‘I Am Sam Kinison’ Celebrates The Wrong Thing At The Wrong Time

“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.

“My brother lost his job, and so I took him in,” he claims. “I come home from work and he’s with my girl on the kitchen table.” It’s a sad story as presented, and the dour look on Kevin’s face while Kinison pokes fun at him suggests the experience deeply affected him. Even so, it neither justifies what happens next nor the adulation I Am Sam Kinison showers the comic with as a result. Kinison calls the woman, reminds her of what happened “a long time ago,” and proceeds to harass her with an array of incredibly sexist insults. He even invites Kevin to join in, which he does — and much to the crowd’s delight.

As a part of what the New York Times called “the current generation of screaming performers,” stunts like this were expected of Kinison at the time. But Family Entertainment Hour‘s closing segment stands out now just as much as it did in 1991, for unlike Breaking the Rules‘ biblical challenge, the live telephone call never makes a point. It was never meant to. In fact, the bit doesn’t even contain any jokes, aside from a few one-liners Kinison improvised at Kevin’s expense. It simply paints a target on a woman, gives the man she supposedly cheated on a vehicle to run her down with and encourages everyone watching to cheer him on.

“I’m just laughing,” Tenuta says when asked about people taking offense. “I can’t help it.” She also exclaims “f*ck political correctness,” and defends Kinison as someone who “just had to tell his truth, which was very intense and raw.” I Am Sam Kinison sheds light on the comic’s “very intense and raw” personal life and rampant drug use in order to explain away some of his more shocking routines. As Tenuta’s comments (and those of people like Ted Nugent and Charlie Sheen) indicate, however, the filmmakers aren’t trying to excuse Kinison’s worst offenses. Nor should they, since the film is meant to be a celebration of the comedian at his most popular height.

But this doesn’t mean their praise for Kinison’s comedy can’t contain criticism. It offers some regarding his drug use and hard-partying lifestyle during the ’80s, but ultimately use these points to segue into the sober years just before Kinison’s death. In doing so, I Am Sam Kinison grants the comic a mythical status, not unlike the biblical Jesus he previously poked fun at. Maybe if they had adopted the same level of scrutiny Kinison had for his former messiah, the documentary would have better situated his problematic material in the context of Louis C.K. and the hard questions stand-up now faces.