“I know Jesus was never married. Guy never had a wife. No way,” Sam Kinison tells his audience in his 1987 HBO comedy special, Breaking the Rules. “Because no wife would buy this story in a hundred years.” When I first heard the Pentecostal preacher turned stand-up comic say this (and many other blasphemous things) about Christianity’s starkest tenets, which I still believed at the time, I was taken aback. Here was a man with a deep biblical knowledge who was now using it for blue laughs and shock value at the famous Roxy Theatre nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Everything about it seemed wrong, but it also felt right.
Kinison’s jabs weren’t solely for the sake of making fun of religion. The ex-preacher was trying to make constructively critical points about truth, faith, and believability. His first audiences in Houston, located on the southwestern edge of the so-called “Bible Belt,” were primed for this kind of comedy in the late ’70s, and they accepted him graciously. This is where filmmaker Derik Murray begins (I Am Chris Farley) his latest documentary, I Am Sam Kinison, which premiered last night on Spike TV. A profile that doesn’t venture far from Bill Kinison’s book Brother Sam, it doesn’t really offer anything new.
And this is where I Am Sam Kinison runs into trouble, its television premiere shared airtime with the continuous coverage of other notable male figures in entertainment. Names like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer. This is not to suggest that similar stories exist for Kinison, but considering his professed opinion of women and men’s relationships with them on the comedy stage, the absence of significant criticism here is glaring. As Uproxx‘s Steve Bramucci puts it, “No man can be immunized from this scourge” — not even comedians celebrated for “calculated outrageousness” and disdain for political correctness.
I Am Sam Kinison lauds its subject’s shock value and services longtime fans in doing so. These are benign acts on their own, but given the right context, they can be made quite harmful. Such is the case for Murray’s film, which highlights many of Kinison’s comedy’s more problematic moments — like when he called up an audience member’s ex-girlfriend and verbally berated her in Family Entertainment Hour. “It was so great because he’d ask somebody in the front, a guy,” comedian Judy Tenuta says in the film. Kinison had asked for stories by men about the women who wronged them, and in the 1991 HBO special, a man named Kevin provided exactly that.