THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE: The Absurd, Speed-Crazed Roots Of ’80s Film Comedy

When it was released in 1977, The Kentucky Fried Movie might not have seemed like a game-changer in the world of cinematic comedy.  After all, raunchy, skit-based comedies were their own subgenre by this point thanks to successes like The Groove Tube and Tunnelvision, amongst others.

However, The Kentucky Fried Movie stood apart from the pack because of the talent involved: it was directed by John Landis right before his breakthrough with Animal House and written by the team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams a few years before they hit it big with Airplane.  This pool of comedic talent had a very media-savvy, sharply-timed and ruthless approach to their work that made the film an enduring cult favorite.

Simply put, The Kentucky Fried Movie sends up what a night of television viewing was like for the average couch potato circa 1977.  The sketches move at a breakneck pace as the audience is hurtled through send-ups of television news, film trailers, education films, a courtroom show, an extended feature film parody and, of course, plenty of commercials.

The results represented a sea change in how cinematic comedy would be handled, essentially predicting the manic, fast-paced style that would dominate in that post-Saturday Night Live era.  Even though it follows in the footsteps of past R-rated skit comedies, it raises things to a new level in how it achieves its aims.

For example, the sketches often don’t rely on just one punchline, instead layering two or more different types of satire into the same premise: a great example is “Scot Free,” a send up of board game commercials that also satirizes America’s obsession with JFK assassination conspiracies.  They often weave in unexpected references to other films of television shows (like the two brothers from Leave It To Beaver popping up in the middle of a court show parody).  Better yet, the longer skits frequently weave several different styles of humor together: any given sketch could include satire, wordplay, sight gags or just sheer Dadaist absurdity.

The Kentucky Fried Movie is also not afraid to go for really dark or tasteless humor: the nastiest example is a “United Appeal For The Dead” add that takes the most morbid potshots imaginable at the concept of death and how people deal with losing a loved one.  Most importantly, the gags come fast and furious: there’s a percentage that don’t connect but the sheer preponderance and speed of the gags ensures that the viewer will be laughing more often than not.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the film’s best sketches:

“Catholic High School Girls In Trouble” – a hilarious, gleefully raunchy sendup of sexploitation fare that packs in references to everything from Mandingo to Deep Throat.  Guest stars include Russ Meyer vixen Uschi Digard – whose mammoth breasts are used as the springboard for not one but two gags – and musician Stephen Bishop.  Look out for the memorably vicious masturbation gag.

“High Adventure” – a great example of the film’s absurdist humor in action.  During a straightforward sendup of chat shows, a wayward boom mic doesn’t just dip into the frame: it also toys with the chat show participants, dips into a glass of water, listens for heartbeats and even functions as an electric shaver and a lighter.  It’s a really creative display of sight gags that sustains itself in ways that will surprise you.

“A Fistful Of Yen” – the film’s centerpiece is a pitch-perfect satire of Enter The Dragon that runs for a solid 31 minutes.  It never gets dull because the filmmakers know the film well, sending up virtually every memorable moment in it, and it also shows off their full array of comedic styles.  Evan Kim does a hilarious send-up of Bruce Lee, including the martial arts, and Bong Soo Han matches him moment for moment with a hilariously deadpan turn as the villain.  Better yet, the end of the sketch takes a totally unpredictable right turn into a similarly perfect send-up of another film’s famous ending.  The end result is essentially the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team’s dry-run for what they would perfect in Airplane!

“Courtroom”:  the most eccentric sendup here is one of the funniest.  It’s a parody of 50’s-era courtoom shows, right down to the black-and-white cinematography, but it uses the conventions of such shows as a springboard for the most absurd humor imaginable.  A particularly effective recurring gag has one character taking another characters words at the most literal level possible, leading to a pileup of head-spinning misunderstandings.  Look also for an early appearance from Stephen Stucker, who go on to steal several scenes in Airplane!

“Eyewitness News” – the film takes a simple gag and milks it for all its worth in a display of comedic craft.  Here, the gag involves a t.v. newsman and his staff being able to “see” a pair of viewers in their living room as they strip down and have wildly passionate sex (one of the participants is underrated drive-in starlet Tara Strohmeier).  It relies totally the reactions of the on-T.V. participants – and the reactions of the t.v. crew are hysterical, building up to a show-stopping moment where they wildly cheer on the woman’s orgasm.  Fans will want to note that the technicians who appear alongside the news anchor in this skit are Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker!

The “Eyewitness News” sketch is shameless but inspired and inventive – which is a good description for the Kentucky Fried Movie itself.  The film created a comedic template that the subsequent work of Landis and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker would ride to megabucks box office success – and it also inspired a legion of imitators in the process that would define the 80’s style of screen comedy.  Thus, if you have any interest in the history of film comedy from this era, Kentucky Fried Movie is a must-see.

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