The Kentucky Fried Movie
In 1969, brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their childhood friend, Jim Abrahams, all of whom were students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, began performing a multimedia stage act out of the back of a bookstore. Combining short, improvisational skits with filmed spoofs of television commercials, their comedic venture was the start of what would later become The Kentucky Fried Theater.
The Kentucky Fried Theater was successful enough that ZAZ (as they came to be known) took their small theater troupe to Los Angeles in 1972 and began performing in an abandoned warehouse. There, over five years, they gained enough of a following that they were able to raise money to film some of their work, which allowed them to secure a movie deal.
The final product, 1977’s “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” was a small watershed event in cinematic comedy. It would be the founding base from which a whole new form of screen humor would emerge–for better or for worse. David Zucker likes to call it “Guerilla Comedy” or “Take No Prisoners Comedy,” and the central idea seems to be a complete lack of restraint in terms of both taste and pace. Movies both created and inspired by the members of the ZAZ team–which include “Airplane!” (1980) and its sequel, “Top Secret!” (1984), “The Naked Gun” (1988) and its two sequels, “Hot Shots” (1990) and its sequel, and “Jane Austen’s Mafia” (1997)–are comedic machine guns, constantly firing jokes and pratfalls with reckless abandon. There is, simply, no letting up.
“The Kentucky Fried Movie” can be seen as a kind of testing grounds for Guerilla Comedy, and, for the most part, it works wonderfully. The movie is comprised of two-dozen short comedy sketches, most of which are parodies of TV shows, news programs, commercials, talk shows, and movie previews. The screenplay was written by the three founding members of the Kentucky Fried Theater–Abrahams and the two Zucker brothers–and many of the movie sketches are variations of their best stage acts. The movie was directed by John Landis, who went on to enormous success over the next decade with films like “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), “Blues Brothers” (1980), “Trading Places” (1983), and “Coming to America” (1988). But, when “The Kentucky Fried Movie” was made, he was a nobody, a confident but inexperienced young director who was looking to make his mark in Hollywood.
As with most sketch comedy, the individual parts of “The Kentucky Fried Movie” tend to range in quality. Some of the sketches are absolutely hilarious, others are ambitious, but miss the mark. Some of the ZAZ formula that would be repeated in “Airplane!” is apparent here, such as their obsession with making fun of Hare Krishnas (here they are used in a mock beer commercial) and parodying ’70s-era disaster films (one of the best sketches is a preview for a disaster movie called “That’s Armageddon!” starring George Lazenby and Donald Sutherland, who make cameos as themselves). The movie’s targets for parody range from blaxploitation films (a preview for “Cleopatra Schwartz,” in which the titular Pam Grier-inspired female warrior is paired with a Hasidic Jewish rabbi) to junior high science filmstrips (this one being about “Zinc Oxide and You”).
Unfortunately, the filmmakers gambled that they could sustain a long sketch in the middle of the film, and this is the weakest spot. “A Fistful of Yen,” a 30-minute parody of Kung Fu films, runs out of jokes quickly and spends most of its time simply standing back while its lisping, Bruce Lee-lookalike hero kicks and punches an endless stream of attackers. This sketch almost brings the movie to a dead halt in the middle, but it quickly recovers with a pair of mock commercials, including one for a board game called “Scot Free,” based on the Kennedy assassination.
Much of “The Kentucky Fried Movie” is hit-and-miss, and many of the jokes would be considered out of bounds today (some of the racial jokes, especially). But, when the jokes do land (and many of them do), it is one of the funniest movies available.