It seems only fitting that a documentary on the late, great comedian Sam Kinison will be one of the last big hurrahs aired on Spike TV before it rebrands into the Paramount Network on Jan. 18.
And it was only fitting that a premiere event for the feature-length doc “I Am Sam Kinison” was held recently at Sunset Strip’s famed Comedy Store, a venue that Kinison headlined for years — until he was killed by a drunk driver in a 1992 car accident outside Needles, Calif., as he was on the way to another gig.
Kinison, just 38 at the time of his death, was known for his brash, fearless, audacious, politically incorrect style and is considered to be a pioneer who shaped the future face of comedy. Some of his favorite topics included marriage, women, religion and world hunger.
Many may not know of his humble beginnings as a Pentecostal preacher and how his meteoric rise to fame saw him headlining like a rock star in front of 80,000 fans at Giants Stadium.
The film features jaw-dropping and rarely seen clips from some of Kinison’s legendary performances, showcasing his signature shrieking and off-the-cuff riffing while depicting the life of a man who celebrated excess and battled despair as his renown grew.
Kinison’s comedy career started in Houston, where he performed in small clubs before moving to Los Angeles in 1980. He quickly got a job as a doorman at the Comedy Store and worked there until his big break came when Rodney Dangerfield gave him a slot on one of his HBO specials in 1984. (He also appeared in Dangerfield’s 1986 feature film “Back to School.”)
Kinison’s appearance on “Rodney Dangerfield’s Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special” made an indelible impression. New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote at the time, “The most interesting of the other eight comedians is the savagely misogynistic Sam Kinison. Mr. Kinison specializes in a grotesque animalist howl that might be described as the primal scream of the married man.”
Kinison also recorded some albums and a novelty version of the song “Wild Thing,” which was a huge video hit on MTV. He lived a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, palling around with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Tommy Lee, Richie Sambora and Billy Idol.
The Kinison documentary is from critically acclaimed filmmaker Derik Murray, who has also chronicled the lives of such iconic figures as Heath Ledger, John F. Kennedy Jr., Chris Farley, Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Evel Knievel and Johnny Cash.
It was directed by Adrian Buitenhuis, who interviewed Kinison’s comedy colleagues, contemporaries and family members including Jay Leno, Corey Feldman, Bob Saget, Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, Tommy Chong, Rudy Sarzo, Ron Jeremy, Charlie Sheen, Argus Hamilton, Jimmy Shubert, Dan Barton, Felicia Michaels, Joey Gaynor, Judy Tenuta, Steve Epstein, Lue Deck, Bill Kinison and Sherry Kinison.
Twenty-five years after his untimely death, Kinison’s presence was strongly felt during a panel discussion after the screening, moderated by Al Bahmani.
“He had a three-picture deal with New Line and a TV show on Fox he was working on,” said Feldman, who remembered Kinison as a kind and generous mentor. “He paid for everything. He wanted to be the king of the world. I learned from the best.”
“I agree with Corey Feldman. You get all your friends in a limo and take everyone out to dinner at Dan Tana’s,” said Barton. “Sam’s comedy idol was Jackie Gleason — a big guy, living large and a big tipper. He was wild all the time and a very generous man.”
“He was like a sun, and we were the rays around him,” said Michaels, a comedian on the comedy club circuit with Kinison. “He had a magnetic personality. You were dialed into him.”
“I really miss the motherfucker. He taught me how to be me,” Gaynor said. “If ever there was a guy who knew how to party …”
Jeremy, best known for his work in porn films but also a stand-up, told a hilarious story about being with Kinison in New Jersey and driving in to New York City for a gig at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star. Kinison was driving and the car went out of control down a hill but missed all the trees and they ended up abandoning it and hitchhiking into town, making it there on time. “Sam said to Robin Williams, ‘I believe in God now,’” Jeremy related about the incident.
“Dan [Barton] had a story about Sam that was incredible, OMFG,” said Buitenhuis about an anecdote in the documentary. “They wanted him to do a commercial selling coffee, but Sam was on acid and went into a rap about how the coffee made him kill somebody.”
“Sam never wrote a routine,” admitted his brother, Bill Kinison. “All of it was off-the-cuff, and 30 to 40% of it each time was never heard before.”
“His legacy is that he was such a giant,” said Tenuta, another comedian who worked with Kinison. “His work was so compelling and so great.”
“You have to understand how dangerous it felt to watch him. At first, it scared me like nothing before,” Michaels said. “I miss that comedy doesn’t feel dangerous anymore. The Comedy Store was like ‘The Island of Misfit Toys’ from 1985 to 1992. As comedians, we’re like a family.”
Barton had the last word on his friend: “His legacy will be for any young comedians who see this film and go, ‘I’ve got something to say. I’m going to stand in my truth — and scream.’”
(“I Am Sam Kinison” premieres Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Spike TV. An uncensored version follows at midnight, due to its mature content, the only time it will be aired.)