I recently read John Nolte’s piece on Sam Kinison, and it really struck a chord. He asks if a young comic today could get away with some of Sam’s material.
I was a young comic, barely breaking in my comedy teeth when I got to work with Sam. I was booked at Yuk-Yuks in Rochester NY, when Sam did a string of dates around the franchise, in early 1986. I was already booked at the Rochester Yuks all week, and Sam came in for two nights of that tour. I not only got to see his show twice, I was privileged to hang with him late in to the evening at the condo that first night.
It was a week that changed my entire perspective on the art of comedy. I like most other beginners had a pretty simple act, just trying to get people to laugh. I was looking for the funny in pop culture references, maybe making fun of a television commercial, or the new practice of putting missing kids pictures on the sides of milk cartons. I was just another happy eighties comic with a skinny tie, open collar and my blazer sleeves pushed up to my elbows.
Sam did something I had never seen on a comedy stage before. He took real issues and dissected them with a comedy scalpel. On second thought, make that a chainsaw. He tore through the status quo with the subtly of a Pete Townsend power chord, wailing like a heavy metal priest. His act was an hour stream of consciousness, alternating between calm rationality and the battle of the id. He was Speed Metal to the Billy Joel pop that was passing for comedy in those days
Something few people know is that Sam never actually screamed while he was on stage. What he did was raise the pitch of his voice to sound like he was screaming, and turned the mike way up to compensate for the missing volume. It was an elocutionary device he learned from his days as an evangelist preacher.
Sam was actually a really nice guy. It’s one of the first things I learned in comedy, is that the guys whose stage character is mean, usually aren’t on stage (conversely, the really nice guy on stage, is the one with the Tolstoy-length rider.) Sam was warm, generous, and quiet backstage, and I’m still grateful for the time and patience he spent with a young wide-eyed comic, just learning the ropes.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was evangelized. Rather than be content to make simple jokes, I wanted to become like Sam. I took on a new character, and began savaging the things in America that frustrated me: The Drug War, taxes, censorship, and other institutions.
But something happened in the meantime. There was a new wave across the landscape. After Nora Dunn boycotted Saturday Night Live the evening that Andrew Dice Clay was supposed to appear, there was a notion that Americans had the right to be unoffended. As I started breaking into TV, political correctness swept the nation like a chilling frost.
It probably cut my rise on television short. I had been on both MTV and Showtime, when I came up with a great piece about how men have a better sense of humor than women (I’ve posted a 1998 version above). Though it is by no means the caliber of Sam, you can see the watermark. Even though it deals with adult concepts, it’s clean enough for late night. Only recently did I find out that a lot of women found the bit incredibly offensive; which was a shock. It was always my impression that it actually supported women. Had the bit been a part of the Vagina Monologues, it probably would have been widely acclaimed for it’s bold empowering perspective.
Unfortunately I used it for a showcase bit, and women who had attended college during the glorious rise of political correctness were now the bottom-rung talent scouts for the TV shows. Following in the brave footsteps of Nora Dunn, they were fulfilling their duty to censor any comic deemed “offensive” to women.
And it still persists. I did a showcase for David Letterman’s talent coordinator just a couple years ago, and before the showcase he sent me an email of what he didn’t want me see me do. There was a list of politically correct rules that comic were to follow, but most notably: there will be no making fun of the disadvantaged, and no talking with the audience. Shortly after the showcase (which went quite well actually) my distributor sent me the clip of Sam Kinison’s first Letterman appearance (posted at top). In it, Sam violated both of those rules, something that today’s young comics cannot do.
So can a young comic rise as far as Sam? Not on the television networks. Network TV has been zombified by their Human Resources Departments, they have a hard time seeing the funny in a controversial topic.
On the upside, the television networks no longer hold the power they once wielded; in 2010, things are different. The disease of Political Correctness is so ingrained in society, that Comedy Clubs are the only place where free speech is truly practiced. The Internet allows comics that nobody ever heard of to rise up in the ranks quite quickly. Clubs are selling out shows with comics that the networks have never heard of.
Meanwhile radio has been very good to me. The bit that television rejected is now in heavy rotation on XM/Sirius. My recent Stand-Up for America tours, which have been cross promoted on talk radio, are finally finding an audience for what the network executives rejected long ago. Just as the Big sites are the dawn of open journalism, technology is bringing to a close the Dark Age of Comedy