Sam Kinison: Unleashed!
Mill Creek // Unrated // $14.98 // January 27, 2009
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted February 9, 2009
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In 10 Words or Less
A screaming sampler from Brother Sam

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Stand-up comedy, Back to School
Likes: Sam Kinison (when I was a kid)
Dislikes: Loud for loud's sake
Hates: The "Wild Thing" era Kinison

The Show
When I was a kid, I hungrily devoured every morsel of stand-up comedy I could find, and I was lucky to be doing it during a golden age for the art. One of the acts that really stands out in my memories of that time was Sam Kinison, for obvious reasons. Known for his aggressive style and trademark scream, Kinison cultivated the image of the angry comic and became a superstar. I recently watched Why Did We Laugh, a documentary on Kinison that features fawning remembrances of the man from his contemporaries, including Richard Pryor, along with clips of his act. I hadn't watched or listened to him in some time, so it was interested to find that I didn't really laugh at all. So the chance to watch two of his specials in context on this disc was one I welcomed, as I was curious if time had passed Kinison by.

The first special, "Breaking the Rules," a simple affair from 1987, is vintage Kinison, as he stalks the stage in his beret and trenchcoat, armed with a microphone and some natural magnetism. He simply demands that you¸ and the audience, which includes his mother and Hugh Hefner, watch him, as he rails against women and the pain they inflict on men, showing off his greatest strength as a stage performer. Kinison had this amazing ability to portray a seething rage that sat just below the surface of a smile and soft voice, hiding there until it was time to emerge in a boiling scream.

He also wielded a solid understanding of religion, particularly the Christian version, which resulted in hilarious segments about real-world takes on the stories of the Bible and bits about the televangelists of the time. Less engaging are his screeds against homosexuals (informed by the now-archaic theories about AIDS)¸though his bit about gay necrophiliacs is funny mainly because of his howling portrayal of a dead victim. When he sits down at a piano for his finale, there's something so unique about the contrast between the sound of the instrument and what he's saying that it makes for the perfect end to his act.

The second special, 1991's "The Sam Kinison Family Entertainment Hour," is distinctly different, showing just how much Kinison had changed in just a few years of stardom. Instead of the simple curtain and stage, the show now shared Kinison's rock-star style, with a full band, and an opening that sees him walk two scantily clad beauties (his soon to be wife and her sister) to the stage on leashes. Kinison's look had changed similarly, exchanging his beret for a gypsy bandana¸ and looking very much the image of abuse and wear-and-tear.

His act was similarly "big," coming off more like a variety show than stand-up, as he sings and plays guitar on an indulgent, straight-up rock song and brings audience members to the stage to tell stories about how women have screwed them over, with the winner's tormentor getting a berating phone call, live on-stage, from Kinison. The usual targets are present again, including women (obviously) and televangelists, but Kinison's lifestyle influenced his act, with plenty of material on drugs (which he claims to have recently kicked and sadly states that the stuff can kill you) and music (complete with rap bashing in front of audience member Ice-T.) There's more "material" than screaming this time, with talk about timeless concepts like the over-proliferation of cable channels and Hollywood's insistence on remaking old ideas instead of new ones. It's a decent set, but Kinison became a cartoonish "Wild Thing" at this point, and it's too easy to see the end in sight.

A one-disc release, the DVD is packed in a standard keepcase that's wrapped in an embossed slipcover that repeats the cover art. The disc features a static full-frame menu with options to watch either special, select chapters or check out the extras. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.

The Quality
The full-frame video looks the way you'd expect it to, with the softness and noise of a TV image that's about 20 years old. The color is appropriate, if a bit dull, and the level of detail is nothing great. Fortunately, there are no additional problems introduced to the mix, like digital artifacts.

The audio is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks that, like the video, do their job, but not much past it. Kinison's voice is nice and clear, and has enough separation from the audience's reaction in the center-focused mix to sound good. The music in the second special also gets fine treatment, coming across nice and strong.

The Extras
The main extra is 75 minutes of footage from undated (likely pre-1990) Kinison performances at Rascals Comedy Club in New Jersey. The footage is shot from the back of the room and suffers from audio issues, but it's interesting to watch because it's a lot looser than his television appearances and offers a look at two consecutive shows, an early and late appearance, and the changes to the material Kinison made based on the audience. Oddly, there are cuts in the material, like someone just hit stop, right in the middle of a joke. A lot of what's here is in the two main shows, so you can compare his material development.

The other extra is the silly Scream Meter, which unleashes a Kinison scream and shakes the menu when selected.

The Bottom Line
Sam Kinison was a unique stand-up comic, but as his fame grew, he became a cartoon version of his stage persona, and looking back at what happened to him is a bit sad. That said, there are some funny parts to his act, but it's not nearly as shocking as it seemed to be at the time, and doesn't hold up as well today. Perhaps society has moved forward a bit, or maybe even backwards, to the point where a Kinison is just one of the angry pack. The DVD does a decent job of presenting his shows, and even offers up an extensive curiosity for his fans, making this a set worth the money for fans who know him well, but don't expect a whole lot if you're new to the game.

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