woman to scream at her. This may have been amusing in person, but on TV it's just interminable. Nonetheless, there is still some good content in this special, especially once Kinison drops the rock-star affectations and gets back to addressing sex, drugs, and televangelism. His bits on his newfound sobriety (such as when he describes how his car mysteriously wrapped itself around a telephone pole) and his newfound sensitivity to women (such as when he renounces a particular sexual practice, which is much too explicit to be described here, as ill-mannered) reflect an actual point of view; it's not just shock comedy for its own sake. Also, by this point, Kinison has developed a real ease onstage, and even his weaker material (mostly when he goes after easy targets like the Weather Channel) is delivered with real confidence. This special isn't as consistently entertaining as the previous one, but it does have enough brilliance to be a worthy standup document in its own right.
The remaining performances, most of which are on Disc Two, are more for diehards. These were all shot on amateur VHS, so the video and audio quality isn't great to start with, but even if they had been shot professionally with multi-cameras, they still don't really flatter Kinison so much. Outlaws of Comedy was shot in San Francisco in 1990, and it's the most unsettling performance here. Goaded by the SF audience, Kinison takes his gay baiting to an ugly extreme; many of these jokes are too vicious to be funny. These jokes only take up about ten minutes of a 50-minute performance, but they mar the rest of the show, especially since the best material from this performance is merely repeated from Breaking All the Rules. Live in Las Vegas, also from 1990, is the worst performance here. Although it's the longest (73 minutes), it's padded with almost 15 minutes of Kinison's rock-star posing, including an endless guitar solo by tenth-rate Hendrix impersonator Randy Hansen. Even worse is that Kinison is in bad shape personally. Though he claims during the performance to be sober, he appears bleary-eyed and half-asleep and his performance suffers considerably, with even his best material coming off as lackluster and clumsy. Kinison only shows his customary spark once or twice here, so only watch this performance after you've gotten familiar with his better work elsewhere.
The set is rounded out with a few additional programs of limited interest. The first disc contains a segment that's labeled as "Dress Rehearsal," but is actually 75 minutes of footage shot over two shows in 1988 at a small comedy club in New Jersey. These are actually great performances, with some hilarious bits that have never really been heard anywhere else, but the quality is almost unwatchable. The amateur-shot video is full of sound dropouts, glitches, and jumpy edits, sometimes in the middle of jokes. It's too bad the quality is subpar because this is one of Kinison's most high-energy performances ever. Finally, the second disc includes Brother Sam: A Tribute, an 80-minute special that aired on the Playboy Channel. It has about five minutes of biographical information (including interviews with comic legend Rodney Dangerfield and Kinison's brother and manager Bill) and some snippets from a 1985 HBO special that introduced Kinison to TV, but is otherwise just a montage of bits edited from all the other performances collected on this set (except the Outlaws of Comedy show), making it redundant. Also included are a photo gallery and an audio sample of Kinison's trademark scream.
Ultimately, for all its flaws, Wild Child does give a fairly representative portrait of Kinison's talents. This disc is a reissue of Unleashed with a bonus disc of material for the exact same list price ($14.98), and while the bonus material is more intended for fans than newcomers, it still contains enough flashes of Kinison's brilliance to be worth a look. Breaking All the Rules and the best parts of Family Entertainment Hour are essential to understanding why Kinison remains so revered by standups today, so for those two specials alone, Wild Child is worth getting. Just be prepared to be offended. Even by today's standards, Kinison's humor can still draw blood.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
• Bonus Footage
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