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‘I Am Sam Kinison’ review: Good overview, but nothing new

"I Am Sam Kinison" looks at the late stand-up's life and comedy. Photo Credit: Sam Kinison Estate

THE DOCUMENTARY “I Am Sam Kinison”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Spike

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sam Kinison was among the biggest standups in the world when he was killed in a head-on collision on a remote stretch of highway in California on April 10, 1992. He was 38. This covers his life, with lots of commentary from friends and fellow comedians. His brother and manager, Bill Kinison, provides a detailed timeline.

MY SAY “I Am Sam Kinison” is a good overview of Kinison’s life but an even better reminder of how times have changed. With that primal scream, he’d work audiences — largely male — into a pitch over lots of subjects, some of them to do with women. The misogyny in his act was especially primal and shocking, and you don’t need much of an imagination to know how that’d go over now. “I Am Sam Kinison” obviously didn’t need much of one either, which may explain why it soft-pedals so much of that here.

The dark side of Kinison, or at least that dark side, is broomed into a corner. The comedians quoted — including a lot of good, seasoned pros like Bill Burr, Bob Saget and Jay Leno — take the absolutist line that’s what’s funny is funny, irrespective of content. But if pressed, even they might concede that there’s a big difference between fury and comedy, especially when it comes to women. Kinison occasionally blended all three. That’s not funny — it’s just disturbing.

“I Am Sam Kinison” isn’t about condemnation but celebration, and does at least offer a plausible explanation for the hatred in his act. He consumed enormous quantities of cocaine, chasing that with whatever booze he could find. Joe Rogan points out that he became a “comedy barbarian,” and it’s left to Ted Nugent — Nugent! — to explain that “the drugs started to screw everything up.”

Weak on that dark side, “I Am” is weak on perspective too. Why did Kinison hit when he hit, and what made him hit? What did he stir in the culture at large and vice versa? He certainly didn’t invent rage — George Carlin had that nailed down years before — but his fans were ready to rage with him. Why?

This portrait, in fact, is for those fans, although they’ll know all the facts, notably that final moment by the side of a highway near Needles, California, where the dying comedian appeared to be having an argument with God. (Kinison had once been an ordained minister.)

With friends, family and admirers all lined up here, they attest to a good man who was deeply troubled. What they can’t quite get to is who exactly that man was. He briefly comes into focus, then recedes: Another relic of the rock and roll ’80s who burned too bright and died too young.

BOTTOM LINE Good overview, with lots of commentary, but nothing new.

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