I was lucky enough to see Sam Kinison work several times. It’s one thing to see someone’s comedy special on TV or to listen to an album by them, and I certainly absorbed his work in whatever way it was available, but seeing a comic live, especially over several different nights with a wide variety of audiences is essential if you really want to understand who they are as an artist.
I’m not surprised by talk of a Kinison biopic. It seems inevitable at some point, just like the Bill Hicks movie I’m sure we’ll also get from someone at some point. What I learned watching Kinison work the same material over many different nights is that he had learned how to handle a crowd from fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preachers, and when he was onstage in front of a crowd, he was testifying. The screaming he did around his jokes was not just noise, but was punctuation. He was so caught up in whatever his subject that he couldn’t stop himself from letting loose these guttural sounds. It’s his version of speaking in tongues, being overcome by the power, and Kinison was a master at reading a room. He knew when something was working, he knew when something wasn’t, and he was adroit at modifying his act on the fly to ride out the energy of the audience.
Josh Gad is a talented guy. Anyone who saw Gad onstage in “Book Of Mormon” knows just how capable he is of playing the hell out of the right script. I understand how someone might say, “Hey, remember when we were trying to make that Sam Kinison movie and we didn’t have any portly funny guys to go to after Jack Black turned us down? Gad’s kinda round, right?” But it seems to me a huge mis-match of energy. One of the things that makes “Book Of Mormon” so funny is the essential innocence of Gad’s character, his wide-eyed optimism. Gad was not only the star of NBC’s short-lived “1600 Penn,” but also a producer, and that character was tailor-built for him. Again, his Skip Gilchrist was a chaotic force of nature with a big sweet disposition and an innocence about things. Gad knows his strengths as a performer and when he gets to play to them, it really seems to connect for people.
I’m not saying he can’t do it. He’s a talented guy, like I said. But it seems like you’re starting with a square peg, a round hole, and a ticking clock. You might make it fit, but it’s not going to be easy.
I guess we’ll see if Larry Charles actually gets this version in front of the camera. “Brother Sam,” based on the book by Bill Kinison, has been the asset that keeps getting handed off by each person who’s tried to figure out this movie. David Permut owns it now, and he’s got Charles working from a script by Rich Wilkes. Charles is the thing that gives me hope about this, because he lived and worked in LA at the same time as Sam. If anyone knows what that life felt like, how things looked and sounded and how the politics of stand-up in LA worked and what it was like playing a gig at the Comedy Store, it’s Charles. This is as much his own story as Sam’s, just in terms of capturing a time and place.
Mike Fleming’s piece at Deadline today talks about how they plan to use a lot of stand-up comics and movie stars to fill out the world around Kinison, and I’m curious how that plays. Really, until I see some footage of Gad as Kinison, it remains a fascinating question mark, and a pretty big gamble for Permut and his partners. There’s no studio mentioned in Fleming’s piece, so it sounds like this one is an indie. Curious to see what shape this finally takes, and who puts it out.