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Commentary : The New Lenny Bruce? Or Just Another Loud Comedian?

Sam Kinison would have been a perfect infernal emanation of Dante’s most desperate paranoid fantasy, a bellowing sergeant at arms monitoring one of Hell’s main gates. After a Kinison concert, silence and the cool night air seem like a benediction. All that heat, that rage, that vengeful filth roaring out of his stumpy torso that resembles a virulent troll whose treasure has been lifted from his cave.

But Kinison doesn’t belong in any allegory for the ages. He belongs in our docu-drama American present, where the primitive shout and the vulgar shock pass for public discourse. Kinison has been on the scene for a number of years now, and just when it seemed that he had exhausted all the ramifications of the primal scream, he’s out with a new album that has people arguing about him in a way they didn’t before. Is he a truth-teller? Is he the new Lenny Bruce? Is he just another bad comedian, only louder?

The Warner Bros.’ album--"Have You Seen Me Lately?"--offers no surprise to anyone who’s seen Kinison crank up his anchorite vehemence full-bore and charge rhino-like into the objects of his displeasure. In this case his targets consist of the righteous, gays and--as always--women.

Kinison’s natural constituency is the young white male to whom party-time represents the last boozy free-for-all before time, in the guise of responsibility, begins making its inexorable inroads; the kind of audience that thought “Animal House” depicted the Good Life. He starts by a defense of drunk driving (“How else are we gonna get our cars home?”) and adds a note on the suspicious sanctimoniousness of rock stars who make public service anti-drug announcements after having levelled innocents on the highway while loaded themselves.

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He segues into a note on how sexually omnivorous gays brought AIDS to the world by plundering monkeys in central Africa ("(bringing) us the Black Plague of the ‘80s. Thanks, guys”), one of several contemptuous notes on homosexuality (another mentions the Pope rebuking a gay who wants to be saved by saying “I didn’t write the book; I only enforce it. Next!”). He follows with a riff on Jim Bakker (“Judas in Heaven is saying, ‘Maybe I’ll get a reprieve” and “Jesus . . . is goin’ through the Bible sayin’, ‘Where . . . did I say “Build a water slide?” ’ "). Then a swipe at Jessica Hahn’s protestations of innocence, just before she agreed to pose for the Playboy spread.

There are notes on the Pope (in the conspiratorial basso voice of a movie promo announcer: “He loves God and hates crime; he’s comin’ to your town”), and Joseph’s travails (“Yeah, you had better be the son of God, little mister. You had better be the ONLY son of God . . . talk about the test of a man’s faith!”); on Jesus as a married man, and a long and vigorous passage on marital sex--a particular object of Kinison’s blowtorch scrutiny. Did you think anal sex was gross? Kinison tops himself with a bit on leper sex. Upping the ante, he follows with a bit on homosexual necrophilia.

Most of this album is pretty rough stuff, prodigiously larded with expletive. Kinison is about as crude as a performer can get without losing coherence altogether. A lot of women who have heard it are reportedly up in arms over their depiction as dim sexual manipulators with plaintive Minnie Mouse voices and sharp little castrating teeth, and gays are understandably appalled at their retrograde treatment as evil untouchables and perverted Typhoid Marys.

If tastelessness can be defined as that which panders exclusively to the base, then “Have You Seen Me Lately?” qualifies (to paraphrase Beckett) as one of those chains that links a dog to its vomit, and Warner Bros. is just looking to capitalize on the prominence of a comedian who’s shouldered his way onto the scene on the strength of a big mouth.

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But Kinison is not so easily dismissed. There are any number of gross-out comedians who have come and gone in St. Lenny’s aftermath. Kinison works in two areas that are unendingly bothersome to people: religious hypocrisy and sexual imprisonment. That Kinison is a preacher’s son who started out to be a preacher himself lends his vehemence about religious icons and myths a certain authenticity. His outrage is fed by bitter disenchantment, by a fundamental sense of betrayal which puts him a cut above other comedians who pass on religion from a cute ironic distance. Somewhere in the lava of his impulses he holds--unlike most modern comics--an idea about desecration.

In sex, he’s clearly a more miserable victim than anyone he rails against. Kinison is not one to care about accuracy of perception (he has an old joke about starving Africans in the Sahel, bellowing, “We have deserts in America, too. We just don’t LIVE in ‘em!”) and he makes no effort to figure out for us (and maybe himself) all the women who got away, and why. To the extent that we’re naked in sex, there’s always a degree of innocence--or at least trust--attached to the exchange. To Kinison, that’s just another form of rebuke that began with the spirit and now includes the flesh.

That’s why his screams have such effect. He has a concluding number, to rock music accompaniment, called “Wild Thing,” in which he recalls every girl who broke his heart from the third grade on. The primitive in him can’t parse the circumstances (what’s more neurotic than screaming at the memory of a third grader’s indifference?), and maybe that’s why the cry in him has such an epic ring (for a while after he broke on the scene other comedians, including David Letterman, tried to do his shout and they all sounded pathetic). It comes out of a basic festering, unassuaged wound; if people can’t, or justifiably won’t, get with his message, there’s no mistaking the force of his pain. Maybe that’s why, aside from his obscenity, he’s compared to Bruce.

There’s something else to consider as well: The time we live in. A society’s cultural instincts always tend to move ahead of the adjustments in its formal institutions. Who’s to say now that Sam Kinison isn’t at the vanguard of our mounting cultural fascism, where sensationalism and the relentless sales pitch, the yahoo tenor of Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo Rivera and Wally George’s forums, the rising intolerance and self-exploitiveness in our public exchange, all feed an underground swell of American dread. Open your window when you drive to work. Does the environment scream at you with any less vehemence than Kinison?

Sam Kinison may be some kind of contemporary comedic thug, but his pain isn’t faked, and his screams appear a culminating response to the busy rubble of our outer and inner lives that can’t be sorted out. Is he a real hater or is he pushing the edge of hate to test how far we want to go? He recalls the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy’s “Expecting the Barbarians,” which recounts an ancient city’s sudden discovery of its affectation and purposelessness in the face of a ruinous invasion--which never comes. “And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?” someone in the city asks. “Those people were a kind of solution.”

Kinison is nobody’s solution to anything, but he is one of our remarkable symptoms.


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