Sketch films are, by their very nature, hit-or-miss affairs. These days, the concept of a theatrically released sketch comedy film is largely non-existent, with YouTube offering a much more accessible and cheaper platform for sketch comedy troupes looking to attract a following.
It may be tempting to blame 2013’s obscene but inexplicable star-studded jobs Movie 43 for the death of the sketch film as a commercial entity, but it is more a factor in the changing media market.
Back in the 70s, however, a wave of raucous, rude and irreverent sketch films rose alongside the developing alt-comedy and counterculture scene. Ken Shapiro’s 1974 Groove Tube grew out of the groundbreaking video sketch series from New York’s Channel One Theater and featured then-unknown talents such as Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer in R-rated sketches parodying television, film and commercials.
Tunnel vision essentially mined the same ground to lesser effect in 1976, though its unifying concept as the supposed lineup of an uncensored future television network featured future comedy legends like Chase, John Candy, Howard Hesseman, Joe Flaherty, Laraine Newman and Al Franken and Tom Davis, many of whom would go on to create classic television sketch comedy on SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
Kentucky Fried Movie came out the following year and is still held up as a consistently funny relic of the days when the alt-sketch scene could carry a movie. On a contemporary watch, the film is actually more “inconsistently funny”, as its 83-minute cavalcade of TV and film parodies, false ads, quick-hit blackout gags, running jokes and blinkered exploitation sleaziness suffer from a wider miss-to-hit ratio. But that’s thanks to decades of imitation, aging of references and some throwback dated attitudes.
This project was the creation of Wisconsin childhood friends Jim Abrahams and brothers Jerry and David Zucker, known during their decades-long creative partnership as ZAZ. The concept originates from Kentucky Fried Theatre, the trio’s University of Wisconsin-Madison theatrical comedy troupe. They eventually started shopping around 10 minutes from their best material, and were told by the studios that nobody cares about sketch comedy.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’
So ZAZ gathered enough fans among independent distributors to raise an even-then-paltry $650,000 to expand the short into a feature. They hired the young director John Landiswhose deliberately silly 1973 monster comedy debut Schlock gets a shout-out in the finished film. ultimately, Kentucky Friend Movie found its audience in young moviegoers across the country and scored more than $7 million at the box office.
The film immediately announced itself as a funny, raw and confrontational experience as ticket holders settled in for a night at the movies: A serious-sounding newscaster kicks things off by saying, “The popcorn you’re eating has gone sour in – movie at 11.” What follows is a mix of premises, with a focus on ubiquitous TV pitchmen, exploitation cinema, then nascent reality TV, silly local news, current affairs, and essentially anything else that tickled ZAZ’s collective imagination. Oh, and breasts. Lots and lots of breasts.
All the upcoming attractions – including the blaxploitation parody Cleopatra Schwartzdisaster movie Armageddon now and the 33-minute kung fu pastiche A handful of yen – was credited to the producer “Samuel L. Bronkowitz’s fictional mill house”, allowing Kentucky Fried Movie to happily have it both ways. Mocking the low-rent 70s Times Square movie fare while giving audiences the same (if dumber) quotient of sex and violence makes for a still refreshingly grubby barrel of laughs – even if it’s under an hour-and-a-half , ZAZ’s teenage rant eventually gets tiresome. (The final skit sees a young couple’s graphic lovemaking mocked by the overbearing anchor and TV news technicians in the background, with both the Zuckers and Abrahams mugging for all they’re worth.)
The most lavish and elaborate sketch is A handful of yenan almost beat-for-beat recreation of the 1973 martial arts blockbuster Enter the dragon, with actor and tae kwon do practitioner Evan C. Kim doing a believable enough Bruce Lee impression to carry an overly long premise. ZAZ’s later output (like the 1980s gag-a-second classic Fly!) was known for cramming so many jokes that each guy would burst into laughter at the next one that hit.
A handful of yen has some nice gags, including an inspection of Kim’s bugged hotel room that eventually reveals a henchman crouching in the corner with a directional microphone, and the armless warlord Dr. Klahn with accessories for toothbrush, flamethrower, hairdryer and vibrator. Kim and legitimate Korean hapkido master Bong Soo Han’s sparring is tweaked just enough to draw on the 1970s kung fu craze without straying too far from the source. “I’m sure you can’t wait to see my surgery,” crime lord Klahn taunts the captive Loo before lifting his shirt to reveal his appendicitis.
ZAZ’s ethnic humor, here and in other sketches, has aged the worst. Even worse than the Watergate references and appearances by period stars like George Lazenby and Bill Bixby is the raunchy reality show where a geeky white guy dressed in full skydiving gear interrupts a group of black men shooting dice and screaming the N-word before running away.
Watch the Game Show Scene from ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’
We’re expected to laugh at Kim’s Mr. Loo mispronounces his r’s in words like “concentration” and “geographical.” Klahn summons his army with names based on Chinese food and a central image Dating game-style minion interview show revolving around names like “Hung Well” and “Long Wang”. The surprise that the third contestant’s name is “Enormous Genitals” at least acknowledges the hackneyed premise. The Wizard of Oz wrap-up also goes on too long, which does Kentucky Fried Movie‘s tentpole outlines a case with too few gags for its runtime.
The same cannot be said for much of the rest of the film, as ZAZ recognized the necessity of letting the jokes come in order to capture an audience’s attention. The previews are consistently cheeky and silly. (“More offensive than Mandingo!” boasts the announcer for a soft-core romp Catholic schoolgirls in trouble.) A courtroom scene features the kind of dead-end absurdity and puns that would characterize the creators’ TV series Police team! and the subsequent one starring Leslie Nielsen Naked gun movie. (It also contains future Fly! scene-stealer Stephen Stucker, who hones his craft as a mad stenographer.)
Some sequences continue to punctuate the flow of things with expert comic timing: A young black couple’s attempt to follow an instructional sex LP is interrupted by the massively muscular Big Jim Slade, who later shows up to help A handful of yen‘s Loo, still in its thin posing pouch.
Parodies live and die with a commitment to the bit, and the cast — drawn from sketch pioneers at Groundlings and Second City — are uniformly fine playing straight to let the absurdity escalate around them. Although the ZAZ gag machine isn’t running at full capacity yet, it throws in brilliantly silly bits around the margins, like a goldfish swimming unobtrusively in a British spy’s snifter or the knockabout comedy of an interviewer’s boom mic having its own mischievous minds. (Call it a preview of Fly!‘s inflatable autopilot, Otto).
Still, like anyone watching 90 minutes of Saturday Night Live on a weekend at, it’s nearly impossible to maintain comedic momentum and audience engagement over a long stretch. (In the case of truly terrible sketch films like 2013’s Inappropriate comedy or the aforementioned Movie 43it was actually endless.) Hell, even Monty Python couldn’t carry The meaning of life off to the finish line with complete success.
So Kentucky Fried Movie remains an appropriately funny, nostalgically cheeky, sometimes deplorable harbinger of things to come from Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. They hung a truly inspired parade of gags on a nominal narrative to much greater effect Fly!but its success and enduring hilarity owes much to experience gained in turning their college-inspired sketch sensibility into a still-entertaining sketch film.
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