Back From Hell is an hour-long Comedy Central special that honors the late comedian Sam Kinison who died at the age of 38 in 1992. Notorious for having a drug-fueled, rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle that generated material for his act, it was no surprise he died so young; the surprise was the fault belonged to someone else. While driving to a gig in Laughlin, Nevada, he and his wife were hit by a teenage drunk driver on a California highway.
The special presents many comics talking about Kinison in interviews and at a tribute held for him at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood, CA. Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Kathy Griffin, Judy Tenuta, and many others reminiscence about what he was like on and off stage. Interspersed throughout the show are clips of him performing, which are a great reminder that he is sorely missed.
I first saw Kinison on HBO’s Rodney Dangerfield’s Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special in 1984. Stand-up comedy was in the midst of a boom during the ’80s, and many comics made humorously benign observations about trivial matters. He was a beast unleashed, catching spectators off guard as he joked about marriage and world hunger, punctuated with what became his signature primal scream.
Kinison was totally outrageous, telling jokes about subjects most people wouldn’t make fun of between their friends and using language that will have some people blush. He became a rock star of comedy as his career skyrocketed from talk show appearances, his own HBO special in 1987, and a brief spot in Dangerfield’s Back to School. He played sold-out arenas and partied like there was no tomorrow.
Kinison had detractors who didn’t care for his jokes about women and gays but they failed to understand he tapped into something that resonated with people. Most fans saw the sweetness of the guy underneath his antics. Comics joked about divorce before Kinison, but he was the first I was aware of who blended humor with the pain and anger caused by a broken heart.
The DVD contains three bonus features. “Stories from The Comedy Store” (13 min) are more testimonials from the event featured in the special. Collected here are his brother Bill Kinson, impressionist Craig Gass, and comics Marc Maron and Pauly Shore. Kinison covered The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and the DVD presents the official music video (5 min) and a live performance of the song from a show in Las Vegas (5 min). The music video is a star-studded affair filled with a lot of rockers from the time, most notably Steven Tyler, Slash, Billy Idol, Tommy Lee, and Jon Bon Jovi. The live version is awful as the assembled band sounds like some kids playing in a garage. “Additional Kinison Stand-Up” (17 min) is as described and will remind fans what they’ve been missing.
If you used to enjoy Sam Kinison, Back From Hell is a wonderful trip down memory lane. If you don’t know Sam Kinison, see what you missed.
Article first published as DVD Review: Back From Hell – A Tribute to Sam Kinison on Blogcritics.