Sam Kinison: Outlaws of Comedy (1990)

He was one of the most controversial comics of his generation. He was also one of its most gifted. But a very unfunny thing happened to Sam Kinison on the way to his place in the pantheon. The notoriously hedonistic funnyman cannibalized his own legacy by trading the very items that made him a star (sharp insight and outrageous confrontation) for a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll regression. Where once his act sizzled with social commentary and satire, he treaded the waters of wasted talent, giving the people what they thought they wanted: lewd vulgarities peppered by an occasional signature shriek.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the new DVD entitled Sam Kinison: Outlaws of Comedy. This 1990 live performance before a boisterous San Francisco crowd gives us a Kinison who has stopped caring. It makes sense. At this point in his career, Kinison was a god. He could stand up and read the long list of perks placed in his contract rider and audiences would howl with delight. Taking the stage with two startling bimbettes on his arms, the Kinison here is a sour, sarcastic shadow of his former self. He mutters to himself and fails to deliver punch lines. As he scans the crowd like a sniper spying a target, you can actually see the loathing in his rummy eyes.

Unlike the original, attack-mode Kinison, here he is merely enamored with his own celebrity. He fidgets and rambles, keeping the crowd waiting for nearly 30 confused minutes before digging in and delivering the A material that made him a household name. And even then, Sam’s already at the post-show party. His bored body language and lack of energy are that obvious.

For most of this uninteresting concert, Kinison focuses on sex, discussing it in as many dumb, demeaning ways as he can. No body part is off limits, no crude description left unspoken. Granted, when commenting on something like the “freshness” of Dr. Ruth’s nether regions, Sam can be scandalously funny. But he doesn’t know when to quit, and tries to top himself by discussing the love lives of lepers.

When he’s not talking carnality, he’s discussing chemicals. He pontificates on the virtues of amyl nitrate and good pot. He scoffs at those who would challenge his championing of coke and tries to teach the attentive crowd the proper pills to pop before cunnilingus. All he really needs to do to make this shamefully self-serving set complete is to drag out a guitar, kick out a few jams, and prove that his rock-and-roll lifestyle is not just all show, or fodder for his feeble act.

True, Kinison never understood the concept of control. This is why he was hounded by offended groups. Gays took him to task for insensitive comments about AIDS, and women felt he was mocking their desire for commitment and sensitivity. When he was fresh and raw, Sam sounded like he lived inside Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, looking at life through the emasculated eyes of the so-called sensitive male ideal while trying to strike a Neanderthal pose. He captured “dude” dyspepsia with amazing ease.

But Kinison was smarter than that. He didn’t just attack minorities and leave it at that. He was always conscious of where his humor was headed, making sure that the criticism always started and ended at his own personal and ideological doorstep. If he was a chauvinist, he had the badly broken heart to back it up. He molded epic bits out of the pain of relations and the mangled morality of his previous career as a preacher. He detested hypocrisy and lashed out at it in witty, wicked rants. He loved to knock down those who felt they were superior to everyone else. His original act was a lewd and crude reminder that life is filled with bigots, bastards, and ball-scratchers — and if he was one himself, so be it.

Sadly, this 42-minute DVD is only the aftermath. Its “biography” is perfunctory; aside from the fact that Kinison cleaned up his act (supposedly beating substance abuse before dying in a freak car accident in 1992, at age 38), it offers little about his past or persona. It’s as if the Sam of 1990 is all the man this disc wants to consider.

To be fair, Kinison’s early death left his career incomplete. He might have become a serious actor (like Steve Martin), a kids’ star (Eddie Murphy), even a grand old man of mediocre misery (Carlin). Instead, we’re left with this dreadful display of meltdown. Kinison is not remembered for how incredibly funny he truly was, but merely for how horribly misguided his muse could often be. Even at his most mean-spirited, Kinison demanded respect. Outlaws of Comedy does not.