45 Years Ago: ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’ Puts ZAZ in Sketch Films
Sketch movies are, by their nature, hit-or-miss affairs. These days, the concept of a theatrically released sketch-comedy film is essentially nonexistent, with YouTube providing a much more accessible and lower-cost platform for sketch-comedy troupes looking to attract a following.
It may be tempting to lay the blame on 2013’s execrable yet inexplicably star-studded con-job Movie 43 for the death of the sketch film as a commercial entity, but it’s more a factor of the changing media marketplace.
Back in the '70s, however, a spate of raucous, rude and disreputable sketch films rose alongside the evolving alt-comedy and counterculture scene. Ken Shapiro’s 1974 The Groove Tube grew out of the groundbreaking video sketch series of New York’s Channel One Theater and featured then-unknown talents like Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer in R-rated sketches parodying TV, movies and advertising.
Tunnel Vision essentially mined the same ground to lesser effect in 1976, although its unifying concept as the supposed lineup of an uncensored future TV network did have room for 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 TV sketch comedy on SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
The Kentucky Fried Movie was released the following year, and it's still held up as a consistently funny relic of the days when the alt-sketch scene could carry a movie. On a present-day watch, the film is actually more “inconsistently funny,” as its 83-minute cavalcade of TV and movie parodies, fake ads, quick-hit blackout gags, running jokes and winking exploitation sleaziness suffers from a broader miss-to-hit ratio. But that's thanks to decades of imitation, aging of references and some in-retrospect 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 sprung from the Kentucky Fried Theater, the trio’s University of Wisconsin-Madison theatrical comedy troupe. They eventually started shopping around a 10-minute short of their best material, and were told by studios that nobody cares about sketch comedy.
Watch the Trailer for 'The Kentucky Fried Movie'
So ZAZ rounded up 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 Landis, whose deliberately 1973 goofy monster comedy debut Schlock gets a shout-out in the finished film. Ultimately, The Kentucky Friend Movie found its audience in young moviegoers across the country, scoring more than $7 million at the box office.
The movie immediately announced itself as a prankish, crude and confrontational experience as ticket holders settled in for a night at the cinema: A serious-sounding newscaster kicks things off by saying, “The popcorn you’re eating has been pissed in — film at 11.” What follows is a mishmash of premises, focusing on ubiquitous TV pitchmen, exploitation cinema, then-nascent reality TV, vapid local news, current affairs and essentially anything else that tickled ZAZ’s collective fancy. Oh, and breasts. Lots and lots of breasts.
All of the coming attractions – including blaxploitation parody Cleopatra Schwartz, disaster movie Armageddon Now and the 33-minute kung fu pastiche A Fistful of Yen – were credited to the fictitious grind-house mill of producer “Samuel L. Bronkowitz,” allowing The Kentucky Fried Movie to gleefully have it both ways. Mocking the low-rent sleaze of '70s Times Square movie fare while giving audiences the same (if sillier) quotient of sex and violence makes for a still-bracingly grubby barrel of laughs – even if, at under an hour-and-a-half, ZAZ’s adolescent hooting eventually gets tiresome. (The final sketch sees a young couple’s graphic lovemaking being jeered by the overacting anchor and technicians of the TV newscast in the background, both Zuckers and Abrahams mugging for all they’re worth.)
The most lavish and elaborate sketch is A Fistful of Yen, an 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 creditable enough Bruce Lee impression to carry an overlong premise. ZAZ’s later output (like 1980’s gag-a-second classic Airplane!) became known for cramming in so many jokes that every dud would be drowned out by laughter at the next one that hit.
A Fistful of Yen has some fine gags, including an inspection of Kim’s bugged hotel room that eventually reveals a henchman crouched in the corner with a directional mic, and the handless warlord Dr. Klahn with attachments for a toothbrush, flamethrower, hairdryer and vibrator. Kim and legit Korean hapkido master Bong Soo Han’s sparring is tweaked just enough to draw upon the 1970’s kung fu craze without straying very far from the source. “I’m sure you can’t wait to see my operation,” crime lord Klahn taunts the captive Loo, before lifting his shirt to show his appendix scar.
ZAZ’s ethnic humor, here and in other sketches, has aged the most poorly. Even worse than Watergate references and appearances from era stars like George Lazenby and Bill Bixby is the daredevil reality show where a nerdy white guy dressed in full skydiver gear interrupts a group of Black men shooting dice and screams the N-word before running away.
Watch the Game Show Scene From 'The Kentucky Fried Movie'
We’re expected to chuckle at Kim’s Mr. Loo mispronouncing his r's in words like “concentration” and “geographical.” Klahn summons his army with names based on Chinese foods, and a mid-picture Dating Game-style henchman interview show spins upon names like “Hung Well” and “Long Wang.” The surprise gag that the third contestant’s name is “Enormous Genitals” at least acknowledges the hacky premise. The Wizard of Oz wrap-up also goes on too long, making The Kentucky Fried Movie’s tent-pole sketch a case of too few gags for its running time.
That can’t be said of much of the rest of the film, as ZAZ recognized the necessity of keeping the jokes coming to capture an audience’s attention. The previews are consistently cheeky and silly. (“More offensive than Mandingo!” boasts the announcer for soft-core romp Catholic Schoolgirls in Trouble.) A courtroom scene features the sort of deadpan absurdity and pun-happy wordplay that would mark the creators’ TV series Police Squad! and the subsequent, Leslie Nielsen-starring Naked Gun films. (It also features future Airplane! scene-stealer Stephen Stucker mining his craft as a wacky stenographer.)
Some running bits keep punctuating 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 muscled Big Jim Slade, who later shows up to help out A Fistful of Yen’s Loo, still in his skimpy posing pouch.
Parodies live and die with a commitment to the bit and the cast – drawn from sketch pioneers at the Groundlings and the Second City – is uniformly fine at playing straight to let the absurdity escalate around them. The ZAZ gag machine, while not running at full capacity yet, throws ingeniously silly bits around the margins, like a goldfish swimming unobtrusively in a British spy’s snifter or the knockabout comedy of an interview’s boom mic having a mischievous mind of its own. (Call it a preview of Airplane!’s inflatable automatic pilot, Otto).
Still, as anyone who watches 90 minutes of Saturday Night Live on a weekend knows, sustaining comic momentum and audience engagement over a long stretch is nearly impossible. (In the case of truly terrible sketch flicks like 2013’s InAPPropriate Comedy or the aforementioned Movie 43, it was actually interminable.) Hell, even Monty Python couldn’t carry The Meaning of Life off with complete success to the finish line.
So The Kentucky Fried Movie remains a fitfully funny, nostalgically naughty, sometimes regrettable 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 with Airplane!, but its success and enduring hilarity owe a lot to experience gained in turning their college-minded sketch sensibilities into a still-entertaining sketch movie.
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