I've always had a soft spot for the screaming, irreverent comedy of Sam Kinison. I remember watching his original HBO standup special (now available on DVD as Sam Kinison: Breaking the Rules) back in 1986 and reacting with bug eyes and out-of-breath laughter to his no-holds-barred rages about religion, sex, and world hunger. An ex-preacher's passion and a genuine gift for storytelling made Sam Kinison one of the great comedians of our time.
That Breaking the Rules DVD represents Sam at the pinnacle of his career: Every joke worked, every onstage movement was perfectly choreographed, every facial expression was a riot. He looked healthy (if overweight) and was obviously having the time of his life. Unfortunately, in this follow-up disc, Sam Kinison: Family Entertainment Hour, Sam has let himself go. He's about 5 years older and 80 pounds heavier. His timing is sometimes off, and he looks decidedly unhealthy. Nevertheless, Sam remains howlingly funny, ranting and raving about rap music, Richard Simmons, bad TV, drunk friends, Jesus, and, as always, women.
Shot at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in 1990, the main feature is 48 minutes long. A cute introduction has a kindly representative of the Good Taste in Entertainment foundation speaking of Sam's new gentler, softer brand of comedy. It's all a joke. At this point in his career, Sam was attempting to gain a foothold in Hollywood. To do so, he was told to tame down some of his more outrageous humor. His response? Be more outrageous than ever. The show opens with Sam dragging two young women in leather thongs to the stage by leashes. So much for taming down.
Between bookending rock performances, in which Sam screams a ZZ Top tune with an accompanying metal band, we're treated to about 40 minutes of great Sam Kinison comedy. Like most Kinison fans, I could have done without Sam's braying attempts at rock. But he wouldn't have liked me to say that. (Interestingly, you get more undiluted Kinison comedy in the bonus "Rare Standup" clips than you do in the main feature. More on those in a moment.)
A fullframe, straight-to-video presentation, Family Entertainment Hour offers fairly sharp video-image quality. This certainly won't be a disc with which to show off your widescreen TV. However, Sam comes across as larger than life, and when his brother Bill notes on the commentary that "Sam's not feelin' much pain right now, as you can tell by his eyes," you can see exactly what he's talking about.
The image quality of the two "Rare Standup" pieces is poor. Obviously shot with a handheld video camera by an amateur, the image is wobbly and even drops out abruptly to green at one point, presumably because of a dead camera battery.
The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, but the surrounds are essentially inactive. I noticed no rear separation, only crowd noise. The audio quality of the "Rare Standup" pieces is merely serviceable.
The Family Entertainment Hour DVD offers three fine extras. First up is an audio commentary by Sam's brother and manager Bill Kinison (accompanied by a mostly silent Sherri Kinison, Bill's wife). Although he repeats a lot of information that he provided in his commentary on the Breaking the Rules DVD (and even repeats himself a few times within this commentary), he has great anecdotes to share in his midwestern drawl. Apparently, Sam's first love was rock music: He wanted to be a rock star, and comedy was only a route to achieve that goal. Sam was also a big movie buff, a particularly rabid fan of Woody Allen, and rarely partied (contrary to popular assumptions). When, toward the end, Bill describes in great detail the night of Sam's death in a car accident, you'll be riveted to the screen, at once understanding how this out-of-control funnyman ultimately met his demise and mourning the loss of a true comic genius.
As mentioned, the disc also offers two "Rare Standup" pieces. In the first, which is 42 minutes long, Sam is looking haggard, obese, and pathetic, and much of the material is recycled from the Breaking the Rules disc, on which he gives a far better delivery. The second piece is better, showing Sam in his early days screaming about world hunger, but the clip is only a tease at 2 minutes long.
I don't think it's a stretch to call Sam Kinison this generation's Lenny Bruce. His groundbreaking, boundary-crashing comedy was under-appreciated because of misconception and suppression. And I feel sadness for the way he fell from his mid-80s brilliance to the drugged-out opulence that defined his last performances. This disc captures Sam at about the halfway point.